A year ago today the avalanche of Prometheus viral marketing began with a YouTube video from 2023.
Peter Weyland addresses an oppressively lit audience from the center of an Orwellian amphitheatre: “We are the gods now,” the cybernetics pioneer booms, “and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to change the world.” It’s a Hollywood blend of self-confidence and barely-shrouded megalomania, and what makes it feel like a real possible future is the display behind him showing the iconic TED logo and motto Ideas worth spreading.
Videos like these are how the internet has gotten to know this entity that began in 1984 as a conference to bring together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment, and design. Two annual conferences are still the centerpiece of TED but TED itself is now something no one can describe succinctly. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to paint a picture of it over the course of a few paragraphs.
My dad called yesterday to shoot the shit and I told him I was at the TED conference in Palm Springs, but that’s actually not true: I’m at some sort of weird kidult summer camp / workshop thing called TEDActive that costs $2500 and revolves around three days of simulcasts of the real TED conference which is happening two hours west in Long Beach and we are at the La Quinta Resort in La Quinta, a resort town that’s closer to Coachella than it is to Palm Springs.
Every modern conference makes its first impression through its swag bag and TED takes first impressions very seriously. I mean look at all of this crap.
The craziest thing about all this crap is that it’s not even crap and the second-craziest thing about it is how much of it there is, so much not-crap that I had to bust out my wide-angle lens to capture its mass, which is only navigable with the help of the included full-page manual of what everything inside the finely-crafted leather-and-canvas satchel actually is. The requisite water bottle and t-shirt are here but they are crafted of porcelain and form-fitting Merino, not shitty plastic and nightshirt-only grade cotton. There’s a site license for Office 365, a sleek metal wallet, and a “canine assessment toolkit” from — you guessed it — Dognition. Gift cards from Proflowers and Craft Subscription Coffees will take care of mom and dad’s birthday presents and the MoviePass will sate your filmic desires for three whole months. If you listen closely you can hear other gift bags hanging themselves and I am not talking about from the coat rack.
The requisite water bottle and t-shirt are here but they are crafted of porcelain and form-fitting Merino
Monday felt very first day of school, a semi-structured half-day of casual events designed to facilitate attendees’ metamorphosis from mere mortal to full-blown TEDster. We learned where the open Coke product fridges were and that Odwalla is every bit as much a Coke product as Coke Zero is and found out where to have attractive baristas make us sensible portions of artisanal pourover coffee. We learned how to navigate between the Quad, the Design House, and the Theatre, where we test-drove the lush beanbags and leather Steelcase chairs from which we would absorbing simulcast TED talks all week long. And then there were the lovingly-crafted group activities: felt flag construction at the Sovereign Nation Of You booth, a “live” custom silkscreen station from the LA art collective Hit and Run, and and a “Lifehack Workshop” built by Microsoft, all designed to spark conversation and foster relationships among people from the demographics that ad execs would murder for.
Had the steely-eyed yet playful Rives pre-determined this seemingly random meeting of alcoholic minds, or was it a little bit of TED magic working its way into my reality?
I have a psychopathic disdain for group activities designed to foster new relationships so I spent an hour walking around the resort alone smoking yellow American Spirits and trying unsuccessfully to think of clever ways to hate on the beautifully-organized flow of the day, surreptitiously checking the credentials of smiling attendees: chatty Korean high school students, product managers with funky eyeglasses, twentysomething CEOs of ambiguously-named startups. My aimless loathing must have been palpable because an Anderson Cooper-looking dude without a badge stopped me in my tracks with an outstretched hand: “Hey Trent, I’m Reeves. Welcome to TED.” If he had had a badge on I would have known that it was actually spelled Rives and that he was a host for TEDActive, but he didn’t, so I asked him what his deal was with the not having a badge and all. “I’m one of the hosts for TEDActive, so I can do whatever the fuck I want hahaha! Let me show you around a little bit.” But we just walked about ten feet and he dropped me off in a perfectly-formed circle of TEDsters and introduced me immediately to three New Yorkers, one of whom said the perennial word of the day (“margarita”) within fifteen seconds and we were soon in our own degenerate version of a relationship-building activity. Had the steely-eyed yet playful Rives pre-determined this seemingly random meeting of alcoholic minds, or was it a little bit of TED magic working its way into my reality? And why had he reminded me so much of the greeter at the Scientology Learning Center in downtown Pasadena?
As the sun dipped below Mt. San Jacinto and the booze continued to flow I let go of some of my baseless disdain and eventually found myself in a rainbow-lit teepee next to one of the four concurrent pool parties. After a few minutes of pleasantries we discovered that we were all writers, and, more bizarrely, all Virgos. Another seemingly-random pairing of strange attributes, and this time Rives wasn’t near enough to have had any overt influence on the meeting. Two hours later during Jill Sobule’s campfire singalong, I ended up talking to a woman whose daughter goes to high school with my niece in Texas. Shit was getting weird but it was a kind of OK / familiar weird I couldn’t quite put my finger on until the next morning when my brain was functional enough for me to realize that it felt like I was at church.
