Better Dead than TED

FEATURE: What I Saw at TED 2015 (Updated)

Photo credit: Bill McMorris
March 25, 2015

The TED Magic becomes apparent when the decapitated head of Bina Rothblatt, wife of Sirius XM CEO Martine Rothblatt (née Martin), appears on a gigantic screen at the Vancouver Convention Centre (sic).

"This is a, uh, a robot version of my beloved spice, Bina. And, uh, we call her BINA48," Rothblatt tells TED Curator Chris Anderson, who is so impressed that he fails to condemn the telecomm tycoon for using gendered language. BINA48 roams the web, collecting hundreds of hours of Bina’s mannerisms, tics, and interests. Rothblatt hopes that the robot will eventually attain consciousness and carry on Mrs. Rothblatt in perpetuity. BINA48 will ensure that "our love affair, Chris, can go on forever."

"This isn’t only one of the most astonishing lives I’ve ever heard. It’s one of the most astonishing love stories I’ve ever heard," Anderson says. The applause from 1,300 titans of Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) grows so loud, I fear it will bring down the roof, and, with it, every life insurance company in America.

Futurist ideology meets inspirational billionaire to defy the bounds of humanity using binary and clever coding, while reaffirming the existence of boundless love, albeit in a non-traditional, binary-free manner. That’s TED Magic, the jaw dropping moment attendees pay between $8,500 and $150,000 to witness live. TED is a $50 million operation with 30 corporate sponsors and has become one of the most influential education institutions in the country. The videos on its website have tallied billions of views and have been translated into dozens of languages. TED expects 1 billion more views in 2015 alone. Its franchising operation, TEDx, allows organizers to hold their own independent conferences, producing events in 1,200 cities worldwide from Havana to Baghdad.

The Washington Free Beacon was denied press credentials, but watched the conference in real time thanks to a $500 TED Live membership. I sought out several friends who became TED enthusiasts when it began posting talks online in 2006. What made TED’s then-house satirist Tom Rielly so hilarious? Life coach Tony Robbins so inspirational? Al Gore so profound? How could I capture the Magic? They all had the same answer, which is why I’m watching BINA48 from a sofa in Vancouver’s Cannabis Culture Lounge, which welcomes out-of-towners in for "TED Tokes."

"We haven’t got any yet that I know of, but we’ve been told to expect Bill Gates," the man working the Bong Rentals and candy counter says. Patrons bring their own weed and pay a $5 cover charge for the privilege of hot-boxing the third floor through pipe, paper, or volcano vaporizer. There’s free wifi (Password: legalizeit) for anyone willing to follow the house rules forbidding alcohol and tobacco. The ponytailed baby boomers and pajama-pant clad Millennials are more interested in watching Flintstones reruns than joining me for TED Live. The Cannabis Culture Lounge may capture the Magic of TED talks, but there’s still something missing.

TED's relationship to the elite mirrors that of the Episcopal Church 60 years ago except these elites actually believe the sermons delivered from the red circle pulpit. Former vice president Al Gore, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, as well as a bevy of Oscar, Tony, and Grammy nominated artists and Pulitzer-prize winning authors are on the guest list. You can’t experience pure-grade TED Magic without the community, the global citizens who embody the ideals of progress, tolerance, and disruptive, responsible change-making. They call themselves TEDsters.

A TEDster is no different than a member of any other subculture that can afford luxurious weeklong getaways. There are scoundrels and altruists; socialists and Libertarians; indifferent deal-makers and self-perceived saviors; gregarious drinkers and timorous teetotalers; feet shufflers and extroverts; millionaires and billionaires; fathers of three children and husbands on their third wives; the nouveau rich and the ultra nouveau rich.

The conference began in 1984 when architect Richard Saul Wurman wanted to explore his thesis that nearly every innovation of the era combined elements of technology, entertainment, and design. He invited Silicon Valley denizens and MIT professors to deliver speeches. The conference took off and became "an elaborate hobby of mine for 18 years," Wurman says in a phone interview. He required presenters to speak off-the-cuff and avoid "canned" rhetoric. They were not allowed to pitch their charities or plug their books and corporations eager to sponsor the event left empty-handed. "It was a place where truth was told," he says.

He sold TED to British media entrepreneur Chris Anderson in 2002, but the relationship frayed. He insists on discussing his forthcoming 1,600-page book, Worship the God of Understanding, rather than TED because he doesn’t "like talking about negative things."

"TED opens your eyes," two-time speaker Daniel Kraft says. A Stanford-educated doctor and inventor, Kraft now serves as faculty chair for the Medicine and Exponential Medicine program at Singularity University, a non-accredited institution dedicated to applying "technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges." Kraft has been coming to the conference for 10 years and serves as a TED Host to shepherd young TEDsters into the community.

