The TED News Feed
This year’s TED Conference set out not only to spread ideas, but also to defend the idea of truth itself.
It’s been a rough few months ever since, oh, November. Every day I check my Facebook News Feed and see rage and recrimination. That Facebook game about 10-concerts-I’ve-seen-where-one-is-a-lie doesn’t really make things easier. And then I went on my annual trek to TED.
And found a very different kind of news feed.
The TED News Feed is served up at the Vancouver Convention Center in 11 sessions of around 2 hours each. Each of these chunks features speakers ranging from Nobel Prize winners to first-year college students. Not every talk is one for the ages, but the TED News Feed is in sync with Ezra Pound’s insufficiently famous quote that “literature is news that stays news.” In TED’s world, at least when it’s working well, the news that stays news is science — as well as the recognizable truths of who we are as a species, and what we are capable of, good or evil.
“The TED form of communication is slower than the people shouting at each other on cable news or being in a complete bubble on the internet,” TED’s CEO and curator Chris Anderson told me a few weeks before the conference. “We passionately believe that there is truth, that science is humanity’s best effort at answering the hardest questions about the most mysterious questions about the world. We absolutely have to double down on the power of explanation, to better approach that truth.”
Unlike everybody’s Facebook News Feed, the TED News Feed isn’t obsessed with Donald Trump. No accident. In pondering this year’s agenda, Anderson and his team had to confront the question of how to respond to the new president. Though Anderson sought a representative from Trump’s world to talk—no one took the bait—ultimately he decided to not make this year’s conference a gabfest about the administration. “There’s more we could do, but there are also huge dangers in turning the conference into yet another week spent with everyone getting angry with each other,” he told me.
Maybe the conference went a bit too far in avoiding the issue. The TED-sters were hungry to express their displeasure at the US’s new leader. One speaker, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, explicitly skewered Trump — tying headlines of his actions to nightmarish images from a fresco painted in 1339 by the Italian Ambrogio Lorenzetti, called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. (Guess which side the Trump-y images came from.) The talk got a thunderous ovation, as if a wild animal of political fury had been let off its leash.
But much of the TED News Feed was an implicit rebuke of the politics of the day. Generally, TED speakers are believers in the scientific method. There were even a couple of talks this year whose very point was that there is a thing called truth.
But the good stuff comes in testing what’s true. We got a taste of this in the session about climate change. Instead of beating the drum with doom and gloom, the focus was on whether we could — or should — mess with the Earth by geo-engineering a scheme that would reduce carbon dioxide. The high point of the session was when Anderson put together scientist Danny Hillis, who proposed that we explore ideas like tossing chalk into the atmosphere to cool things off, with an earlier speaker who was an expert on clouds and disagreed with Hillis. They cordially aired their differences. Very un-cable news. (I wish that dialogue had gone on longer. Or that Hillis had a chance to respond when Al Gore popped on stage and dismissed his idea.)
Another long-running debate, conducted serially, regarded artificial intelligence—specifically whether “our robot overlords” would supplant us, or at least take our jobs. Speakers paraded robots on stage, touted Universal Basic Income, and several times cited DeepMind’s historical Go victory over Lee Sedol. The best of those speakers was Garry Kasparov, the chess champion beaten 20 years ago by IBM’s Deep Blue computer. Two decades have softened his indignation at losing in what he charged was a contest stacked against him; he now promotes cooperation between computer and humans. (Plus, he twice mentioned my Newsweek cover about the match, so I was happy about that.)
This year’s TED seemed a little less self-absorbed than in previous years, where too many speakers seemed to be striving to give the same talk and then hit the bankroll on the lecture circuit. And unlike what happens in my Facebook feed, where my behavior determines that I’ll view what I already like, the subject matter at TED is crazy wide. A scientist decodes the chemistry of dementia. An architect proclaims the pleasures of building with mud. A hedge fund manager describes how he forces his employees to brutally criticize every utterance their colleagues made (even his), the better to evaluate their credibility in choosing investments. A top photojournalist bored with shooting news events speaks of his obsession with photographing insects.
I’m not saying that the TED News Feed didn’t have any oratorical clickbait. The two speakers on refugees, especially a charming self-described Muslim lesbian soccer coach (a very TED-ish combination), effectively tugged on our heartstrings to deliver their powerful messages of inclusion. The effect was like freebasing an Upworthy post.
The TED feed even had a juicy celebrity component, in a much-anticipated appearance by Serena Williams. It was a disappointment. I would have loved to see Ms. Williams give an actual TED talk — choosing her message and ramming it home with the authority of a match-point serve — but instead we got two chairs on stage and an interviewer chosen from a very short list of journalist courtiers, CBS’s Gayle King. Though tennis’s greatest player seemed charmingly open and game for a substantive probe into news we could use — especially a deep dive into the mechanics of her relentless drive for excellence — King missed the opportunity, treating the session like a morning news get. The chummy you-go-girl banter fell flat, and Serena was the rare TED speaker who got a bigger reception going into the talk (huge standing ovation) than afterwards (applause registering maybe a 5 on the crowd meter).
