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TED 2008: It's a Wrap

As the visionaries and celebs leave the conference cocoon, it'll be interesting to see how these sometimes great notions fare in the real world

Reality seemed far from the Monterey (Calif.) conference hall where the TED 2008 conference unfolded over four days and ended on Mar. 1. No mention of looming recession or impending economic meltdown. Politics, too, was largely off the agenda. But not for everyone. Harvard professor (and adviser to Barack Obama) Samantha Power both wore a button promoting her man, and made direct reference to the Presidential candidate in her speech—to notably muted reception. Conference curator Chris Anderson himself introduced the topic in a brief question-and-answer session in which he asked former Vice-President Al Gore, a solid TED supporter and fixture in the audience, about the climate policies of the would-be Presidential nominees.

Gore, who had presented a slide show making the argument that the climate crisis demands immediate response, showed his diplomatic stripes. "We should feel great about the fact that both the Republican nominee and both finalists in the Democratic race have very different and forward-leaning positions on the climate crisis that are very different from the current Administration," he said. Then he took the gloves off. "Have you noticed that the debates have been sponsored by Clean Coal? What? 'Now Even Lower Emissions'?" Acknowledging his own business stakes in clean-energy providers, he called for a moratorium on the construction of coal-generated plants in the U.S., and urged active citizens to change lightbulbs—and laws.

TED 2008 promised to ask the big questions. Session titles ranged from "Who are we?" and "How can we change the world?" to "What's out there?" and "What will tomorrow bring?" The four days hosted a wild range of thoughts and ideas along with an eclectic array of representatives from many fields of expertise. (For more detailed reviews of the action as it happened, see BW's TED blog.)

Choose Your Brain Hemisphere

In what many later declared to be their TED highlight, neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor told the story of her stroke and how surreal it had been for her to observe what happened to her thought processes and physical abilities as she underwent her ordeal. To the audience's shocked delight, she showed off a real human brain, in order to visually demonstrate the physical disconnect between its left and right hemispheres. The concept of being a "left-brained" or "right-brained" person is well aired; instead, Bolte Taylor argued that we can "choose who and how to be."

In recent years, TED has focused on philanthropy. This year, it seemed more centered around science. A presentation by Stanford physicist Patricia Burchat managed to make particle physics accessible to laypeople, while Brian Cox of the University of Manchester in Britain gave a charming talk in which his excitement at the prospect of the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator being turned on this summer was palpable and infectious. On the other hand, Garrett Lisi, a freelance particle physicist who recently released a paper called "The Extraordinarily Simple Theory of Everything," gave a beautiful-looking presentation, which baffled many people. Other misses included Yves Behar, whose run-through of his portfolio was a little ho-hum, and novelist Amy Tan, who seemed to try too hard to connect the dots to the rest of the conference.

Some, even BusinessWeek columnist Sarah Lacy, accuse TED of being a self-satisfied meeting of the rich and successful, who meet to pat each other on the back, hear some thought-provoking ideas, and then zoom off in their hybrid vehicles or private jets (both equally objectionable to the naysayers) to count money at their hedge-fund headquarters or map the future in their ivory towers.

What's in Your Gift Bag?

There's certainly a sense of elitism within the conference, which brands attendee passes with a level of access and therefore importance. The main auditorium only seats 300 people, so the other 800 attendees watch proceedings from one of two simulcast rooms in which live action is broadcast on big screens. And yes, sometimes the references to "TED moments" or the "TED community" became slightly tiresome, while flagrant pushes by organizers for some of the event's sponsors were heavy-handed. (Yes, spend time on stage listing every item in the gift bag if you must. But was it really necessary later to go through every additional item in the three TED prize-winners' loot?)

Anderson himself is a somewhat shambolic figure on stage, regularly forgetting people's names or handing out apparently thoughtless, backhanded compliments ("I was one of the few people who actually listened to the Boomtown Rats," he said by way of introducing rocker-turned-philanthropist Bob Geldof). But he was also brave enough to open the floor to questions regarding the conference's somewhat controversial move, next year, to a larger space in Long Beach, Calif. And he was perfectly prepared to disagree with any of the ensuing suggestions. Previous years' presentations are now streamed, for free, on the organization's Web site (this year's will be rolled out later). For those who for whatever reason can't make it in person (the $6,000 price tag is, after all, fairly steep) these talks are an invaluable resource.

The conference wrapped up with a session appropriately entitled, "And the point?" Geldof had the job of answering the question. Appropriately enough, he referred to one of the event's first talks, in which anthropologist Wade Davis had warned of the dangers of the world's cultures and languages disappearing at an exponential rate. Geldof called for help in "mapping mankind," to prevent such "lights of human genius" from winking out. The point, he said, is you, me, and us.

The challenge now is to see how members of the TED community respond in the real world, away from the somewhat unreal atmosphere of the Monterey conference center. It's all very well asking the big questions; it's the answers that actually matter.

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