The 50 or so top-billed speakers at the annual TED conference are asked to hew to a strict set of rules: an 18-minute limit on presentations, no commercializing, and don't give the same spiel you've been delivering for years. It works pretty well and explains why some of the brightest physicists, artists, ocean explorers, linguists, tech wizards, historians, architects and futurists (as well as lots of other ists) have been flocking to Monterey, Calif., since the conference started in 1984. This week there were 1,300 attendees, only 500 of whom could fit in the intimate main auditorium. (The rest were relegated to plush "simulcast rooms" elsewhere in the conference center.) Still, TED-sters like it so much that the conferences are sold out a year in advance—at $6,000 a shot.
This year's TED, however, had one session that varied the standard format: a panel discussion on the question of "Media Bias in the Internet Age" that was also being taped for the BBC World Service. Participants included Google co-founder Sergey Brin, journalist Carl Bernstein, and Queen Noor of Jordan. A technical glitch made for an extended awkward moment, forcing everyone to wait for a fix. Then a Scottish-accented voice boomed from the back of hall, acidly ridiculing the abilities of the BBC. The heckler was Robin Williams, who took the stage and performed 15 minutes of unscripted shtick. Then, when the broadcast finally started, a Ugandan journalist on the panel who was making a point about media representations of his country spotted the actor Forest Whitaker in the audience and quizzed him on what he'd known about Uganda before taking on the role of Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland."
At TED surprises are as likely to come from the audience as they are from the stage. It helps, of course, that those in attendance are an unpredictable mix of achievers in the fields that give TED its name: technology, entertainment and design. Interspersed through this year's program were recognizable names like Al Gore, Isaac Mizrahi, Craig Venter, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and John Hodgman, but the audience included plenty more star power, including key figures from top tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, and Hollywood stars like Whitaker, Williams, and Goldie Hawn. But most of the speakers weren't celebrities, except in their own fields. The canonical TED speaker was Susan Blackmore, a British psychologist whose gray hair was streaked with turquoise, who almost didn't venture to Monterey because flying there would have made too deep a carbon footprint. (She talked about memes.)
You have to be careful during TED, because sometimes getting engaged in a conversation outside the hall or the simulcast rooms might make you miss one of the best talks. These can often come from someone you never heard of on a subject that didn't sound so great in the conference booklet. On TED's opener on Wednesday, I carefully set up the one outside appointment I had that day so that I would be absent for only one talk—and when I returned to the hall I discovered that the speaker I had missed, a brain scientist named Jill Taylor (who had herself suffered a stroke), had been the hit of the show. For the rest of the conference, when you asked someone his or her personal highlight, her name was instantly invoked. Fortunately, I will be able to catch her talk some months later when it is posted on the Web—the conference has a terrific site that archives high-quality videos of past talks. (Check out the one that novelist Isabel Allende gave last year.) Besides Taylor's talk, this year's hits so far include a harrowing presentation by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo on the capacity of ordinary people to perform evil acts, illustrated by photos from Abu Ghraib never before publicly viewed.
Another distinguishing characteristic of TED is its tilt away from a classical tech conference to one emphasizing social change. While TED's original idea, formed by founder Richard Saul Wurman, was basically to delight himself and take the audience along for the ride, the current "curator," Chris Anderson, who bought TED from Wurman seven years ago, sees a mission for the event. He believes that the TED "community" can make a big social impact; the conference now reflects that idea. At one point some people worried that the do-gooding might change the character of TED; by now it's fair to say that the hand-wringing about global warming, human rights violations, the state of Africa, and other woes are part of TED's character. (There seems to be an unwritten rule that two hours of TED cannot possibly pass without a mention from the stage of the climate change crisis.) Even the conference bag reflects the spirit—it's a custom-made shoulder pack made from recycled pop bottles.
The activist goals culminate in three annual TED Prize awards, which involve committed people being granted a "wish"—along with $100,000 cash to improve the world in some way, whereupon TED-sters are welcomed to help make it happen. (Outsiders can help too; go to tedprize.org if you're interested.) Last year Bill Clinton got one, to help improve health care in Rwanda. This year's honorees included hip novelist Dave Eggers, who helps organize neighborhood tutoring centers and wants to get people involved in helping public schools; physicist Neil Turok, a founder of a mathematics institute in Africa who wants the next Einstein to come from that continent; and a woman named Karen Armstrong whose goal is to gather "spiritual leaders and thinkers" to write a "Charter for Compassion" based on the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Next year TED is going to move down the coast from its traditional Monterey venue to a facility in Long Beach, with a hall big enough to accommodate the entire audience. The attendee list will increase by 10 percent. Some longtime TED-sters are concerned that the character of the event might change. Nonetheless, TED2009 is already sold out.