TEDCity conference mixes brains, ingenuity
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, June 7, 2000)

The 580 or so people who attend the TEDCity conference, starting today at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, will be expecting something magical to happen, because that's the legend that keeps TED going, the legend that has now brought it to Canada for the first time. TED (it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) depends on the belief that mixing people who have nothing in common but brains and ingenuity will work wonders and send most of them away feeling refreshed and educated.

Richard Saul Wurman, the American designer, has been running TED in the United States since the 1980s, with great success in recent years. He's built a spectacular career around his realization that many of us yearn for knowledge and yearn for ways to make connections between the fragments of knowledge we possess. He also believes, and often convinces others to believe, that "Your work should be an extended hobby." Certainly that's what work is for him.

Every February in Monterey, Calif., he assembles a wild and unpredictable mixture of intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and artists. For four days, musicians and paleontologists, artificial intelligence pioneers and TV producers, historians and financiers, all find themselves sharing the same space.

Moses Znaimer, the Toronto media executive and relentless theorist, first went to TED as a speaker in 1996 and liked it so much he decided to bring it home. The result is the Canadianized version, TEDCity, which runs from this afternoon to Saturday night, with participants paying $3,000 each for the privilege. Richard Wurman will be there too, presiding alongside Znaimer.

Wurman is traditionally the editor and the MC, the side-show barker and the tastemaker, the genial dictator. TED watchers will be fascinated to learn how Wurman interacts with Znaimer. To date, Wurman has been the only host, but today he shares that role for the first time -- and he's not sharing it with a shrinking violet.

Wurman has given to the profession he's invented a terrific name, "information architect," to describe those who use design and editorial techniques to make data visual and comprehensible. At TED he also makes it emotional. In fact, he probably couldn't make it work without a certain display of passion. John Hockenberry, an American TV broadcaster who spoke last winter at the conference, calls Wurman "a sloppy, overemotional, quasi-messianic character," and therefore just what a meeting like this needs to bring it alive. Wurman is the one inescapable presence at a TED conference, usually wearing khakis, sweatshirt and running shoes and always a brilliantly coloured scarf, which changes from time to time during a conference. He introduces and comments, he frequently applauds, and at emotional moments he can occasionally be seen to weep. But he gives no lectures himself -- "I speak through my choices."

TEDCity should work much like the American TED, except that the speakers will be Canadian, or connected with Canada. Don McKellar, Douglas Coupland, Bruce Mau, Garth Drabinsky, Frank Gehry, Bruce Cockburn and Heather Reisman are among the names on the schedule. And while those attending TED in the United States find an elegant teddy bear designed by Eddie Bauer in their lavish loot bag at the start of the conference, the people registering at TEDCity will go home with a beaver designed by Roots.

One of today's speakers, the poet and theorist Christopher Dewdney, will give a typical TED address, titled Transhuman, All Too Transhuman.

Dewdney is one of those rare people who are not fearful about the future of humanity, even if others think it sounds awful. He says we already live in the transhuman era, which began when we ceased to evolve naturally and started consciously changing our genetic makeup, discovering first how to circumvent congenital diseases and then how to alter the genetic makeup of humans. This era will culminate in the development of "cognitive prosthesis," computer chips implanted in the brain. Experiments in cognitive prosthetics have so far been limited to brain therapy; the next step will be chip implantations to heighten human understanding.

As Dewdney sees it, this transhuman period will lead us toward the post-human era, in which some humans will be able to redesign themselves on the molecular level, producing creatures that may not even be recognizable as belonging to our species. Dewdney views this possibility with equanimity, not horror. "A happy ending," he says. In his view, a new kind of evolution could be just as interesting as the old.

The vision Don Tapscott will present to TEDCity today will be terrifying for some people, though not quite so epochal. Tapscott is a partner in a quickly expanding firm of consultants that recently renamed itself Digital 4Sight. He and two partners have written Digital Capital: Harnessing the Power of Business Webs, in which they predict that the corporation as we know it is now dissolving because the reason it exists is slowly vanishing.

They argue that corporations were created to minimize transaction costs -- negotiating, exchanging knowledge, selling, finding people, ordering, paying, resolving conflicts. Until now these have been manageable only under the standardizing umbrella of a big company. But the Internet has fundamentally altered all such calculations. Today, because of the Internet, the cost of transactions between firm and firm, or firm and individuals, is dropping to equal or lower than the cost of transactions within firms. Much of this work is accomplished on the Internet, with its auctions, payment tools, rating systems, and conflict resolution programs. After a $3-million study of a couple of hundred firms, Tapscott and his colleagues have worked out a taxonomy of new-model organizations for this developing economy. "This is not all a blur," he insists. He can explain precisely how it works -- and will.

TEDCity will run according to TED tradition. The stage will be decorated by scores of original glass sculptures made by Dale Chihuly, a Seattle glass artist, who is there because Wurman adores his work. Talk will follow strict Wurman Rules. There are no podiums, and no one is allowed to read from a script, ever. There are no separate sub-sessions for small, specialized groups: Everyone goes to one big meeting. There are no panel discussions, and there are -- Wurman be praised! -- no question periods.

(Speakers are usually available after their talks, so people can ask them questions without boring the whole audience.)

TED is a place to exchange ideas, and, where possible, recognize emerging patterns. But the connections made are social and professional as well as intellectual. The exchange of ideas is unplanned and serendipitous.

Several times a day the whole audience moves into the coffee area for intense schmoozing. Some participants will be entrepreneurs looking for investors who want to take a risk, and some will be investors looking for a risk they want to take.

A few years ago one executive who goes to TED remarked that it's a place where creative people feel unusually welcome. At the companies where many of them work, they get used to seeing their brilliant thoughts knocked down, one after another. At TED they find a warm, welcoming foster home for orphaned ideas. Intellectually, TED casually mingles the practical and the outlandish, the easily imaginable and the absolutely inconceivable. Some ideas are totally workable and others wildly visionary. Of course, there's no way of telling which is which.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image