Opinion: How TED got famous

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Workers finish preparations for the TED conference to be held in Vancouver, British Columbia, this week.

Workers finish preparations for the TED conference to be held
in Vancouver, British Columbia, this week.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • TED got its start as a conference in Monterey,
    California, 30 years ago
  • Today the organization has a big media footprint, with
    1,600-plus talks available online
  • Many predictions made on its stage have come true,
    including popularity of touch screens
  • Speakers at this week’s conference include Bill Gates,
    Sting, and Tim Berners-Lee


Vancouver, British Columbia (CNN) — In
February 1984, a group of tech enthusiasts gathered in
Monterey, California, to share thoughts on three subjects –
technology, entertainment and design. It was the start of the
acronym (and the organization) TED, which marks its first three
decades this week with a conference in Vancouver.

The first speaker back in 1984, Nicholas Negroponte, the
founder of MIT’s Media Lab, predicted that devices with touch
screens would come into widespread use, more than 20 years
before Apple’s iPhone delivered on that bet.

On Wednesday, the 1,300 attendees at this year’s conference
will be shown a video with clips from
Negroponte’s 1984 talk, along with snippets
of TED Talks that predicted advances in the use of robots,
development of a driverless car, and technology that enables
scientists to grow human body parts.

Each of these predictions has come true, notes TED’s June
Cohen. One that largely hasn’t, at least in any practical
sense, is the personal flying car, Cohen said in an interview
with CNN. (One conference included a presentation on a small
plane that can be driven on roads, but it hasn’t come into
widespread use.) “It’s a very Jetsons concept,” she said. “I am
waiting for that flying car.”

Chris Anderson, curator of TED

Chris Anderson, curator of TED

Negroponte has been invited to give the first talk at this
year’s conference, one of many TED “all-stars” slated to
reappear on the conference’s stage. Among them: “Eat, Pray,
Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales,
inventor Ray Kurzweil, robotics expert Rodney Brooks, educator
Salman Khan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Whole Earth Catalog
founder Stewart Brand, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented
the World Wide Web.

Others speaking at this weeks’s conference, titled “The Next
Chapter,” include Bill and Melinda Gates, Sting, author Isabel
Allende, and former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband,
astronaut Mark Kelly. On Tuesday, Charmian Gooch, co-founder of
the anti-corruption group Global Witness, will reveal the wish
for which she was recently awarded the $1 million TED Prize.

TED’s breakout moment

While much of this year’s conference harks back to TED’s start
in 1984, the organization really didn’t assume its current form
— and its expansive public footprint — until eight years ago.

In 2006, TED’s leadership decided to put its archive of recorded
talks
online for free. The thinking was that there were
limits to how much impact a talk could have if its audience was
only a thousand people, even if those people were influential
ones. As Cohen recalls, it was considered a risky and even
radical move.

June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media

June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media

“There was a lot of skepticism,” she says. “People worried that
it might capsize our business model because we were running an
expensive, somewhat elite conference. Conventional wisdom would
tell you that if you have sort of a luxury item, an expensive
conference, you have to keep your prices high and your
commodity scarce.”

But Cohen says TED never got the pushback some expected from
people who had paid thousands of dollars to attend the
conferences. “They welcomed it,” she said. “They longed to
share the talks with friends and family who couldn’t be there
in the room.”

And it didn’t discourage people from going to TED, she said.
“We raised the price of the conference by 50%, to $6,000, and
we ended up selling out a year in advance with a
thousand-person wait list. … That really was a lesson for us
in the power of openness.” TED followed up by allowing
independently organized groups around the world to hold “TEDx”
conferences, propagating its 18-minute video format.

TED staff members can reel off the resulting numbers: 1.9
million TED Talk video views a day, 1,600-plus TED Talks
online, 9,000 TEDx events in 157 countries.