The ultimate celebrity this year, at least not counting Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, was Pope Francis, who appeared on pre-recorded video—a prize that took TED’s speaker wranglers a year to accomplish. Even though he spoke seated (no red circle for Papa!), he proved to be a master of the TED talk, even accomplishing the traditional pivot that comes 90 seconds or so into the talk when, after stating his premise, the speaker hearkens back to his or her roots, especially when those roots are humble. (“I, myself, was born in a family of migrants…”) His willingness to address the TED audience directly, and his bald resistance to those who would ignore the neediest, overcame the distance between Rome and Vancouver. And he also put in a nice plug for diversity in technology:
How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion. How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us. How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.
Dude, you rock! The Pope’s nimble compassion was in contrast to a speaker in an earlier session: Former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was aphoristic in lecturing us about this “fateful moment in the history of the West,” where the selfie is the symbol of a plague of self-worship. “Too much I, too little we,” he scolded. Oh right, as if Taylor Swift and a billion Chinese tourists will take that to heart. It was basically the same stuff I’d heard as a kid from every rabbi in my Philadelphia neighborhood, though Sacks wore the gravitas of a knighthood and a much more expensive suit.
Still, the TED News Feed was not free of potentially fake news, albeit of the scientific kind. A speaker named Robin Hanson (a George Mason professor and a guru of prediction markets) gave what he described as a data-driven set of predictions of a world where super-intelligent robots would rule the earth after forcing humans to “retire.” It seemed to me that he simply labeled his sci-fi fantasy as non-fiction. Plus, when I checked his website later, I learned he “invented a new form of government called futarchy,” and that his favorite musician was Vangelis. (When I later asked Anderson about that talk, he explained, without necessarily endorsing my criticism, that it was “a roll of the dice,” and that generally it was a good thing when talks took risks.)
Like the Facebook News Feed, the TED News Feed isn’t the same for everyone. Besides the main sessions, TED featured smaller workshops, themed lunches, and exhibits. In a memorable first, one session off the main stage was conducted entirely in Spanish (non-speakers could hear a simultaneous translation through headphones). With a world-class musician, a fascinating scientist, and a Columbian presidential candidate who told her harrowing story of her six-year hostage ordeal at the hands of the FARC, it was arguably the best two hours of the week, super-energized by the joy of speakers expressing themselves in their native language.
Another of those alternative sessions featured three in-depth interviews back-to-back, timed at a more leisurely pace than a TED talk: 30 minutes each. Anderson spoke with AI scientist Sebastian Thrun and then Stewart Brand; and journalist Cyndi Stivers interrogated uber-showrunner Shonda Rhimes. In contrast to the Serena bestie-fest, these were smart and probing conversations. (Did you know that the Scandal plotline was going to have the Russians take over the US elections? The idea was scrapped because “it would be weird to get news from a network drama,” says Ms. Rhimes.) Appropriately, the session was entitled “The Real News.”
The TED News Feed is the saving grace of a conference that often draws criticism of its own. The event is sometimes mocked as a preserve of the elite, who spend a minimum $7,500 for entrance, with a huge “donor” class paying $17,000 a piece. Next year the prices will go even higher — $10,000 for standard admission and a whopping $25,000 for donors. Anderson has justified this by asking attendees to consider the cost not as a ticket fee, but rather as a contribution to a global nonprofit operation. He emphasized, right there on the main stage, that TED spreads inspiration and knowledge through its talks, of course, but also by supporting young scientists and artists, running educational programs, and granting the annual $1 million TED Prize, given this year to Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Raj Panjabi, who will use it to fund community health workers in remote regions of the globe.
When I told Anderson that I heard some long-time TED-sters were saying they may not return next year, he shrugged. “We’re going to be sold out, as ever,” he said, and also explained that the high prices will help subsidize a lower price for first-time attendees (a bargain $5,000!) as well as 25 free slots for winners of a lottery.
I’ll probably be there next year myself. Every year I come to TED prepared to roll my eyes a lot at the beginning, but knowing that at some point in the intellectual marathon my brain will buckle to the cascade of ideas and bend to the painstakingly rehearsed presentations. Of course, at every break I nudge my phone awake to check out my Facebook News Feed — who can afford not to? But then I line up at my usual spot toward the back of the convention center for entry to the arena of ideas.
My favorite moment this year came during Session Five — less than halfway through the five-day TED extravaganza — when 19-year-old college freshman Anika Paulson stood in the red circle, alone on the stage. In front of her were over 1,000 people in the custom-built theatre, thousands more watching on live-stream and perhaps millions of future video viewers to come. Paulson, whose talk was a poetic observation of how music sustains life, was there almost by accident. She had been part of a school program that asked students to make up TED talks. Of thousands of participants, 18 were chosen to come to New York City to deliver them at the TED office. Anderson happened to hear it, and was charmed enough to invite her to speak at the main stage, where bestsellers and million-dollar lecture careers are launched. The next 12 minutes had the potential to shape the rest of her life.
Paulson stared at the audience and let out a deep sigh. The crowd held its breath. And then she killed it. When she completed her talk, the crowd leapt to its feet. It was much better than a like button.