Report from TED: Geeks and Movie Stars

by Jimmy Guterman

Last week, impresario Richard Saul Wurman oversaw his final TED. The TED Conferences -- TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design -- were born in the mid-1980s as a result of founder Wurman's observation that his three areas of interest were converging. Wurman, best-known outside TED circles for his books Information Anxiety and Information Architects, and his ACCESS travel guides, has hosted conferences in locales as diverse as New York and Kobe, Japan. This year's version, like most, took place in Monterey, Calif. Next year, the conference's new owners will take over hosting duties.

What attracts people to TED and what makes it an annual sellout despite the $4,000 price tag that few can afford anymore is the near-Davos-level of networking it offers. Where else can you see Deepak Chopra and Nathan Myhrvold in the same room? Where else can you see Naomi Judd brush by Nicholas Negroponte? Steven Pinker and Quincy Jones? And you haven't lived until you've seen a dozing Matt Groening and a feeble Art Buchwald slumped side-by-side in plush chairs in the audience listening to Neil Simon talk about back pain.

You get the idea. The point of this year's TED12, like all TEDs, is to bring together top figures from a variety of fields, stir them into the same pot, and see what each has to teach the other. Information architects might pick up some tips when they hear how chair designers conduct user testing; an engineer might take inspiration when Dean Kamen details his hopes for changing society through technology.

But it's what happens between the sessions during the long 16-hour days that brings people back to TED every year (three-quarters of this year's attendees had been before) -- it's the networking. The show's reputation and our natural propensity for gawking at stars -- you should have seen how people ignored someone as amazing as Jane Goodall three years ago, choosing instead to watch actor Noah Wyle fidget in the audience -- led to a dilution of the audience in recent years. But perhaps the high price coupled with the recession has increased the quality of the crowd; more than one-third of this year's attendees run the companies they came to represent.

This was my first trip to TED since 1999 (I registered too late to attend in 2000 and got sick for 2001) and it was interesting to see how the conference and the audience have changed since the height of the dot-com era. Some of the changes are personal. Wurman, now 67, seems to have aged tremendously in the intervening years (I checked my CD-ROM video of the 1999 conference to make sure).

Wurman's onstage persona (he sits on the edge of the stage during the presentations), which used to veer between cranky and genially cranky, has developed more edge, more anger -- strange for someone chairing an event than in many ways celebrates his own vision. Maybe the fact that this was his last TED brought up strong feelings. Wurman can be a taut, original thinker -- he once wrote, "There has not been an information explosion, but rather an explosion of non-information or stuff that simply does not inform" -- but last week, at the peak of his career, he seemed petulant.

Another change since 1999 is the size of the conference. What was once two small overflow rooms (at such a high price, why not overbook?) is now a main auditorium and an even larger "simulcast" room dominated by more than a dozen HDTV screens and small groups of chairs so comfortable they should have been regulated by the DEA. The ambience in the simulcast room was breezier and more relaxed than in the main room; you could argue that those in the less desirable seats outside the main room had the more pleasant experience.

As for what happened on the stage, the loose organizing idea for TED12 was design: design of cars, design of music, design of technology, and so on. And there were a handful of sharp, illuminating moments, like when celebrated industrial designer Niels Diffrient described constantly drawing pictures of airplanes when he was a child. Or when the hilarious jugglers the Raspyni Brothers followed a session on the design of chairs by juggling chairs. But for many, this comment I overheard rang true: "This is all pretty good, but I'm still waiting for the magic."

The Design of Technology session was the one most directly relevant to the work lives of typical O'Reilly Network readers. (I know, none of us are typical, but you get my point.) Aside from Kamen's Segway presentation -- a rare case of achievement and ego being equal -- the most curious segment of that session was a talk by Walt Mossberg, longtime technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

Mossberg's annual talks here in the past have centered on the technologies of the moment: in 1999, he was hyping ebook readers. But this year, he focused on a topic that so many TED presenters seem to favor: himself. Unlike many other presenters, though, Mossberg didn't merely give evidence that he had trouble getting over himself; he used his personal experience to make broader points, particularly his transition from hard news reporter (he covered the State Department) to technology guru.

Mossberg told some amusing stories about how technologically clueless Washington, DC, was a decade ago, when then-Secretary of State James Baker had a computer on which only one color-coded key worked. Mossberg marveled at how he hears more from readers now as a technology columnist than he did as a hard news reporter, covering life-and-death issues like the Gulf War. He read examples of the virulent mail he receives and wondered aloud why people are so passionate about technology, particularly the technology issues that aren't so important. Readers don't send him angry notes about the digital divide; they drop furious ones about whether Macs are better than PCs and the like.

TED is a glitzy conference, with many chances for stargazing and name-dropping, but Mossberg and a handful of other speakers made an implicit point that we all may wish to consider: If we're working in technology, shouldn't we set our ultimate sights higher than today's petty squabbles? Now a conference that focused on how to do that would be one worth going to. Maybe the new shepherds of TED can take up that issue.

Jimmy Guterman is president of the Vineyard Group, Inc. and publisher of Media Unspun.

Return to the O'Reilly Network.