TED — A Strange Way to Talk About Openness

IF you had wanted to see the movers and shakers in Edinburgh this week, it would have cost you £3,850, writes Peter Geoghegan

If you did find yourself with just shy of four grand burning a hole in your pocket, would you spend it all on a ticket for a four-day conference on “radical openness”? Probably not, I’d guess, but that’s exactly what the 800-plus delegates at this week’s TEDGlobal conference, which opened in Edinburgh on Tuesday and finished yesterday, have elected to do.

TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a Silicon Valley organisation that hosts invite-only conferences to disseminate “ideas worth spreading”. For the $6,000 entrance fee, guests at the Edinburgh conference heard presentations from a host of luminaries including Alex Salmond, artist Antony Gormley, singer Macy Gray and choreographer Wayne McGregor. All talks are 18 minutes long; questions are strictly forbidden.

Since its inception in Monterey, California, in 1984, TED conferences have become remarkably popular, and increasingly influential. The event is now hosted by English publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson and owned by his non-profit organisation, the Sapling Foundation. TED talks – recordings of conference presentations that are available free online – have been downloaded hundreds of millions of times. Previous conference speakers include Bill Gates, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and self-styled militant atheist Richard Dawkins.

Last year, Edinburgh hosted its first TEDGlobal conference at the International Conference Centre. Attendees at the inaugural Edinburgh event had the chance to hear Niall Ferguson aver his controversial version of history, or grab some chat about the good life with pop philosopher Alain de Botton.

If this all sounds elitist, it is. Beneath the meritocratic American West Coast rhetoric, TED is one of the most exclusive events imaginable. Not only is the cost of a ticket vertiginous – and that’s without transport and accommodation – all attendees are heavily vetted. As the conditions for acceptance on the TEDGlobal website state: “You must be likely, in our judgment, to be a strong contributor to the TED community, the ideas discussed at TED, and the projects that come out of the conference.”

The aura of exclusivity that surrounds TED is central to the brand’s success: the extortionate fee is simultaneously an imprimatur and an excellent way to generate money for the organisation. Would-be tech innovators and over-zealous life coaches will happily remortgage their house for the chance to press the flesh (and have their photo taken) with movers and shakers at TED. Whether they get value for their $6,000 is another matter entirely.

What is beyond question is that TED has emerged as a major player in the online world of ideas over the past five years. Among supporters, TED generates levels of devotion that detractors have likened to cults. Sociologist and social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson has said that TED “has a cultish feel to it. The speakers use a lot of terms like ‘magical’ and ‘inspirational’. It’s almost the religion of the knowledge class.”

Many of the buzzwords and phrases that attach themselves to TED certainly have an airy, high-falutin’ quality. Take “radical openness”, the theme of this year’s Edinburgh conference. This, as Bruno Giussani, the European director of TED, told the Guardian last week, means, “people thinking differently at existing problems, and pushing at boundaries in radical new ways”.

At a time when the future of the United Kingdom (and late capitalism) is anything but secure, when debates about sustainability and environmental disaster proliferate, “radical openness” smacks of the vague and the flaky. No surprise, then, that Philip Blond, the brains behind Cameron’s much-mocked Big Society, was a keynote speaker at last year’s TED Edinburgh.

But the most serious accusation levelled at TED is that it reproduces a narrow, Silicon Valley view of the world, with precious little room for dissenting voices. Earlier this year, tech investor Nick Hanauer – an early backer of Amazon.com – delivered a talk at a TED conference in which he suggested that “rich people don’t create jobs”. Hanauer argued that middle-class consumers, not capitalists, are the real drivers of economic growth and prosperity, and that tax breaks for the rich are a drain on the economy.

Hanauer’s talk was met with applause from the audience. However, Chris Anderson refused to publish the talk on the TED website because it was “too political” – rather ironic given that TED often invites politicians to speak at its conference, as Alex Salmond’s appearance on Wednesday attests.

Hanauer’s talk is now freely available online – in the digital age even an organisation as powerful as TED will struggle to suppress content – but the controversy paints TED in a very poor light. Anderson’s argument that “a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted” by Hanauer’s contention that ordinary consumers are the most powerful job creators hardly seems sufficient justification for blocking an idea if it is, in the TED patter, “worth spreading”.

For an enterprise whose mission statement begins: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world”, TED also gives remarkably little back to the city in which its conference takes place. Indeed, Edinburgh as a city is largely incidental to the TED experience. Last year, Giussani explained the decision to relocate the annual TEDGlobal conference from Oxford, its erstwhile home, not in terms of ideas and individuals but of transport links and infrastructure. The only trace of TED in Edinburgh were the orientation signs dotted around Lothian Road.

TED is a short-term boon for the local economy, but this week will leave little in the way of meaningful legacies beyond the balance sheet. New ideas are vital for Scotland’s future – but these ideas need inclusive, inexpensive spaces where they can be shared and debated, not exclusory, £3,850-a-head conferences. Perhaps it’s time for a TED for the rest of us.

This piece appeared in the Scotsman, June 30.