The guy next to me at the TED dinner said, “Do you want to see a magic trick?”
I know I’d seen him before, somewhere.
Turned out it was David Blaine. “Pick a card,” he said, showing me a full deck. “Don’t tell me what it is. I’m going to read your mind.”
He got it right the first time. And the second. And the third. I shook my head in disbelief while Pam Omidyar gasped “How did you do that?” again and again, louder and louder each time.
David looked across the table and found himself enchanted by the Harvard human rights professor and activist, Samantha Power.
“Who’s that?” he asked me, pointing to her.
I told him. He did one more card trick on me, a little half-hearted, and then disappeared.
I’d been hearing so much about TED — which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — that I was starting to think it was more a cult than a conference. Well, call me a convert. The story above is only one of a hundred amazing encounters I had this past weekend in Monterey.
A series of happy coincidences got me a ticket to what has been called “the best mind spa of the year”. My friend Delia Cohen, a remarkable organizer, was put in charge of making Jehane Noujaim’s TED Prize Wish a reality. That wish was Pangea Day, a global film festival highlighting work that brings people from different backgrounds together. Delia wanted someone with experience in interfaith youth issues on the Advisory Board (twist my arm to put my name next to the film maker Mira Nair and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas), and so I found myself on a panel about Pangea Day in Cannes (again, twist my arm) with TED curator Chris Anderson. Chris found what I said sufficiently coherent to give me a 3-minute speaker slot on the TED stage.
There are plenty of celebrities at TED. Cameron Diaz, Forrest Whitaker, Robin Williams, and several dozen other A-listers. I rode down the elevator with Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, and said, (like many a fan awed into amnesia by their presence), “I love your music. My favorite album is …. Uuuhhhhh … I can’t think of the title right now.” They just smiled and nodded. Just feeling groovy, probably.
But here’s the thing – unlike at some other conferences of the famous and powerful, where amid the posturing and preening the occasional new idea rears its head before being shoved aside by the glitter and glam – TED is a conference that privileges creativity over celebrity. Many of the people on stage are scientists and avant-garde artists who have a big, new, geeky idea that is changing their field and could change the world. The celebrities here are in the audience rather than on stage. They are doing what the venture capitalists, journalists, philanthropists, and various other ridiculously successful mavericks are doing – looking for (in the words of Michael Lewis) the new new thing. The list of things unveiled here first – Photoshop, Illustrator, the touch-screen technology of the iPhone – is literally unbelievable.
And the dominant style is geek-cool, not celebrity-chic. The whole scene is more a cross between Richard Feynman and Google than it is a hybrid of the Oscars and Davos.
When someone is on the TED stage, just about everybody is paying attention. (It was the scariest three-minute speech I’ve ever given in my life. As I was stepping on stage, I thought to myself, “Literally everyone in the audience is smarter than me.”). At the typical power conference, the formal sessions are an excuse to be in the hallway trying to close a deal. At TED, most of the conference attendees can’t fit into the beautiful Steinbeck Theater in Monterey (the conference is moving to a larger space in Long Beach next year, and it’s still sold out), and have to watch from simulcast lounges. I thought those lounges would be full of cocktail-hour chatter, but not only are they pin drop-quiet, people applaud at the flat-screen televisions when the speaker is done.
And when a famous person happens to be on the TED stage – like Al Gore, for example – the chances are they are not doing their usual schtick (which is actually Chris Anderson’s first commandment of TED) but putting out something new. Gore had written an entirely new talk for this year’s TED conference. The presentation he gave here a few years ago became the basis for An Inconvenient Truth.
TED prides itself on being a stew of surprises. And this year, even long-time TEDsters – a crowd heavy with scientists and not a few Masters of the Universe – found themselves somewhat taken aback by one of the recipients of the TED Prize: Karen Armstrong. Karen has been writing lyrically and appreciatively about the world’s religions for decades. Her beautiful Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet was one of the first books I read in my re-engagement with Islam in the 1990s. And her TED Prize Wish focused on spreading the ethos of compassion central to all faiths (with a particular focus on the Abrahamic traditions) across the world.
At the TED Grand Party later that evening, furious conversations ensued on faith. Some TEDsters railed against religion, claiming that God doesn’t exist and the delusion of His being has only resulted in division and violence. Other TEDsters found themselves somewhat uncomfortably outed. “I’m a Christian,” I overheard somebody say in response to a particularly blunt comment about the inherent horrors of religion.
What makes the TED Prize Wish remarkable is that the TED community tries to make it reality. Bill Clinton wished for a world-class health care system in Rwanda. E.O. Wilson wished for an Encyclopedia of Life. Both of those wishes, and many more, are taking shape as we speak.
What will TED do with God? And while, What will God do with TED? may well be a more interesting question, it’s not something I am equipped to answer. So I’ll offer some thoughts on the former in my next post.