Every year a thousand or so of the brightest, most innovative, and best-connected people on the planet meet to share their most exciting new ideas. Nobel laureates, high-tech tycoons, and MacArthur "genius" community organizers take time out of their schedules—and $6,000 out of their wallets—to listen to three days of 18-minute-long speeches at the invitation-only TED conference.
If you go, you may find yourself sitting next to regulars like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Larry Brilliant, director of Google's philanthropic arm, Vice President Al Gore, or novelist Amy Tan.
If your invitation got lost in the mail or if you couldn’t find time on your calendar, don’t worry—hundreds of TED talks are now available for free on TED.com, with several more added each week. Not only can you watch them, you’re free to download them, post them on your own Web site, or burn a DVD and share them with friends, family and whomever else you can think of.
The Power of Sharing Ideas
Chris Anderson, the curator of TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design), has described it as the place you go to discover how what you do relates to the rest of the world of knowledge that's out there. Anderson says these powerful ideas, from some of the greatest thinkers alive, need to be shared. To find new ways to share the talks, he hired longtime TEDster June Cohen, a journalist and web producer who helped launch Hotwired.com and Webmonkey.com. After initially exploring a TV pilot of the talks, she shifted her attention online, creating a podcast series in 2006, then rebuilding TED’s Web site around the talks.
Since the first videos became available, Cohen says the audience has grown to more than 30 million online from around 1,500 a year at the live conference. "We knew that people would be interested, but we really didn’t anticipate that the size of the audience would be so huge, or that the talks would touch people so deeply," Cohen told Live & Learn.
Moving, Surprising, Invigorating
Speakers talk about the planet’s cultural diversity, the inner workings of the brain, or why we should let second graders play with knives and fire. TED is not afraid to be at the cutting edge, to grapple with groundbreaking, even controversial, topics. Take biologist Craig Venter: He has designed a living cell from scratch, assembling bits of DNA from the vast library of known genes to make a designer life form. When he gave his TED talk in February, 2008, he thought that his novel genetic software would be “booted up” into a living organism within a year or so.
Although TED presenters are usually held to a strict limit of 18 minutes for their talk, Venter’s, in a rare exception, goes on for more than 32 minutes: 15 for the talk, plus 17 minutes of follow-up questions from Anderson and the audience.
There was a lot to think about. Not only will Venter’s work increase basic understanding of how life works on the most fundamental level, it has the potential to transform the energy and pharmaceutical industries: An explosion of synthetic biodiversity could create new species of bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes able to eat pollution, grow fuel from CO2, and pump out medications and vaccines. Then there are the profound ethical and religious implications if humans, for the first time, are able to create synthetic life forms.
How It Began
TED was created by design guru Richard Saul Wurman in 1984. Longtime TEDsters (as they call themselves) remember the early years as a sort of platonic ideal of a dinner party, where Wurman could invite every person he would ever want to meet so they could talk, share ideas and get to know one another. From the beginning, TED was also a place for serious business. The Macintosh computer was unveiled at the first TED, and Wired magazine received its first seed money there.
In 2001 Wurman sold TED to tech-publishing multi-millionaire Chris Anderson’s Sapling Foundation, a philanthropic venture that originally aimed to share great ideas for solutions to global crises in public health, the environment, and other areas. Now Sapling’s focus is on magnifying the impact of TED.
In his talk at the next TED in February 2002, Anderson outlined one significant change from the original model—a new emphasis on how TEDsters could bring their resources to bear on solving some of the world's biggest problems, not out of guilt or obligation, but because they're really interesting problems to think about.