At the big Presbyterian church my mom dragged me to when I was little the main cathedral would always fill up on Easter so they set up a live video feed in a smaller chapel nearby where we could see and hear the service in real time. That was already weird enough but it got even weirder when people would do weird church stuff like sit, stand, sing, pray together, or even clap for a particularly witty sermon — even though the pastor was only there by simulcast, a crude yet acceptable surrogate for the real pulpit with its full display of robes and bells and sterling crucifixes. This was the ’90s and projectors still sucked so the picture was all washed out and the audio equipment was more My First Sony than Abbey Road so there was a lot of feedback and dropouts.
TEDActive is the overflow chapel to TED’s Long Beach Cathedral, but the production quality is stunning
TEDActive is the overflow chapel to TED’s Long Beach Cathedral, but the production quality is stunning, there are bean bag chairs instead of pews, and no pesky deities around to cloud anyone’s judgment. Ruminations from philosophers and scientists were the constantly-referenced touchstones, not some poorly-translated cryptolanguage from the boring New Testament. TEDsters not only laughed at the simulcast screens, they gave them full-on standing ovations. Once I wrapped my head around this non-shitty church metaphor everything else at TED was much easier to understand.
TED talks are sermons, and the “ideas worth spreading” held therein are the gospel. Going to Long Beach (which costs $7500) is an exclusive trip to Mecca; TEDActive is the first tier of secondhand appreciation akin to viewing a religious relic in a glass case. And those videos, cherished by intellectuals and sometimes catchy enough to go viral in the general populace, are the updated version of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s hugely-influential television broadcast that is a cornerstone of televangelism.
The questions discussed during TED talks often seem intentionally huge and unanswerable.Yesterday the economist Robert J. Gordon and the “innovation researcher” Erik Brynjolfsson discussing whether or not growth in America had stopped: this led inevitably to the metrics we use to measure growth and whether or not they are accurate gauges for productivity in “the new machine age.” Two hyper-intelligent men having a civilized discussion about ideas no one has the tools to fully explain is essentially philosophy unfolding in front of your eyes, and at times this discussion feels refreshingly Socratic in the middle of a world flooded by hashtags. No clear answer emerged because it didn’t have to: the discussion itself was enlightening in and of itself.
The best talk of the day came from Sugata Mitra, the winner of this year’s million dollar TED Prize.
Mitra’s primary question is one I’ve thought about a lot: what does the future of education look like in an information economy where simply knowing facts has been rendered obsolete by Google? Mitra installed connected PC’s in impoverished Indian neighborhoods without explanation and allowed children to interact with the machines. He found that within a few months slum-dwelling Tamil children were able to learn the interfaces and teach themselves really complex concepts — like DNA replication — with almost no guidance. This “hole in the wall” project, named for the ATM-like boxes the computers occupied on the streets, was replicated time and time again. No matter how complex the question or what language the material was presented in, children learned the concepts by the sheer force of their own curiosity coupled with a pile of data. Mitra’s was one the few talks that answered the huge question it asked: he’ll use his prize money to develop a minimally-staffed “School In The Cloud” to explore the consequences of his findings. I wouldn’t be surprised if his self-instructive model becomes the worldwide standard before I die.
After his acceptance speech TED curator Chris Anderson turned the auditoriums in Long Beach and La Quinta into a synergistic Baptist revival-style celebration of support. Pledge cards were distributed immediately to everyone in the rooms at both locations — they bear more than a passing resemblance to the envelopes and plates passed around right after the sermons in my old Presbyterian church. Audience members from large and small companies got up to pledge monetary and administrative support, and the mood was electric. Chris Anderson was the fiery yet graceful pastor, his fervor directed not at Jesus but at Mitra’s minimalistic school. This was the new type of religion I’ve often envisioned: the exuberant dedication of emotional and physical resources to a proven force of good, not to an irrational faith-based deity. This was a church without a god. Well maybe Bono is its god but that is a story for a different day.
At the end of the day I still have my issues with TED, no matter how succinctly its concepts are executed. The Long Beach auditorium seems like some sort of not-so-secret New World Order, a future alternative UN that lays all its cards out on the table: the people in that room are rich, successful, and brilliant (don’t let this go to your head, Topolsky). Its public face is so flawlessly produced that even its failures are gracefully integrated into its mission, something you can’t say about Catholicism or Scientology. But the whole thing does still have that Diet Cult feeling I got from the Scientology Center. People are almost too friendly, over-eager to hear about an opposing point of view. The speakers, from a 13-year old Massai inventor to a legendary Brazilian photojournalist, had all been run through the same tanklike media training, lending them all an eerily similar professionalism. Oscar recipients can only dream of being so prepared to make a speech.
TED's public face is so flawlessly produced that even its failures are gracefully integrated into its mission
It doesn’t feel at all nefarious to me, but TED is definitely one of those concepts that could engender strange consequences in its devotees. On Monday night I ended up drinking and eating Del Taco in a room full of dudes who seemed like they went to TED conferences the way people follow around Phish. It’s not much of a theoretical leap for me to envision these guys adopting TED-hopping as a vaguely-righteous way of life. It currently holds all the potential of a new religion; right now it appears to be fully on the right track, but it doesn’t seem like it would take much for the whole empire to turn towards the dark side if it were to be handled by less-benevolent souls. Remember that Prometheus viral thing from before?
Lead photo courtesy of TED Conference Flickr