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.
Growing the Audience
For the online presentations, in order to capture as much of the drama of the live talks as possible, they are filmed with multiple cameras. Dynamic editing cuts together tight close-ups, audience reaction shots, and full-screen shots of any visual aids used on stage. Even watching online on a two-inch screen, the talks are surprisingly engaging. “There's something really compelling about people talking and telling their stories,” Cohen says. "Viewers are really connecting to the speakers on a human level."
TED is strict with its speakers about the famous 18-minute time limit. One of the small pleasures of watching online is seeing men and women who aren’t used to being rushed hurrying to finish their talk in the allotted time. Another bigger pleasure is having the luxury of hearing a full 18 minutes worth of what people think, rather than the few sound bites that might make it onto a traditional news broadcast.
"When we first launched, the conventional wisdom was that the sweet spot for an online video was around two or three minutes," Cohen says, "but it turns out that people really want to watch the whole 18-minute talk."
It’s certainly proven to be a popular format. Viewers are finding many ways to use the videos—on their own, with friends and family, in classrooms, workshops, and conferences. Groups around the world are launching copycat conferences like the University of British Columbia’s newTerry Talks conference, which bills itself as a University-based conference built on the TED template.
Spreading Good Ideas
Not surprisingly, some of the ideas shared at TED are starting to have an impact, not just an audience: Hans Rosling, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders–Sweden and a researcher of global health and poverty, has presented two groundbreaking talks at TED using software he had developed to help visualize statistics. The talks ignited interest about the message (which suggests ways we can use existing data to prioritize and improve public health in the developing world) and about the medium (Rosling met the founders of Google at TED, and they were so excited about hisstatistical visualization tool that they bought the software from him). Sorry—meet-and-greets like that are one kind of benefit of TED that’s not available for download.
Researcher Johnny Chung Lee was already an Internet star before his TED talk appeared online. He began sharing his breakthroughs onYouTubewith do-it-yourself modifications to a Nintendo Wii game controller. Can’t afford a $3,000 interactive whiteboard system for your school? Lee will show youhow to build one with about $45worth of parts and his free software.
"I'm just a researcher in my lab with a video camera," Lee says in his TED talk, “and within the first week a million people had seen this work," adding that within days engineers, teachers, and students from around the world were already posting their own videos of themselves using his system or their own refinements of his work. “I hope to see more of that in the future and I hope online video distribution is embraced by the research community."
At the same time, TED is offering scholarships to make sure that interesting people who happen to be low on cash will be able to attend the conference. They’ve launched TED Global, a bi-annual international version of TED and are working on adding subtitles and translations to all of the videos to widen their audience even further. Since 2005 the TED Prize has offered change-makers $100,000 and a wish, which engages TEDsters (including those of us who have only joined TED online) to find interesting ways to help make the world a better place.2008 prize-winner Dave Eggers—a writer and publisher who launched 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring center for kids in San Francisco—calls on the community to find1,000 ways to directly engage with public schoolsin their area.
"Good ideas, when they're presented by a passionate individual, will win," says Cohen. In a world where it is easy to feel overwhelmed by intractable problems, TED's passion, optimism, and faith that sharing good ideas can make the world a better place is exciting and infectious.
Jake Miller, the author of more than 40 books for young people, writes about the intersection of culture and technology. He is a regular contributor to Live & Learn.