Robert Fulford's column about TED (the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference)

(The National Post, February 25, 2000)

Monterey, Calif.

When Rebecca Dixon went to her first TED conference, it changed her life. That's how she puts it, unashamedly, making it sound like the laying on of hands by Billy Graham himself: "It changed my life." She knows that may sound naive and childlike, but she says it with certainty and passion. She and a colleague went to a TED conference (it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) and came away transformed. She became a believer. She's back this week at TEDX, looking for further enlightenment and more ways to apply it to her work. She manages the design of the Web site for the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington, which, with its 33 million members, is the most powerful lobby in the U.S., capable of striking terror in the hearts of Congress. AARP paid $3,000 (US), plus transportation and hotel, to have Rebecca come here for three days, and sent several of her colleagues as well.

At that earlier conference, something happened to her when she heard a specialist in computer animation speak of the future of digital technology. "This is fire!" he said, and she was stirred. He was saying that digital technology is not just an improved means of communication or a way of making work easier. Like the harnessing of fire, it's a fundamental change in the way humans live -- a familiar idea to some, but revolutionary to Rebecca. She and her colleague went back to their office in Washington and soon found they were talking of little else but what they had learned or intuited at TED.

"See, I wanted to be an artist," she said the other day, "but when I was growing up in North Carolina I imagined that all the great art had been done. And now at TED I was getting the idea that perhaps this world that was being invented by these people, the people talking at TED, was like the Renaissance, where you had all those marvellously creative people and everything was coming together."

One persistent theme of TED stayed with her: "I began to see that one thing related to another. There was this huge interconnected mass." TED did for Rebecca what her years at Wake Forest University had failed to do: It made her something of an intellectual, a woman who at age 36 works happily with ideas, imagines her education is still in its early stages and sees herself as part of a movement in history.

Another believer is Moses Znaimer, the Canadian media baron, who came to TED as a speaker in 1996 and was enchanted with what he saw and heard. As a result, TEDCity, a kind of Son of TED, will be held June 7-10 at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, a joint venture of Citytv and Richard Saul Wurman, who invented TED and owns it.

People who come here for the first time -- "TED virgins," as those running the conference say -- begin to grasp the spirit of the proceedings when, upon registering, they each receive as a gift a large, beautiful teddy bear. TED has been doing that for years, and some children and grandchildren of old-timers now have large teddy bear collections. This year's is said to be the largest and handsomest yet. TEDCity, too, will have a bear as take-home symbol and keepsake.

As someone once remarked, rich people love getting things free. There are many rich digital multi-millionaires among the 900 participants here; about three dozen came by private plane. They seemed at their happiest on Wednesday when receiving their party favours, which included, aside from the bear, a Palm Pilot V, a thick canvas bag and a bottle of Tommy Hilfiger cologne.

The gifts express literally one of Wurman's favourite metaphors about his conference: "It's like Christmas morning for the intellect." It's also unlike any other conference in its refusal to take itself seriously while insisting on the seriousness of what it discusses: the way people communicate, what they communicate and how they understand it. It's not every day that one sees the size of the U.S. national debt explained in a wonderfully comic film, but that's what Nigel Holmes (the former graphics director of Time magazine) did yesterday morning.

A charming approach to information may be one reason for TED's astonishing success. Another is the way it frames itself as an easygoing intellectual vaudeville for the digital classes. There are no speeches, just public conversations, with Wurman always in the chair, as goad and ringmaster. He relies on spontaneous intellectual combustion, and it happens more often than not. This year he has Tom Brokaw talking with computer intellectuals, Art Buchwald chatting with Arianna Huffington, Christopher Hitchens and Norman Lear extemporizing on their current obsessions, and performances by a Klezmer band and Herbie Hancock.

TED is a phenomenon among conventions. It's a for-profit enterprise that grosses more than two million a year and (though it doesn't advertise, except on its Web page) always sells out.

In fact, most of the places have already been sold for the TED conference at Monterey in February, 2001. People who attended range from theme-park creators to MIT professors, and from furniture designers to health care executives. Venture capital people are usually among the early sign-ups. Ross Mayot, vice-president for development of Canadian Learning Television, has noticed their presence at several TEDs: "They love it. They swim through it like sharks, eating up ideas that will soon [they hope] be start-ups."

This may be the only meeting in the world that does a complete makeover of the conference centre. Before the first guest registered, the TED people spent 3 1/2 days installing not only the now commonplace banks of computers but also hundreds of up-to-the-minute ergonomic chairs, "convergence" workstations from the Steelcase corporation, special flooring to accommodate broadband cable, and a temporary Starbucks.

When the conference finally gets going, the important people sit in the auditorium, sharing the air with the designated talkers, while the restless masses, many of the rich among them, watch the proceedings on TV monitors in what Wurman calls the Simulcast room, the disgruntled call the Outcast room and pretentious fops describe as the salon des refusés.

In the halls you run into the practical, the idealistic and the downright foolish. Sorting out which is which fills many a coffee break. There are people who think that one day everyone will have a private Web site; people who appear to think communications is the most vital form of activity in the world, no matter what is communicated; and people who are floating the idea that in a few years you will request money from an ATM machine merely by speaking nicely to it -- it will recognize your voice and reply with equal politeness, possibly even giving you money as well. On Wednesday a man from IBM helped me put on a headset that hung a tiny screen over my right eye. I could watch it as I did something else. It was explained to me that if in the course of performing surgery I needed another look at one of the patient's X-rays, I could merely call it up on my screen without putting down my scalpel -- something I'll bear in mind when the product comes to market. Another IBM man pointed me toward a working model of a machine labelled, for the moment, CyberPop. I said, "Water, please," a robotic voice immediately repeated "water," and a can of soda thunked down to me.

TEDX thrives on the unexpected, and catches its speakers as much as its listeners unaware. Art Buchwald, scheduled to appear tonight, was having breakfast Wednesday morning when I asked what he was going to speak about. "I have no idea," he said. How did he happen to be invited? "I can't imagine." Why did he come? "My business manager told me to."

He did say he had one point he hoped to raise. "I'm against the telephone companies." Why? "Voice-mail. You can't get through to anybody. You call up for an airline reservation and you wait forever." He glanced around the room. "These people ... are responsible." It was clear that Buchwald had not yet caught the passion on the air. Possibly two more days would do it.

You may also want to read Robert Fulford's column about Richard Saul Wurman (the organizer of the TED conferences).
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