"TED took what used to be ideas shared between like-minded people and brings them to the whole world," Kraft says. "It’s less elitist than it used to be."

A regular ticket costs $8,500. TEDsters can also pay for premier tickets that entitle them to cut the line and help them with hotel accommodations: $17,000 earns you Donor status and a year’s worth of TED events; Patrons shell out $150,000 for five years. But it only looks expensive. TED is owned by Anderson’s Sapling Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The website reminds attendees they can deduct anywhere from $6,000 to $137,500 of the entry fee from their taxes.

Some TED Fellows, a group of up-and-coming artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, suffered sticker shock when they found out about the cost.

"The price tag blew my mind, but it’s not as homogenous as you’d think given the high barrier of entry," first-year fellow and evolutionary biologist Danielle Lee says. "It’s more diverse than some of my science conferences."

That’s because it takes more than deep pockets or a PhD to become a TEDster. The foundation requires attendees to answer essay questions and provide references to apply. "We ‘curate’ our audience at conferences to make sure we have a balanced, diverse group that can support our mission of bringing great ideas to the world for free," its website says.

Photo credit: Bill McMorris
Photo credit: Bill McMorris

The conference takes place at the Convention Centre’s West Building, 220,000 square feet of glass overlooking the waterfront. A giant red TED symbol hangs over the entrance. A pedestrian approaching from the east would never know there’s an equally massive globe hanging directly behind it, but the message is not lost on TEDsters: "First TED, then the world!" Attendees ascend 25 steps spelling out "DARE" in flamboyant colors and enter futurist Eden.

TED has two methods of ferreting out stowaways. TEDsters receive a blue lanyard with a photo ID a bit smaller than a license plate; an NFC chip, the same security technology used to safeguard digital wallets, is on the back. Genuine TEDsters also carry swag bags collected at four stations. They receive Moleskin TED backpacks filled with goodies, including a Google Chrome Stick and a free year of CLEAR, a service that helps you skip the line at TSA; three books by TED authors; a tech product, such as Google’s $99 Nexus Playing Console; and a $200 pair of Hubbard shoes. Walk a couple feet and you’re at the buffet to make a plate of Mesclun salad, seared prawn, carmelized pear, papri crisps, ratatouille, Lois Lake salmon trout, apple tart tatin, gluten-free carrot cake, and vegan chocolate spice snickerdoodles.

The conference aims to keep TEDsters together at all times. TED negotiates special rates at seven luxury hotels. Mornings start with organized jogging and yoga classes provided by ambassadors from Lululemon. Coffee, breakfast, and lunch are provided inside the center, and group dinners take place nearly every night. Donors and Patrons enjoy private dinners with conference speakers. The evening concludes with Speakeasys at the Pacific Rim with special performances from musician Amanda Palmer. There’s a TED app that allows attendees to track down one another after they’re done listening to ACLU attorney Christopher Soghoian lecture about privacy invasion.

"You’re pretty much living at the conference," says Princess Robin Starbuck Farmanfarmaian, ex-wife of Prince Mansoor Farmanfarmaian of the Persian Qajar Dynasty. She’s done event planning for charities and start-ups across San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and says what sets TED apart is that it’s "run flawlessly … If you drop trash on the floor it’s picked up immediately."

This is Anderson’s most ambitious conference yet, which is why he dubbed it Truth and Dare. "We dare to think this will, in truth, be the most provocative, invigorating, mind-shifting TED yet," the marketing materials say.

Photo credit: Bill McMorris
Photo credit: Bill McMorris

The most daring moment comes on Tuesday night when author Anand Giridharadas tells the story of a Texan white supremacist executed for the post-9/11 murders of two Muslim store clerks and the surviving victim who forgave him, as a parable of the disconnect between TED and Non-TED America. This problem "won’t be solved by tweeting harder, building slicker apps, or starting one more artisanal coffee roasting service," he says. "It is a moral challenge" that begins when you "accept the possibility that actually you may not know what’s going on and you may be part of the problem."

The tough talk doesn’t prevent Giridharadas from receiving a hero’s welcome when he arrives at the Pacific Rim hotel bar for an after party, which is where the real business of TED takes place.

The Pacific Rim sits across the street from the conference and caters well to TED tastes. There’s live music six days a week, hostesses in floor-length blue dresses, and bartenders capable of mixing $425 Sazeracs (Louis XIII cognac, Peychaud's Bitters, La Fee Absinthe Rinse, Demerara Sugar). TEDsters sip on $20 cocktails and mingle amongst themselves, never shedding the blue lanyards. Arriving without one is to walk a mile in the shoes of a well-endowed woman: Everyone’s eyes are on your chest.

