The audience at TED

An Urgent Letter to My Favorite Conferences

The time is now to use your stages to defend and explore the idea of democracy itself… and its future.


Ideas, presented on stages in front of engaged audiences, matter.

You believe ideas matter, or you wouldn’t do what you do. You wouldn’t put in the long hours, bear the stress of event planning and work so hard to put something amazing on stage each year.

Most years, “something amazing” can cover a vast range of subjects and speakers and performances. This year, though, is different.

This year, the exchange of ideas itself — our whole tradition of discussion, of debate, of science, of open societies, of rule of law, of freedom of speech, and of conscience, and of the press — is under attack. What you believe in is under attack.

This year, the amazing something we need is a fierce, beautiful, illuminating defense of the idea of democracy itself, and an exploration of its future and possibilities.

I suspect you never thought that we’d find ourselves in a time when democracy was a thing that needed defense… I know I didn’t. But here we are. Trump’s rise to power; Brexit; a surge of hate and intolerance throughout the industrialized world; the resurgent tide of open fascism; the recent murders of scores of journalists, advocates and activists (and attacks on many hundreds more); the widespread threats to and assaults on long-held fundamental traditions like the rule of law, the independent judiciary, the peaceful transfer of power, transparent governance, the separation of church and state, even the right to assemble and dissent — all of these make this global moment one of unparalleled danger.

At the very core of democracy sits respect for free thought, for ideas. The first victim of fascism and authoritarianism, we know from tragic experience, is the freedom to openly discuss the exercise of power and the future of our society.

That’s why I’m urging you to redefine the amazing this year. Changing plans is no small task, but I’m urging you: the next time you gather your audience — whatever your declared theme was, whatever program you had in mind, whatever speakers you had booked — re-focus your event on what matters most, right now.

Curators of ideas, the moment is now for you to launch a new, urgent conversation.

This is the moment to lead the defense of freedom, inquiry and democratic values, not to politicize your events, but to acknowledge that the work you and I (and our colleagues who work with ideas) do has already been politicized, whether we like it or not. This defense cannot wait for some future year; it must be mounted now.

This is the moment to explore, reinvigorate, reinvent and reimagine what democracy can be in the 21st century, in a time of planetary crisis. Not next time, now.

This is the moment to put purposeful, brave, committed, bold, high-integrity thinking on every stage. This is the moment to bring new visions and new voices (and old voices with newly relevant ideas) to the world. This is the moment to put all your experience and insight and connections to work making your stage a platform for the powerful new ideas we need now.

This is an opportunity for your conferences to be what in your hearts I know you want them to be: meaningful, moving, real, true, important. Your event — the speakers you choose, the ideas you showcase, the themes you explore, the messages you send, the conversations you begin — may never again matter as much again as it does right now.

In the coming days, you’re going to have a serious, important choice to make: What does your event stand for, now? What do you stand for?

Choose wisely. Choose boldly. Choose fast.

Sincerely, your friend and ally,


P.S.: I’m happy to help any way I can. So are many others, I’m sure.


(If you agree, please “recommend” this piece, by clicking on the heart sign below this piece. Please also consider spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you.)

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Alex Steffen’s story.

The author has chosen not to show responses on this story. You can still respond by clicking the response bubble.