Levy: Report from the TED Conference

Of the countless technology-related confabs held every year, none stands higher on the hubris scale than TED, a four-day brain orgy in Monterey, Calif., that positions itself as a feast for the head and a balm for the soul, a series of mind-blowing and inspirational presentations (none over 18 minutes) by the most engaging cerebral provocateurs on the planet. I hadn't been to a TED—which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design—for a few years, and, to be honest, had gotten a bit tired of hearing the gushy reviews from the privileged TED-sters who'd kept going. Nonetheless, I accepted an invitation to this year's conference to see how it had evolved.

Relax, TED-sters (that means you, Goldie Hawn, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Branson, Forest Whitaker, Paul Simon, the Google guys and more than 1,000 other A-listers from all sorts of weird lists). Over the course of a few days, my inner cynic was beaten to a pulp by a rush of impressive presentations and a bounty of great conversations over meals and in hallway encounters. It isn't often you get to have a conversation with Jeff Bezos and Daryl Hannah—at the same time. Or finish a chat with a Google engineer and look skyward to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Or get a shot at helping the likes of Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson to make a giant catalog of all life on earth.

TED was founded in 1984 by a design guru named Richard Saul Wurman. (One of the most buzzed-about presentations that year: a demo of the just-released Macintosh computer.) The premier event lost money, but six years later, Wurman tried again with more success, and the conference has been an annual event ever since. Wurman ran the show with operatic flair; he was sometimes cantankerous but always quick with a bear hug. Under his tutelage, the conference took on almost a cultlike aspect, a shared secret among those who came year after year. It was a shock when in 2000 Wurman sold TED to Chris Anderson, a now-50-year-old Brit previously known chiefly in tech circles for sharing the same name as the editor of Wired magazine.

Anderson, who'd made serious loot from selling two publishing companies, had been a TED-ster himself. He'd adored TED's camaraderie and cerebral pyrotechnics, but having begun his own charitable organization, the Sapling Foundation, he wanted to hit harder on the do-good component. "My foundation was all about trying to leverage the power of ideas," he explained to me during a break in the action last week. Implicit in his view of the conference was a sentiment that would be uttered countless times by TED speakers in the next few years: "You people are the smartest, most resource-rich conglomeration on the planet—imagine if you turned your attention to … [and here the speaker would insert the name of some dire problem.]" Last year Anderson cemented his vision by beginning the TED Prize, which bestows a cool trophy, $100,000 and the support of the Ted Community to help the recipient fulfull his or her presumably charitable wish. (This year the prizewinners were biologist Wilson, photojournalist James Nachtwey and a guy named Bill Clinton.)

Today, TED is a little like one of those old rock festivals where one band follows another. Some performances are great acts doing a show that makes history; some touted sets don't deliver, and some obscurities come out of nowhere to rock your world. Still, at one point, after a cluster of socially conscious speakers, this year's TED was threatening to turn into a Mensa version of a Jerry Lewis telethon. Among the problems we were asked to ponder, if not resolve, were global warming (very big last year when Al Gore was a central presence), energy independence, AIDS in Africa, biodiversity, disabilities of Iraq veterans and man's inhumanity to man in general. (On the other hand, Stephen Pinker gave a talk that contended that things were never better for humanity, and he had a PowerPoint presentation to prove it.) John Doerr, the famous venture capitalist, nearly wept on stage when he envisioned a moment 20 years hence when he might have to admit to his daughter that we failed to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. (Verkempt-ness was a leitmotif at TED this year; tears flowed at filmmaker Deborah Scranton's interactions with soldiers back from combat, and even "Lost" creator J. J. Abrams threatened waterworks while reminiscing about his grandfather.) But spiffy technology, challenging ideas, and the force of great personalities claimed the spotlight in the last couple of days.

Who were some of this year's hits at TED? My own list, acid-tested by numerous impressions drawn from fellow attendees included Abrams; Lawrence Lessig's plea to let creators draw on previous materials to create; Caroline Porco's dynamite photo album of the Cassini space probe to Saturn and its moon; eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll's account of becoming a socially conscious Hollywood producer, and explorer Bill Stone's boldly wacko plan to go to the moon to exploit its energy resources. Global health expert Hans Rosling, a seemingly unassuming nerd in his 50s, finished a boffo presentation using dynamic graphics to compare mortality rates and national economies with a demonstration of his sword-swallowing skills. Though I missed it myself, everyone raved about lexicographer Erin McKean. My favorite of favorites was novelist Isabelle Allende. Her stunning talk on the global plight of women was cunningly balanced by a witty and self-deprecating digression on her experience as a flag bearer in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

There were also some talks universally regarded as duds, like creativity consultant Ed de Bono (Anderson interrupted the presentation to tell him to cut to the chase) and Phillipe Starke, who, stumbling on stage wearing a polyester soccer jacket and jeans, delivered a babbling cosmological recitation. People also grumbled about Bill Clinton, who parachuted in to give a somewhat canned talk and disappeared soon thereafter.

Does all of this seem like something you'd be interested in? Be forewarned that TED attendance has been limited to "curious, playful, creative and open-minded" achievers who "want to create a better future for the world" and also have $4,400 to spend for registration. Beginning next year, the fee goes up to $6,000. Not that it matters—registration for TED 2008 opened up earlier this month and was sold out a week later. Happily, though, you can get some of the experience for free at TED.com, which offers podcasts of presentations from past years. (More than 6 million of these TED talks have been downloaded.) Later this month, the Web site is undergoing a redesign that will include more talks and materials. I strongly suggest that you watch that space to see when the presentations from this year's conference appear—and immediately download Isabelle Allende, my No. 1 crush of TED 2007. Sorry, Daryl.