TED 2008's dead, baby. TED's dead

TED rounded off with a party at the aquarium and then, the following morning, presentations from economist Paul Collier, former Vice President Al Gore and Africa activist, Bob Geldof. All seemed a bit freaked to be coming at the tailend of such a whirlwind conference. But they needn’t have worried. They were pretty great, too. And then everyone left Monterey slightly reeling to head back to reality. Or, as one conference goer said to me, “I’ve got a TED-ache.”

We’ll be running a recap/story within the Innovation section tonight for those who haven’t (sacrilege!) been hanging off my every word while I’ve been feverishly blogging. Here’s a version for those of you (lovely, clever people) who have been keeping up with the blog:

The real world seemed far from the conference hall in Monterey. No mentions of looming recession or impending economic meltdown, while politics, too, were off the agenda. Not for everyone – Harvard professor (and advisor to Barack Obama), Samantha Power both wore a button touting her man, and made direct reference to the candidate in her speech — to notably muted reception. But curator Chris Anderson himself introduced the topic in a brief question and answer session in which he asked Gore directly about the climate policies of the would-be Presidential nominees. Gore 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, calling investments in oil companies “subprime carbon assets”. “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 no more coal generated plants to be built in the United States, and urged active citizens to change lightbulbs – and laws.

It's somewhat difficult to process all that went on throughout TED. But many later declared their highlight was the presentation by neuroanatomist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, who told the story of her own stroke – and how surreal it had been for her, as a foremost brain expert, to observe what happened to her thought processes – and her physical abilities as she underwent her ordeal. To the audience’s shocked delight, she showed off a real human brain (complete with dangling spinal cord) – in order to visually demonstrate the physical disconnect between its left and right hand hemispheres. The concept of being a “left brained” or “right-brained” person is well aired, but instead Bolte Taylor instead argued that we can “choose who and how to be.”

In recent years, TED has focused on philanthropy. This year, it seemed more focused on science. Stanford physicist, Patricia Burchat, gave a great presentation that made particle physics accessible to laypeople, while Brian Cox of the University of Manchester in the UK 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. (Garrett Lisi, a freelance physicist and self-confessed maverick, on the other hand, gave a beautiful-looking presentation of which most people understood very little. Other misses included Yves Behar, whose run through his portfolio of work 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 columnists, accuse TED of being a self-satisfied meeting of the rich and successful, who meet to clap each other on the back, hear some thought-provoking ideas and then zoom off in their hybrids or private jets (both are equally objectionable to the naysayers) to count their money in their ivory towers. There’s certainly a sense of elitism even within the conference, which brands each attendee’s pass with their level of access -- and importance. And yes, sometimes the references to “TED moments” or the “TED community” became slightly tiresome, while flagrant pushes for some of the event’s sponsors were heavy-handed (fine, fine, 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’ gift bags?)

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 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. And 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 can't get a ticket, these talks are an invaluable resource and while the chance to meet in person is clearly a big draw conference goers, the organizers should be applauded for an ambitious program -- and their attempts to share its wealth and findings.

The conference wrapped up with a session appropriately entitled, “And the point?”, the final of its "big questions". Geldof had the job of answering. 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 the community responds away from the somewhat unreal atmosphere of the Monterey conference center and back in the real world. After all, it’s all very well asking the big questions – it’s the answers that actually matter.

Al Gore:

Bob Geldof:

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