The elephants in the room at TED

Larry Page says hi, we say thanks for the phone!

First, let’s get the elephant out of the way so we can talk about more important things. What is the elephant? No, it’s not Larry Page, co-founder of Google, seen above waving to the audience at TED after he gave them all a free Nexus One.

So, what is the elephant? That TED costs $6,000 and is hard to get into (next year’s TED is already sold out, for instance). They never give away more than 15 press passes, too, which means that most of the world’s press corp can’t get in. This always pisses off people, just as it did to Sarah Lacy, writer at TechCrunch.

I don’t have $6,000 and I doubt I’ll get invited next year for free and, even if I could gather $6,000, it’s sold out for next year anyway.

Freaking elitists!

But, let’s take the elephant head on: rich people can afford things you and I can’t. I can’t afford a Ferrari either. Even though I definitely appreciate them. I can’t afford a private plane, even though when I’ve gotten a ride in one I’ve always appreciated them and can see why I’d want one. I can’t afford an original Ansel Adams’ print, either, even though I am a huge fan and would love to have one.

So, let’s turn it around. You should know that in 2008 I took a similar stance to Sarah’s. That TED is unattainable for most people, and that it’s a closed society, etc. What did I do about it? I went to BIL, a free event that goes on at TED. I will attend that again next year because I seriously doubt that I’ll be able to get into TED. But I am trying to go one further, I will try to get the money together to buy BIL a video feed from inside TED.

But since attending I’ve changed my stance from the one I had in 2008. What is the one now? Jealous people should just keep their mouths shut. And I’ll include me in that stance.

Truth is, TED has opened up its content to the world. More than 500 talks have now been shared on TED Talks.

On the TED stage I saw that they had hundreds of events where the live feed was broadcast, including many into Silicon Valley (several VCs and entrepreneurs invited me to view TED with them at their houses, or work offices). Rackspace bought the feed too and lots of my coworkers were talking with me about the talks. So, getting access to the content might not be attainable by everyone in real time, but is certainly attainable eventually by everyone.

The funny thing is just a couple of weeks ago Sarah Lacy was at an exclusive venture capital event in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I wasn’t invited. Neither were you, probably. Did she disclose the elitism of this event? No way. Does she disclose all the closed parties or events she gets invited to that me and you don’t get invited to? No way. One rule of closed parties is you don’t Tweet about them or you don’t get invited back.

I assume I won’t get invited to TED next year and that this year I won the lottery and next year, well, the lottery won’t strike twice. So, that gives me a sort of mental freedom to tell you what I really think of this event.

But here’s the rub: I will be at TED next year if I am alive. And the year after that. And the year after that. I will pay for it and get there somehow.

Why? It was the most incredible event I’ve ever attended. By far.

What makes TED TED? Well, for one, it’s TED because Sarah wasn’t there (and I won’t be there next year because I didn’t pay the $6,000 in time). Its elitism and expense IS part of why TED is magical and if you ever get to go, either because you have the money to attend, or because somehow you won the lottery like I did and you go to go you’ll see that it is magical, in the same way that James Cameron shared with us that visiting the Titanic for real is magical (he did just that). Damn elitists. Having experiences I can’t have.

TED should be PROUD of the elephant in the room. It should embrace it far more than they do. The attendees there should celebrate it and run with it. Many do. One VC told me as we were leaving yesterday that the expense not only makes networking world class but that it ensures that people actually attend and listen to the lectures. Want proof? Look at the notes that these rich people took. I’ve never seen notes like these at any other event. After all, rich people can have parties with other rich people anytime they want. But TED isn’t like any rich guy party I’ve ever been to and I’ve been fortunate enough to be at more than my fair share (heck, remember, I live right by the Half Moon Bay Ritz which is a rich-guy party every night of the year. I can’t afford to stay there either).

Nina's most excellent TED notes

Those notes are from Nina Khosla, design student at Stanford. Does that name sound familiar? It should, her dad is famous VC Vinod Khosla. She shares her notes with the world on her website, by the way. I interviewed her about her notes and some other things and you can listen to that on Cinch.

Dance at TED with LXD

What is TED? It’s a celebration of human performance. On the TED stage we saw some of the best scientists the world has ever known. Some of the best dancers (you’ll see them on stage at the Oscars, by the way, don’t miss them). Some of the best musicians. Some of the best entrepreneurs. Some of the best children. Some of the best politicians.

It is one event where you not only get to see them on stage, and if you watch TED Talks you know what that’s about, but you get to meet them in the hallways and talk with them. A couple of days ago I talked with Bill Gates about his ideas for nuclear energy. Controversial yes, but the guy does his homework and knows more on the topic of energy than anyone else I’ve ever met.

