I just discovered the worst possible way to deal with summer doldrums—paying taxes. They couldn’t postpone it one more time?
The Plain View
I had really been looking forward to attending TED in Vancouver this past April. Despite its occasional bombast, the annual exchange of “ideas worth spreading” always seems to win me over by the end of the week. Inevitably, my brain gets softened by a rapid-fire succession of painstakingly honed, high-stakes talks, where speakers pour their hearts out to win internet glory, fat book contracts, and recruits to their intellectual causes. The TED bubble is also a grand social experience, meeting old friends and bumping into the likes of Cher and Al Gore for highfalutin chit chat. I’d missed attending for the last two years while working on a book, and wanted my fix.
Like just about everything else I looked forward to in 2020, it was not to be. After Covid made April impossible, TED polled its users to see whether they preferred to postpone the gathering until July—when, one assumed, all that pandemic stuff would be over—or do things virtually. TED-sters voted for the real thing. Who knew that by July, Covid would be worse than ever in the United States, and that Canada wouldn’t even let most Americans across the border? (On the day I am writing this, Canada has 331 new cases, compared to 60,711 in the United States, according to WHO. No wonder Donald Trump wants to stop counting.) Well before the summer, TED organizer Chris Anderson and his team recognized that the conference would have to occur remotely.
TED made the risky decision to maintain its high ticket cost, and Anderson says that about half of the initial attendees chose to stick it out. “People are effectively paying 10 grand for a virtual experience,” he says. “It’s kind of amazing, a combination of an act of generosity on people’s part, and a willingness to trust us to do something special.”
But what could be so special about a conference where there’s no here there? TED didn’t even try to replicate the bubble, but stretched the event over eight weeks, with midday talks on Monday through Wednesday, and a full session—much like a regular TED segment that you’d see in Vancouver—on Thursday night. With the exception of a few interviews, the talks were prerecorded.
TED 2020 ended last week. The talks were, as usual, high quality, with the added virtue of breaking the mold of a single speaker standing in the trademark red circle on the stage. You got to see the workplaces and homes of those giving talks, like Ethan Hawke talking from what looked like his basement rec room. Some speakers used the prerecorded format to tip-toe into the realm of creative mini-documentaries, using animation and music, like Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad’s explanation of how Dolly Parton changed his life. “The average rating of individual speakers was higher than for a live conference overall,” says Anderson. Also, because the event stretched over weeks, Anderson and his team were able to easily include interviews of vital, busy guests who addressed the obsessions of our day, like Bill Gates and Larry Brilliant on the pandemic, or a dialogue between Bryan Stevenson and John Lewis that dovetailed with Black Lives Matter.
But the real trick was trying to replicate some of the interaction between TED-sters, who consider themselves part of a solid community. This year’s TED was full of after-hours opportunities for attendees to connect with speakers, and each other, remotely, via Zoom group conversations and social gatherings. Even the talks were a two-screen event: one to watch, one to kibitz. TED also offered five-minute intellectual “speed dates,” pairing people with algorithmically likeminded TED-sters for a quick hello. I didn’t try the speed date, but found the small-group interaction with speakers satisfying—it was actually easier to get a question in via Zoom. (In Vancouver, you’d have to yell through a pack of people jammed around a speaker in the hallway.) Anderson says that over the course of the eight-week conference, even skeptics came around to the idea that the event was TED-like, and even worth the hefty tariff to attend. “I’m not saying everyone did, but some truly did,” he says.
Another conference I had on my schedule this year was Collision. This is the North American version of the huge Web Summit conclave that takes place in Lisbon in the fall. When the team decided the June 2020 Collision event in Toronto would be virtual, it kept to the original schedule, squeezing in hundreds of talks and panels in three days. But as with TED, the key would be trying to provide a degree of interaction. “You could watch Tedros Adhanom from the WHO speak,” says Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave. “But most people tend to seek refuge in small numbers.” So besides pre-recorded Zoom panels and talks (I participated in four of them), there were roundtables, press conferences, and one-on-one interviews. Collision also had a feature similar to TED’s speed dating called Mingle. Cosgrave says that these were wildly popular. “In large conferences,” he told me, “speakers like you are kind of the alibi—you provide the cover for a lot of people to fly to Vegas, or wherever, to talk to each other.”
In our lockdown state, we’ll embrace any form of connection, even virtual. But that ersatz interaction reminds us of what we’re missing when we can’t fly to some distant location— the frisson of meeting new people face to face, or greeting the buddies we haven’t seen since last year’s confab with a big hug. I guarantee you that when real-life conferences do come back, no one is going to be saying how much they miss the Zoom days.
And they will come back … right?
My own first TED was in 1997. Sometime in the 2000s I began attending regularly, writing an annual account of the year’s proceedings, dropping it on the last day. Here was my 2007 account for Newsweek:
Today, TED is a little like one of those old rock festivals where one band follows another. Some performances are great acts doing a show that makes history; some touted sets don’t deliver, and some obscurities come out of nowhere to rock your world. Still, at one point, after a cluster of socially conscious speakers, this year’s TED was threatening to turn into a Mensa version of a Jerry Lewis telethon. Among the problems we were asked to ponder, if not resolve, were global warming (very big last year when Al Gore was a central presence), energy independence, AIDS in Africa, biodiversity, disabilities of Iraq veterans and man’s inhumanity to man in general. (On the other hand, Stephen Pinker gave a talk that contended that things were never better for humanity, and he had a PowerPoint presentation to prove it.)
John Doerr, the famous venture capitalist, nearly wept on stage when he envisioned a moment 20 years hence when he might have to admit to his daughter that we failed to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. (Verkempt-ness was a leitmotif at TED this year; tears flowed at filmmaker Deborah Scranton’s interactions with soldiers back from combat, and even “Lost” creator J. J. Abrams threatened waterworks while reminiscing about his grandfather.) But spiffy technology, challenging ideas, and the force of great personalities claimed the spotlight in the last couple of days. . . There were also some talks universally regarded as duds, like creativity consultant Ed de Bono (Anderson interrupted the presentation to tell him to cut to the chase) and Philippe Starck, who, stumbling on stage wearing a polyester soccer jacket and jeans, delivered a babbling cosmological recitation. People also grumbled about Bill Clinton, who parachuted in to give a somewhat canned talk and disappeared soon thereafter.
Ask Me One Thing
Carl asks, “In all your years of writing, is there anything that stands out as being the most unexpected?”
Good question, Carl. Since no one thing comes to mind right away, I’m tempted to say, “No, nothing stands out.” But now that I think about it, there were endless surprises. One was the success of The Weather Channel. When it first appeared, I wrote a column for Rolling Stone headlined, “When it rains, it bores.” Who wanted to watch a weather report all day? I was wrong. Other unexpected developments: Bill Gates becoming so beloved. (With the recent exception of lunatics who think he will implant chips in us via vaccine, an accusation I also did not anticipate.) Steve Jobs getting sick and dying was most unexpected, and unwelcome. Oh, and I didn’t expect to still be writing about technology almost 40 years after my first story on computer hackers. Who knew?
You can submit questions to email@example.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
The White House attacking Fauci, basically for being a scientist. Oy.
Last but Not Least
Microsoft is teaming up with Land O’Lakes to … plant silicon chips in cows! Actually, it will be a wearable device, kind of like a bovine Fitbit. But close!
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