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How TED conferences turned intellectualism into an industry

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Author Benjamin Wallace writes about the profusion of conferences inspired by TED, as well as their place as status symbols for both speakers and attendees.

TED ugly music
TED ugly music

From luminaries like Bill Gates to little-known professors, speakers at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference have the opportunity to deliver an 18-minute message to both the immediate audience and millions watching online. The success of TED has spawned a plethora of related salons, from the more intimate PopTech to the "quirky unconference" BIL (as in BIL and TED), which has hosted talks like "How to Crash TED." Each conference has its own flavor, but most thrive on a combination of populism and exclusivity, creating what author Benjamin Wallace describes as an event "that not only won’t let you in but also videocasts what’s happening inside so you’ll know exactly what you’re missing."

Wallace, himself a TED alumnus, wonders if the success of TED has come at the cost of making the ideas it espouses generic. "What happens when the idea of ideas worth spreading gets spread thin? What happens when the concept of innovation itself becomes stale?" The formula for TED success, including what Wallace terms a "dog-and-pony spirit" with eye-catching multimedia displays, has given wide exposure to ideas that might have previously stayed in academia. At the same time, it's possible that TED's popularity is creating an intellectual echo chamber while promoting a hierarchy of the interesting and wealthy. As the executive director of PopTech puts it, "We don’t have castles and noble titles, so how do you indicate you’re part of the elite?"