It is a celebration of learning. Learning means pushing yourself beyond where you are today. Yesterday we heard a story from a girl who has been told she has three years to live. What is she doing? Going to school and she explained why in a way that brought a tear to many eyes around the world. She wasn’t even at Long Beach, but was attending the sessions in Palm Springs, which is where there was a video feed and a separate set of talks. Proves you didn’t need to go to TED to go to TED and that TED doesn’t cost $6,000 for everyone, you can see it in Palm Springs for less, or in a video feed for even less.

But the $6,000 everyone pays helps in ways you can’t really understand unless you go. First, the stage is hand built. During some talks my mind got a little bored (not every talk is interesting, one talk about spiders didn’t have the famous TED payoff and I found myself back in Chemistry class, learning stuff I probably will never use so my mind went elsewhere). My eyes started wandering around the stage. I looked at this stage for two days before I noticed a little model airplane hanging from the top. Did you see the stack of National Geographics at the front left? Or the microscope at the front right? Those details don’t sound important, but they weave together a fabric that encourages your mind to explore new ideas.

Blow this photo up that I shot of James Cameron. Now look at just some of the weird stuff they put around the stage.

James Cameron

You might think that doesn’t matter, but it does. It’s a fabric that encourages your mind to absorb and synthesize the ideas discussed. But it does more than that. It makes being at TED an ultra-HD experience. One that you can’t really get from the TED Talks, although even in video you notice a visual richness that’s just not there in other conferences. It’s the details and the details cost money.

Second, it helps in bringing speakers from around the world. Third it helps in hiring world class video teams so you can watch them for free at home. Fourth it helps in details, which makes this a remarkable event, one unlike any other I’ve attended.

Details like the food. Details like the badges, which are the best in the business. Details like the sound system, which was most excellent and contrasts with the sound in most other conferences (I sat in both the front row and the back and it was awesome).

Details like the exhibits strewn around the conference hallways.

I could go on and on.

Sarah Silverman

OK, let’s take on another elephant in the room. The Sarah Silverman talk, which Techcrunch also wrote about (interesting that they write so much about TED). She used the word penis and retarded a lot. I thought her talk both failed and succeeded, but not because of that.

I thought it was brilliant of TED to invite some speakers on stage that were very risky. Silverman wasn’t the only one. In the closing talk Ze Frank asked whether what the world really needed was penis-flavored condoms. Other speakers talked frankly about sex, or showed graphic images that would challenge any audience.

Silverman succeeded because her talk was a science experiment, albeit one of trying something out on a much different audience than she usually gets to perform in front of. TED is all about trying out ideas and seeing which ones are the best and hearing from the people who do the best experiments, from dance to algorithms. Silverman is the best at her craft alive today. Or certainly in the top .001%.

It was why she was on the TED stage. She used that opportunity to try to challenge the audience. That was successful and I hope TED invites her again to perform another one of her experiments on stage.

But it failed too. I found her talk repulsive and challenging. I was in the second row. I actually was one of those who called for her to come back out on stage, although I knew that she had challenged the audience in a way that would be viewed as a failure. She challenged me quite a bit with her experiment. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that Chris Anderson, the guy who runs TED, had said she was “god-awful” on Twitter (he now has removed that tweet).

I didn’t have a chance to discuss that talk with Chris, but I would say that he was wrong and right. He was right that her talk wasn’t up to the usual TED quality but that she represented the best of what TED is: science experiments in human living.

See, science experiments RARELY succeed. Thomas Edison said that you know him for his successes, but that if you really knew him you’d see his thousands of failures.

TED needs more Sarah Silvermans who will try content experiments out on stage. I hope it doesn’t become some conservative organization that only lets safe people and safe ideas on stage.

If I talked with Sarah Silverman, though, I would have encouraged her to attend a TED before she talked (I heard she was only there for that morning). If she had, I’m sure she would have tried a different experiment on this particular audience than the one she attempted.

Anyway, so many ideas challenged me and inspired me over the past few days. Already a couple of the videos have come out, here’s those:

Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food — Sharing powerful stories from his anti-obesity project in Huntington, W. Va., TED Prize winner Jamie Oliver makes the case for an all-out assault on our ignorance of food. (This was my favorite talk of the event).

Augmented-reality maps: Blaise Aguera y Arcas on TED.com — In a demo that drew gasps at TED2010, Blaise Aguera y Arcas demos new augmented-reality mapping technology from Microsoft. (Recorded at TED2010, February 2010 in Long Beach, CA. Duration: 8:14)

My favorite part of TED was PUBLIC, though. It was the afterparty at the Westin. Check this video out of that party:

So, to wrap this up, don’t be jealous, let’s figure out how to get more of you into TED.

