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.