Confessions of a TED Addict
Help. Here I go. My pulse is racing. I'm completely manic.
Oh why oh why have I been bingeing on TED talks again? I promised myself I would quit watching the ecstatic series of head-rush disquisitions, available online, from violinists, political prisoners, brain scientists, novelists and Bill Clinton. But I can't. Each hortatory TED talk starts with a bang and keeps banging till it explodes in fireworks. How can I shut it off? The speakers seem fevered, possessed, Pentecostal. No wonder I am, too, now.
A TED talk begins as an auditorium speech given at the multidisciplinary, invitation-only annual TED conference. (This year's 25th-anniversary conference takes place next week in Long Beach, Calif.) TED then creates videos of the speeches and puts them online so they can find a broader audience — and usurp my life. There are around 370 speeches and counting on TED.com. A new one is added every weekday.
TED (which stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design") was founded in 1984 by the architect Richard Saul Wurman and his partners. Their first conference included one of the first demonstrations of the Macintosh computer. In 2001, TED was acquired and is now run by Chris Anderson, the new-media entrepreneur who started Business 2.0, among other magazines and Web sites. Giving a TED talk has become an opportunity for name-in-lights speakers to throw down, set forth "ideas worth spreading" and prove their intellectual heroism.
According to June Cohen, the executive producer of TED Media, the speeches were once filmed and cut for a TV pilot. ("The idea of a lecture series wasn't exactly greeted with enthusiasm by the networks', she says.") But she had another idea when she brought on Jason Wishnow, an online-video virtuoso. Together, they made the TED talks streamable on the Web in 2006. In less than three years, the talks have become a huge hit, attracting sponsorship from BMW and others. Karen Armstrong, Jeff Bezos, Jared
Diamond, Helen Fisher, Peter Gabriel, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Maira Kalman, Nellie McKay, Isaac Mizrahi, Jimmy Wales and Rick Warren have all given TED talks. As of this month, the talks have been viewed more than 90 million times.
I have seen about 40. Let me say straight up that one of my favorites is "Simplicity Patterns", by the designer John Maeda. His talk made clear to me the uncanny resemblance between a block of tofu (the kind Maeda grew up making in his family's business in Seattle) and the I. M. Pei building that houses the M.I.T. Media Lab (where Maeda, who is now the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, used to work). Almost haphazardly associative, Maeda's talk expresses respect for the mandate of the talks "to change the world — without becoming sententious. You get rapid, straight-to-the-bloodstream access to his mental life.
The other talk that does this poetically is Jill Bolte Taylor's "My Stroke of Insight". A brain scientist who studied the way she lost her own faculties during and after she suffered a stroke, Taylor urges the audience to pay attention to the sybaritic, present-tense right brain. Repeatedly, she recalls the pleasurable aspects of her stroke with such sensory precision that she seems to enter a rapturous trance. Not only do I buy her case for
unfettered right-brain experience, but I began scheming to unfetter my right brain then and there.
While looking for your perfect TED talk, don't make the mistake I first did. I started with the 10 most popular. If you do that, you could form the impression that TED talkers are nutcase bullies like the self-help entrepreneur Tony Robbins, who gave a menacing, abrasive performance in "Why We Do What We Do, and How We Can Do It Better." Boasting about his renegade ways, he gunned through a series of piggish sophistries, only to fault fellow TEDster Al Gore — who was sitting in the front row, no less — for not making an emotional connection with the American electorate. (This was 2006.)
Once you start watching TED talks, ordinary life falls away. The corridor from Silicon Alley to Valley seems to crackle, and a new in-crowd emerges: the one that loves Linux, organic produce, behavioral economics, transhistorical theories and "An Inconvenient Truth." Even though there are certain TED poses that I don't warm to — the dour atheist, the environmental scold — the crowd as a whole glows with charisma. I love their greed for hope, their confidence in ingenuity, their organized but goofy ways of talking and thinking.
TED supplies its speakers with strict guidelines. "Start strong" is the most obvious one, and there is virtually no throat clearing or contrived thanking. Instead, speakers blaze onto the stage like stand-up comics, hellbent on room domination. Some consult notes and stay close by their audiovisual equipment — PowerPoint is used for emphasis, but it never directs the talks — while others pace, spread their arms wide and take up space. No one apologizes for himself. No one fails to make jokes. The appreciative room roars at humor, when they're not literally oohing and aahing at insight.
It's not easy to admit, then, that no single idea put forth in the TED talks seized me with its specifics. The necessary fiction at TED is that matters of substance — policy, practice, code — will emerge from the talks. But it's unlikely that a plan to disarm Iran or treat autism will surface; there's too much razzle-dazzle for brass tacks. What's really on display is much more right brain, and that's what I've come to be addicted to: the exposure to vigorous minds whirring as they work hard.
Right now I'm holed up on TED.com, sampling the talks. The TEDsters bellow their ideas at me, and I try to brook more stimulation. These are the people of the brain, after all, the understanders. They have only to chant some nostrums and cast rhetorical spells and I'm suddenly thinking some combination of It's all going to be all right and The heck it is — but only I can stop it! Thanks, TED. I'm clearly inspired out of my mind.