UPDATE: I totally forgot the work that the Sapling foundation, which supports the TEDx prize, does to support science around the world too. Glad that Stephen Collins reminded me of that. Oh, and many of the attendees actually pay more than $6,000 because they want to support the foundation’s work in a deeper way.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

138 thoughts on “The elephants in the room at TED

  1. Robert can afford a ferrari a pre loved 428 is realtivly afordable and wont depreciate like buying a new car for the same amount would.

    TED still strikes me as a Jolly a bit like how ICANT holds a lot of meetings in far away and expensive places to get to.

  2. Robert can afford a ferrari a pre loved 428 is realtivly afordable and wont depreciate like buying a new car for the same amount would.

    TED still strikes me as a Jolly a bit like how ICANT holds a lot of meetings in far away and expensive places to get to.

  3. I went to TEDActive this year and I have barely a pot to piss in these days. Why? Because there was a chance for me to go and I took it. I am not elitist, nor rich, and do NOT think about anyone else in that way – well I try not too. There is an understanding at TED that everyone wants to learn and play and that we are all on equal ground. Yes, you can talk to Bill Gates and take pictures of his notes, but rapping with a statistician, an investor, a mechanical engineer, an entrepreneur, and an oncology hematologist until the wee hours of the night around a campfire — well there is no price you can pay to bring that kind of instantaneous collaboration. Forget Bill Gates – that is what it is all about. The mood and openness of others was sublime. Chris Anderson and the people who put TED and TEDActive together do an excellent job of making sure you feel open and accepted, but YOU have to want to be open with your ideas as soon as you walk in. Don't wear any moral or intellectual blinders and try to hold judgment at the door.

    To be honest, I hope I have the ability to do some sort of art or design collaboration after attending the event, but if it doesn't happen, I am no worse for attending – only better. My boyfriend said after my second day at TEDActive that it sounds like “a really fun camp for smart people.” I guess this is because of all the technology I talked about and how we went on bike rides and talked around campfires. I am not totally sure about the “smart” label, but there is definitely an eagerness for learning and sharing and if that is SMART – well fine by me.

    Thank you for the post. I follow your sentiment and want to add that TED has room for anyone who wants to empower and enlighten and delight those around them. Glad you went, hope to see you next year if I am lucky enough to afford it again.

  4. Wouldn't expect anything less, long learnt the Scobleizer Cult hive mind, filters out anything that doesn't fit into their pretty little boxes. Anything slightly divergent, label a troll, name-calling modus operandi.

    Closed-minded? I did say I'd attend IF they went Andrew Orlowskish. The TED Wired Libertarianisms makes for an odd mix with the Progressive Neo-Statists, I guess if everyone worships technology as god, common ground.

  5. like any forum of ideas, there will be differences of opinion. two presenters this year (main stage and TED U) were on opposite side of the energy debate. one (an MIT professor who receives funding from shell – as does ted) painted a rosy picture of energy – everything's fine – plenty of oil – look i have “data” to prove it.

    but bill gates had a totally different picture. things aren't rosy – we have a very, very serious long term dilemma – gates went to so far as to characterize energy as the #1 structural issue of our era. i happen to have studied energy for years and side with gates, even though he has an economic incentive for his position (as did the shell oil guy).

    ideas worth spreading are all around us. ted is just an excuse to put a lot of the very best ideas, and the people who have them, in one place at one time. when that happens, something nearly magical happens. and i don't think ted has reached even a small fraction of its global potential as a cultural force.

  6. i've been to both palm springs and long beach. very different experiences, and both are exceptional. i really missed all my friends from palm springs, missed sitting around the pool fires sharing world-changing ideas well into the wee-hours. indeed betsy, ted facilitates doers – being change agents – giving back – sharing talents – participating in ideas far bigger than our own – collaboration – giving and receiving inspiration and resources in ways i never realized were possible – meeting the next generation of social activists (the ted fellows) and becoming part of their dreams.

  7. “To me, TED is priceless (seriously).”

    yes. seriously. i can't think of another gathering, except perhaps renaissance weekend, that enriches and challenges me more than a ted conference. and i hope that my presence in some way inspires and enriches others in their work, thought it's most often the other way around. 2010 was my 3rd adventure to ted.

    i would say to chris coulter (above) – how can you expect to be a vital part of the solution (whatever you interpret that to be) when you limit your own identity to petty cynicism? you have proactive, constructive suggestions? we would all love to hear them.

    scoble, i have a different take on silverman. her brand of humor isn't interesting to me one way or another (yawn). the problem is that there were kids at ted this year, and perhaps scores of kids watching live on associate feeds. heck, a little girl -gave- a ted talk this year. something to consider.

