When TED Runs Out of “Ideas Worth Spreading”

TED hosts one of the smartest websites on the Internet and is an incredible asset to knowledge, but its formerly groundbreaking conferences seem to be running out of the “big ideas” it touts. This spring, TED even resorted to American-Idol-style auditions to identify future speakers. This problem in mind, Financial Times reporter April Dembosky recently interviewed TED (Technology, Education, and Design) founder Richard Saul Wurman, who began the global conference series in 1984 in Monterey, California and sold it to a nonprofit in 2001 for $14 million. In recent years, TED conferences have taken place all over the globe and thousands of people wait on lists to buy $7,500 tickets to its annual conference in Long Beach.

Then as now, TED distinguished itself from other conferences by its succinctness. Attendees watch dozens of 18-minute “talks of a lifetime” by many experts rather than, as at traditional conferences, longer and less accessible talks by just a few. With 800 million views to date, TED is a major player in the market for credible and accessible information on the Internet. Many of TED’s thousands of videos on topics from the implications Internet to the inner workings of the mind are given by experts in their fields and considered reputable enough to be assigned by college professors.

When Wurman began TED, it was new and exciting to him and his conference attendees, but he believes that TED’s former energy has worn off. Dembosky writes:

Wurman originally formed TED by “subtracting” elements common to other conferences: introductions, lecterns, suits and ties. “I took away CEOs who legally can’t tell the truth,” he says, “and politicians who can’t tell the truth because they serve so many constituencies.”

In recent years, though, too many things have, he feels, crept back in. “Now every speech is auditioned, rehearsed, edited, rehearsed again,” he says. “The spontaneity is gone and there’s a lot of selling of charities. There’s the selling of being PC.”

Megan Smith, a Google vice-president and a guest speaker at WWW, agrees: “TED talks today are very prepared, which respects people’s time, but there’s not as much of that raw information.” [1]

Wurman’s latest venture dubbed “WWW” hopes to change that. The 77-year-old Wurman began WWW as a counter to TED but without a specific agenda. The name “WWW” itself does not even have a single meaning, though Wurman suggests imaginative words like “wanderlust,” “warming,” and “wizardry.” His latest event for WWW aims at “intellectual jazz,” which Wurman hopes to achieve by abandoning the strict format of TED and turning instead to the power of improvisation to generate knowledge.

To achieve “intellectual jazz” at WWW, Wurman puts together two people – sometimes friends, sometimes strangers – such as Simpsons creator Matt Groening and New York Times columnist David Brooks, or cellist Yo-Yo Ma and hip-hop star will.i.am, in the hope that, through the course of an unplanned conversation, a few “good moments of honesty” will emerge.

“It’s not selling a charity or selling guilt or a movie or a book,” he says. “I thought, ‘How do I pair people so they’re not competing with each other to see who’s smarter.’”

Richard Saul Wurman, a graphic designer and architect by training and founder of the TED and WWW conferences

Even in the age of information democracy via the Internet, expensive in-person conferences have a strong draw for the world’s high-powered entrepreneurs, innovators, and journalists. In addition to TED, Wurman has created and sold off other, more specialized industry conferences that have met an apparent demand for access to the world’s best and brightest at any price. The first WWW conference took place September 18-20 at a remote resort in California. By design, it featured pairs of world-famous speakers from traditionally unrelated disciplines conversing around a tough question or prompt. So did it work? Dembosky writes:

As for yielding nuggets of truth and wisdom, Lee Larson, a philanthropist and one of few attendees to pay for his ticket, says, on that count, the conference was “a lost opportunity”. He says he saw more “haphazard ramblings” than real conversations. “Deep ‘wow’ moments coming out of this intellectual jazz – nope! … I would much rather have given the money to charity.” Wurman later says that he, too, regretted the price tag – $10,000 would have been more appropriate. He wouldn’t say how many tickets were sold but it was too few to break even on his costs. Most attendees are friends of Wurman’s who attended at his request, at no charge, to help fill the auditorium. As a business venture, this particular conference might appear a failure but that isn’t the point Wurman is out to prove…

[In contrast to TED, Wurman] calls WWW the “great leap backward”, both from TED and from the hyper-connected, hyper-busy modern world. “WWW could have taken place 2,500 years ago, with Aristotle and Socrates on stage,” he says.

In a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma, David Brooks attributed the failings of TED and similar projects to our very era, which he calls “morally diffuse” and generally uninspired. Soon after selling TED, Wurman became disillusioned with his old project under its new ownership, and thus designed WWW as a quieter, more original alternative. Though considered a flop by many, and with its conversations lacking the widespread distribution that distinguishes TED talks, WWW was hailed as a success by at least a few. The conference’s youngest attendee, Matt Mullenweg, 28, who dropped out of college to found WordPress, found the conference decidedly worthwhile. He describes his experience:

“I always leave feeling inspired and creatively charged. As an executive, you have to seek out opportunities to learn because it’s not something that’s going to happen naturally. Because you’re part of a very fast-growing enterprise, you have hundreds of emails a day, you’re managing hundreds of people, these can easily take all your waking hours, you’re not left with time to contemplate. This is taking a step back.”

Considered alongside more technologically sophisticated conferences like TED, WWW looks like a reactionary but perhaps timely step back into honest conversation.

A partial list of the WWW conference “conversation pairs” are listed below:

Yo-Yo Ma, a world-famous cellist, and will.i.am of the American hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas

C.K. Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic, and Steven Pinker, a linguist, psychologist, and popular scientist

Herbie Hancock, an influential American jazz pianist and composer, and will.i.am

E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, and Craig Venter, the man who first sequenced the human genome

Danny Hillis, an inventor and computer scientist, and Stephen Wolfram, a developer of mathematics software like Wolfram Alpha

David Blaine, a popular American illusionist, and Broadway musical director Julie Taymor

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, and David Brooks, an influential journalist for The New York Times

Lisa Randall, the first female physicist to earn tenure at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, and Scott Bolton, a principal investigator at NASA

See a full list of conference participants on WWW’s website [2].


[1] “Life After TED,” April Dembosky, The Financial Times
[2] WWW

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