Making of a TED Talk

A TED Talk — most of the main conferences have more than 60 of
them — is typically a carefully curated and rehearsed
presentation by a thinker, an expert or an artist who’s
passionate about his or her subject, which can range far beyond
the original “technology, entertainment, design” boundaries.

Shot by as many as eight cameras, with professional set design
and lighting, the video builds to an emotional (and
intellectual) climax and is intended to be shared widely.

What it is not is an hour-long college lecture, a panel
discussion or a question-and-answer session with the audience
— all of which might make for a less dramatic and far less
shareable product.

Some critics have argued that TED Talks reduce complex subjects
to a string of bullet points or promote a naive utopian view of the infinite
possibilities of technology.

That’s not the way Cohen sees it. A graduate of Stanford, where
she edited the student newspaper, she was working as a vice
president at the online arm of Wired magazine when she attended
her first TED in 1998.

“I absolutely fell in love with it from my first moment there.
I felt like I had found my world and found my people. … I
think one of the reasons it spoke to me was that TED is sort of
uniquely designed for people who have a wide range of
interests.”

Cohen is a passionate advocate for conference sessions that hop
from one discipline to another. “For me that’s what TED is.
It’s not a single talk or even a collection of talks, it’s the
range of territory that we cover. … And if we’ve curated it
right, what happens to people in the audience during a TED
session is that you can almost feel your brain lighting up in
different areas. So when you see a designer speak, followed by
a poet, followed by a physicist, followed by an entrepreneur,
followed by a great musical performance … it helps us create
connections between the ideas that are coming at us.”

Not everyone approves. “People with a wide range of interests
are often cast as dilettantes or often looked down upon for
what is seen as a lack of focus,” Cohen says. “I see it as an
existence of breadth, and one of the things you find really
unites people who attend TED, or people who watch TED talks
regularly, is that they do have a great interest in a wide
range of areas.”

“Interestingly, there’s a lot of evidence that that is the kind
of thinking we really need today, that the great challenges of
our times cannot be solved by experts working in their
individual areas, but rather by people who can gather
information from a wide range of fields and bring them
together.”

TED’s evolution

The year that Cohen first went to TED was also the first time
that Chris Anderson, a magazine entrepreneur,
attended. He too was hooked. And in 2001, having sold his
company, Anderson purchased TED through his nonprofit Sapling
Foundation from TED co-founder Richard Saul Wurman.

Anderson begins each conference with the incantation “It’s time
for TED” and shares hosting the sessions with Cohen and other
staff members. Cohen helps curate the conference and also
oversees TED’s media arm, which includes a recently relaunched
TED.com
.

She sees the arc of TED’s lifespan as going from a “closed
conference to an open platform for spreading ideas.” Indeed the
organization’s motto is “Ideas worth spreading,” and the new
website makes that tangible.

A widget on each video allows a user who has shared a talk with
others to see how many views the talk has gotten from those who
have clicked on that person’s link. Through the site, TED
speakers can provide suggestions for further reading and for
ways to take action on the issues raised in their talks.

The boom in online video

Still, the heart of what TED offers is the short, tightly
edited online video itself, and Cohen acknowledges that what
was once unique to the organization has become available
elsewhere. “Over the years, the format of a recorded talk has
gone from a novelty to a bit more of a staple online. I think
that’s great news for everyone.”

As for the criticism TED has gotten, Cohen says, “the more
people you’re influencing, the bigger target you’ll become.
It’s a natural part of growing up as a media organization.”

“We work very concertedly with all of our speakers to make sure
that their talks are deeply substantive and authentic. So
there’s no formula for a great TED talk. … We always make it
very clear to our speakers that it is essential that they not
dumb down their material.”

Cohen says the aim is to have the audience “stretch up,” and to
help make that possible, she cites the advice often attributed
to Albert Einstein: “Make things as simple as possible but no
simpler.”

And, she adds, “It’s important to remember what a TED Talk is.
A TED Talk isn’t a scientific paper and it isn’t a full-length
book. It’s a short talk meant to reach an intelligent general
audience.”

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