  8. Lucretia, I totally didn't take it that way. It was a general comment that I made. So absolutely no offence taken in any way.

    You actually have to kill dolphins by clubbing them with kittens to offend me.

  9. Stephen:

    My apologies. Your response to me was clearly not just to me – but rather the frustration at more than one person expressing negativity without having experienced it themselves.

    I understand your frustration.

    Seldom do people on the Internet have to have any experience to express their opinion on something as if they were an authority. Myself included obviously.
    Sorry I was a straw that broke the proverbial camel's back for you.

  10. I will say this elsewhere – but I've given this a lot of thought over the last 3 days… and I have to say that I think I was wrong before.

    Not often that I find myself revisiting a blog post and thinking three days later that I need to post about my error… okay, almost never ;) But in this case? I was wrong.

    I'm judging based on my own experience and that's kind of not the point of reading about your experience is it? Especially since I don't have the experience of actually having been there.

    My apologies Robert. Must've been a very off week for me. Should I get a spare $6k? I'll reserve my judgment until after I've got something to go on! :)

  11. Sounds to me like exclusivity mistaken for quality. See also: Ivy League university. People say it’s good because people say it’s good. Group declares certain people superior by virtue of their inclusion. Circular and masturbatory.

  12. Are you trying to come off as a smug, close-minded tool? If so, mission accomplished. No doubt, frequent visitors to this site have learned to skip over your comments. I know I won't read any more of them.

  13. Funny, 6K for a conference, filled with months-old intellectual jelly donuts, and all the post-press and overglow is all pedantic Silvermanisms, and nothing of the “scientists” and techies. I guess they don't need good PR, being overbooked and exclusive as such. But if they ever made Andrew Orlowski a keynoter…6K down-payment already.

    Memo to organizers, don't invite any Al Goreish climate changers next year, that brand of doom and gloom is no longer in vogue, being all that fudged data, hockey stick gone flat, wait till the next 'we-will-all-die-unless-you-fund-me' scare story crisis pops up. Find some new devil to rail (and tax) against.

  14. Thanks for the info Michael. I know very little about the TEDx conferences, though I did encounter someone who had spoken at one (not TEDxSF) who postured as if (s)he had spoken at TED. It made me curious about how Chris, who, if this year's security measures are any indicator, is clearly very concerned with TED's exclusivity and, as an extension, brand. Happy as I am they are cropping up everywhere, TEDx seems contrary to the measure of brand control one sees with the main TED conference, and inevitably there will an ever growing number of TEDx speakers who simply say they spoke at TED.

  15. Robert, your defense of Sarah Silverman is a stretch at best. Either Silverman is A) an intellectual giant performing a sociological experiment on an unsuspecting audience, or she is B) a shock comedian who has made a career out of offending people in a humorous way.

    This is not to denigrate Sarah Silverman in any way. She is the best at what she does. But being the best at something, whether it is Alec Baldwin, Ted Nugent or Barbara Streishand, does not automatically mean that someone has some deep wisdom that can benefit all of society.

    Sarah Silverman does not push the edges of boundaries in an attempt to make the world a better place, she does so to make people laugh and make a living. Your defense of Sarah Silverman could easily be used to defend any racist, sexist, homophobic joke. “It's not offensive, it's CHALLENGING!” I wish I had read this post 15 years ago, so the 12 year old me could have used your argument to tell my mom that it was okay for me to listen to Howard Stern.

    To me, Robert, your defense of Sarah's “experiment,” sounds more like an attempt to intellectualize crude humor. It's okay for you to find Silverman funny, but to try to characterize it as some sophisticated pursuit of a better humanity is disingenuous at best.

  16. I'm so glad I stopped to read this in my RSS feed. Though it was deceptively difficult to find the comment box meshed in between all these comments and reactions.

    Thank you Robert, thank you for writing this. It was a spectacular read in so many ways. Just makes me want to start saving up $6,000 to go to TED 2012.

  17. Glad you enjoyed Jamie Oliver's gig. His books are well known in the UK. Unlike most other chefs that try write books, his are really easy to understand and the recipes mostly work. Well worth the modest investment IMO.

  18. Thanks, Sean. I guess that's the point of view from the “half-full” side. Somehow, I can't help feeling that there's plenty more they could do, that they aren't. But if they really mean to walk the talk then that's a good thing! I guess as we go along we will see more initiatives aimed at doing a better job of spreading the ideas that are worth spreading.

  19. It's a blog Stephen. We're allowed to disagree. Otherwise Robert would shut off the comments like certain other a-listers we all know! ;)

    p.s. I find doers every place I go – it's amazing how many of them there are in the world… not just at TED.

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