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What Is TED Conference – History & Criticisms of TED Talks

By Michael Lewis

ted ideasImagine the opportunity to hear the late mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, explain its application in fields ranging from “how galaxies cluster, how wheat prices change over time, or how mammalian brains fold as they grow.” Or MacArthur Fellow and University of Southern California law professor Elyn Saks detail her life dealing with schizophrenia on a daily basis, often imagining that she has killed “hundreds of thousands of people.”

Perhaps you would prefer watching jazz musician Herbie Hancock improvise a new version of “Watermelon Man,” or see 64-year-old long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad explain her successful fifth attempt to swim from Florida to Cuba, 110 miles through shark- and jellyfish-infested water.

Mandelbrot, Saks, Hancock, and Nyad are a small representation of the 1,416 speakers and subjects presented at annual Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conferences since 1984. And they are available for free to anyone in the world who has an Internet connection and a desire for knowledge.

What Is TED?

The first TED Conference occurred in 1984 in Monterrey, California, and was established to bring together an eclectic group of artists, entertainers, designers, and technology leaders in an invitation-only, intimate setting for four days to share ideas about the world and its future. In the words of Harry Marks, reminiscing 20 years later, “It totally worked, in principle. It didn’t work financially for us at all [only 300 attended], but it worked in principle…it was a wonderful, painful, and rewarding experience.”

Despite the popularity of the event with those who attended, the second conference did not occur until 1990, for financial reasons. With the active promotion of co-founder Richard Saul Wurman, the TED concept exploded during the 1990s and expanded beyond the original technology, entertainment, and design fields to include scientists, politicians, business leaders, and interesting (and sometimes controversial) presenters from all walks of life. The annual TED conference has become the preeminent “ideas” conference in the world, spawning similar events such as PopTech, FOO Camp, the Clinton Global Initiative, and Solve for X.

ted conference audience

History of TED

The first TED Conference occurred in 1984 in Monterrey, California due to the collaboration of:

  • Harry Marks, a television graphic designer, Emmy award winner, and the first to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Broadcast Design Association
  • Richard Saul Wurman, an award-winning architect who some credit as being the inventor of information architecture
  • Frank Stanton, former president of CBS

The intent was to establish a forum where creative people from the three disciplines of technology, entertainment, and design could meet, collaborate, and inspire each other. The first presenters included Mandelbrot, Hancock, Nicholas Negropointe (who went on to establish the MIT Media Lab), and Stewart Brand, editor of “The Whole Earth Catalog.” Onstage demonstrations included the soon-to-be released Apple Macintosh computers, a presentation of 3D graphics by Lucas Films, and free samples of the then-revolutionary Sony compact disc player and discs. In 2013, National Public Radio (NPR) released portions of Negropointe’s speech, during which he predicted technological advances such as touch screens, teleconferencing, and e-books.

The Influence of Richard Saul Wurman

Wurman is considered most responsible for TED’s revival in 1990, which included speakers Bill Gates, Adobe cofounder John Warnock, MIT professor and expert on artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky, and Bran Ferren, a past president of R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering and founder of Applied Minds. New York Magazine described TED under Wurman’s leaderships as “an animated curiosity cabinet.” Wurman described it as “sort of doing everything I felt like doing. It was like a child being able to say what I wanted to have happen. ‘I’d like a juggler. I’d like a magician.’” Whatever his taste, TED became increasingly popular with attendance limited to first come, first serve to anyone who could afford the $3,000-plus fee.

The Leadership of Chris Anderson

Wurman directed TED until his 2001 sale to Chris Anderson, a British entrepreneur who previously owned a hobby-magazine publishing company. Anderson expanded the subjects covered to include social issues such as poverty, environment,  and climate change (Al Gore’s presentation in 2006, “Averting the Climate Crisis,” is an abbreviated version of  his book “An Inconvenient Truth“). He also doubled the price of attendance, returned to an invitation-only admission policy, and moved the setting from Monterrey, California to Long Beach. These moves made the conference even more popular, becoming, as British newspaper The Guardian described in 2010, as “a kind of spring break for world thinkers, a place of inspiring ideas, but which only the select few would hear.”