"I’m less interested in this year’s speakers, but the crowd doesn’t disappoint. That’s more important than the conference itself," says Shanson Lunny, a 23-year-old first-time attendee. He turned down a minor league hockey contract to become an educational software entrepreneur several years ago. He’s sitting at the bar, hoping to catch speaker and artificial intelligence expert Nick Bostrom. Post-Talk drinks allow scientists to engage one another in their own language, rather than the simplified rhetoric used on stage. Lunny comes to make the most of all the brainpower in the room, or at the very least pitch his product to the venture capitalists packed around the white stone bar.

Kraft, the veteran attendee, says TEDsters are vigilant against the infiltration of mere networkers into its ranks. Sure, deals are made and everyone has a phablet at the ready to show off their newest product, but TEDsters have to demonstrate an interest beyond business.

"People shouldn’t be here just to take. The community sniffs those people out," Kraft says.

TED may be the only collection of the wealthy and powerful that can meet without generating protest. There are no Bildeberg-esque conspiracy theories about chemtrails and looming world domination by a cabal of elitists. However, it is increasingly coming under fire from the left. Salon, the Guardian, and pre-vertically-integrated-digital-media-company the New Republic have all slammed TED for reframing the technocratic conformist politics of the 1950s with a citizen of the world twist. TEDsters, the critique goes, might as well come out and say, "What’s good for Tesla Motors is good for the world."

TED is not immune from criticism among its ranks. Fellow and artist Sarah Sandman, for example, objects to futurist writer Stephen Petranek’s claim that "thousands of people [will be] going to Mars just the way they were going to America" and that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is a 21st Century Christopher Columbus.

"Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first human here … [Petranek] doesn’t even stop to think that if only rich people build [on Mars] are we just going to have a new age form of slavery," she says. "That’s a problem: A lot of people not being aware of their privilege."

TEDsters say the liberal attacks are unfair. They hold all the right opinions, as the conference’s first two speakers make clear. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd says that America can avoid future conflict with China by "striking out against climate change with hands joined together rather than fists apart." Foreign Policy Editor and CEO David Rothkopf says that after 9/11, "we suspended our values, we violated international law, we embraced torture." The Iranian nuclear negotiations are being disrupted by gridlock, he says, even though it just "deals with the technologies of 50 years ago."

The sympathetic content is not enough to justify the problematic nature of the speakers, though.

"I don’t see diversity here. Look at the first panel: It’s all white men and one white woman. They’re all great people doing great things, but there are a lot of changemakers out there," Sandman says.

On Thursday morning, presidential mistress-turned-anti-bullying missionary Monica Lewinsky rocks the house by speaking out against shaming and manufactured outrage. Anderson cannot contain his excitement at the "blockbuster talk." He knows he has a viral video on his hands; it has over 1 million views.

Wurman never aimed to make talks go viral. He is proudest of the string of Next Big Things that debuted at the conference: the tech that became Google Earth, Google itself, the Segway, and MIT’s Media Lab all debuted at TED.

Truth and Dare had its share of moments. Fellow Tal Danito created a way to detect liver cancer through a urine test, which could save the lives of countless journalists. Google presented live footage of its self-driving car navigating busy streets, though kinks remain—it failed to strike a cyclist who blew through a red light. MIT researcher Abe Davis developed a technique to pull sound from silent video using a bag of potato chips. Stephen Petranek, a doomsday prophet and space aficionado, delivers the most stirring news at the conference. He predicts that settlers who can afford the $500,000 ticket will arrive on Mars as soon at 2027.

One Republic plays the Thursday night after party (sponsored by Target). In-house satirist Baratunde Thurston wraps up the conference on Friday morning with a DEVASTATING routine about the conference (Did you know TEDsters use big words and read the Economist?). An army of Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators idle at the Pacific Rim to ferry the TEDsters to their private planes idling at the south terminal of the Vancouver International Airport.

"Bye bye Vancouver and #TED2015 - this TED Party Bus is headed to SFO - we should have just chartered this birdie," TEDster Prashant K. Gulati tweeted on Friday.

I’ll head back in 2027, when the TED Party Bus heads directly to Mars.

UPDATE 1:05 P.M.: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Peychaud's Bitters, and the name of the Persian dynasty of which Princess Robin Starbuck Farmanfarmaian is a member. Princess Farmanfarmaian is a member of the Qajar dynasty. We regret the errors.

Published under: Feature