In 2006, Anderson introduced TED Talks, a collection of the majority of the prior TED presentations delivered free online. Some of the earlier talks, specifically of the initial conference, are not yet available. However, the talks proved hugely popular, having been viewed more than a billion times through 2012. The talks have been translated into more than 40 languages (many with multiple translations) by 200 volunteer translators, creating what Anderson calls a “global community.” A 2012 article in Wired Magazine stated that the introduction of the Talks have transformed TED from a conference company into a media enterprise – or, in their words, “an enormous and almost democratic cultural force reaching millions of viewers around the world.”

Other TED Programs introduced by Anderson include:

  • TEDGlobal: Smaller versions of the TED Conference held in sites around the world.
  • TED Special Events: These are irregularly scheduled events for special audiences such as TEDIndia (Southeast Asia), TEDWomen (the changing roles of women), and TEDYouth (students).
  • TED Prize: Initially $100,000, now $1 million awarded to an individual with a “Wish to Inspire the World.”
  • TEDx Partners: Seeking to expand the popularity of the annual TED Conference, Anderson created a program where local organizers could organize a mini-TED event such as TEDxUND at the University of Notre Dame, TEDxBaltimore at Baltimore, or TEDxUF at the University of Florida at Gainesville. TEDx events occur regularly at sites around the world, including scheduled events in Seoul, London, Barcelona, and Islamabad. Each TEDx event combines local presenters and previously delivered selected TED Talks to encourage community conversations and connections. A TEDx presentation, if especially popular, might be included in the catalog of TED Talks available to the public at large.

ted conference bill gates

The Annual TED Conference

A typical TED Conference today includes 70-plus speakers limited to 18-minute-long multimedia presentations over a four-day period. In 2013, the speakers and topics ranged from U2 lead singer Bono, speaking on world poverty, to dolphin researcher Diana Reiss, discussing the possibility of inter-species communication. Over the years, the presentations have becoming increasingly sophisticated, evolving from slide presentations and a single camera to multimedia events, complete with high production values, media coaching, and  onstage stunts.

In a 2009 talk about malaria, Bill Gates released mosquitos into the audience; neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, another 2009 speaker, displayed a real human brain with spinal cord attached to talk about the effects of her own stroke. And Dr. Hans Rosling, speaking about new insights on poverty, swallowed a sword during his 2007 presentation.

Reservations for the annual TED event, limited to 1,200 to 1,500 attendees, now cost $7,500 and sell out within hours of each offering. Corporate sponsors spend $125,000 or more to attach their names to the events. Those who cannot get a ticket to the actual event can attend a simulcast of the Conference in a nearby city for $3,750, while individuals ($600), colleges ($2,500) and businesses ($2,500) can see live streams in their home locations with 10 to 50 observers. Since speakers are compensated by travel and hotel costs, TED is a very successful financial undertaking with an estimated $20 million-plus in revenues per conference.

Criticisms of TED

Despite its popularity, TED is subject to various critics, some of which may be warranted:

1. Elitism
In the September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, writer Martin Robbins claimed that talks he watched were neither “new or original” and aimed at “social elites who’ve invested thousands of dollars for the opportunity to bask in the warm glow [of] someone else’s intellectual aura.” Robbins claims that you need “to be rich and well-connected” to get into the Conferences, suggesting that a more appropriate slogan would be “Ego Worth Patching For,” rather than “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

Certainly, the price for Conference admission – as well as the requirement to be deemed TED-worthy – could be viewed as barriers to the information available at a TED Conference. It should be noted, however, that presentations are available, albeit delayed, for free over the Internet.

2. Misinformation and Oversimplification
In a 2013 article for The Guardian, Benjamin Bratton claims that TED is actually “middlebrow mega-church infotainment,” where audiences prefer presenters such as journalists – who recycle fake insights – to actual scientists who produce actual knowledge. This oversimplification of complicated subjects, focused on style rather than substance, is akin to “taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing.” Even some presenters dislike the focus on slick, over-the-top performances. “Black Swan” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb described TED as “a monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.”

The TEDx program, in which organizers arrange their own speakers, has created problems of vetting and content, primarily because of the tremendous publicity and financial benefits accruing to a TED presenter. In its April 2013 issue, Harvard Business Review reported that TED no longer controls its content or its brand, using the example of TEDx presenter Randy Powell’s presentation about “Vortex-Based Mathematics” that was roundly criticized for its incorrect information. Writing in The New Inquiry, Nathan Jurgenson compared TED talks to the “infamous patent medicine tonic sure-alls pitches of previous centuries,” and that the “conferences have come to resemble religious meetings and the TED talks techno-spirtual sermons, pushing an evangelical, cultish attitude toward the ‘new ideas that will change the world.’”

Certainly, the explosive growth in popularity of TED has created problems, as has the attraction for unscrupulous, self-promoters who recognize that a single presentation can change their lives. At the same time, the public is exposed to a new source of ideas and understanding that did not previously exist. Like any exchange of ideas, it is up to the viewer or listener to discern the wheat from the chaff, the really valuable ideas from the popular, though often suspect, repackaged corporate speak and techno-jargon.

3. Misogyny
According to a 2013 research study, 73% of presenters were male senior academics from elite schools such as MIT, Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of Oxford. When asked about TED’s recruitment of speakers, one of the authors of the study, Cassidy Sugimoto, responded, “I’d question their composition. Do they really have the innovative, cutting edge people they think they have? Are they really seeking diversity in their speakers?”

A review of the data suggests that the authors may have drawn mistaken conclusions from the study. The statement that three of four speakers are male senior academics in itself does not prove prejudice if, in fact,  the gender ratios of senior academics of elite schools reflects a similar ratio. This information is not provided. Furthermore, there is no information regarding the prospective presenter pool which have been available to organizers when planning the events. As a consequence, the male/female data as presented does not justify a claim of prejudice or even a concerted attempt to favor one gender over another. It should also be noted that the sponsor’s attempt to resolve a perceived public relations gaff with the establishment of TEDWomen is equally controversial, viewed as “tokenism” by some and heralded as revolutionary by others.

4. Lack of Critical Analysis and Alternative Views

As TED has grown in popularity, speakers and the ideas they present have been elevated to “secular scripture,” simplistic solutions to complex, difficult problems. The existing format, essentially a series of short talks with high entertainment value, does not provide any counterbalance to the ideas presented even when the subject is controversial. Richard Saul Wurman, no longer associated with TED after selling his interest to Anderson, seems to agree, and is promoting his own conferences built around the concept of two presenter “experts” having a conversation. By exploring ideas and subjects “in conversational modality, you’re more likely to have those shared moments of epiphany. You can get closer to the truth.”

Some presenters or their subjects are too controversial for TED’s taste and are not made available as TED Talks to broader audiences. Multimillionaire investor Nick Hanauer’s 2012 presentation about the widening income inequality in America and that the rich should pay more in taxes was deemed too politically controversial by TED curator Anderson, leading Alex Pareene to criticize TED as being nothing more than a “massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism.”

ted conference setting

Final Word

TED is an extraordinary social experiment, spawning dozens of competitors and generating massive online traffic around the world. Even detractors admit that some presentations are extraordinary, and all are entertaining. Certainly, the opportunity to listen to neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel speculate how cooking and food allowed humans to have the largest primate brains, or Patricia Kuhl explain how early exposure to language alters the brain in infants is worth the investment of everybody’s time.

While I am less interested in Todd Humphreys’ presentation of “How to fool a GPS” or Internet game designer Jane McGonigal opine that reality is broken, both have received almost 400,000 views. Does TED have the ability to change the world? I don’t know, but I certainly enjoy the presentations and perspectives of its presenters – and you may too.

How do you feel about TED?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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