TED envy, 2009 edition


For the second time since I started my wonderful year at the Berkman Center, I’m devouring my friend Ethan Zuckerman‘s blogposts about the TED conference. (He was delayed getting there by travel nightmares; Erik Hersman did a great job standing in for him on the first day or so.)

Now that I’m back in the world of grant-funded international media development, one of the things I hope to hold onto from my year as Alice in cyberland is the amazing tradition of eclecticism, openness to new ideas and generosity I found among the people I met at and through Berkman. TED is the epitome of this. I’ve never been to TED, but from what I’ve heard and read, it’s an inspirational event where super-smart people from an amazing range of fields talk about what they know, think, do.

A quick selection of quotes from the more than 20,000 words in the 30+ TED 2009 posts on Ethan’s blog gives a hint of what we missed:

“There is no such thing as a viable democracy of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.”

Ariely filled fridges at MIT with coke cans and tracked their disappearance… and also put in plates containing six dollar bills. The half-life of the coke was very short, and very long for the bills.

Hunting bushmeat means lots of blood contact between hunters and their primate prey.

Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline and the owner of a legendary library, … tells us that the desire for people to learn English is now approaching mania state much as Beatlemania, sports manias or religious manias have swept through populations.

We see a video of a wooden rollercoaster made by eight year-olds.

Ueli Gegenschatz tells us he’s “addicted to air”. What he means is that he’s addicted to jumping off things. He began with paragliding, then moved to skydiving, and eventually to skysurfing – diving with a stiff board allowing him to fall more slowly, and with twists and tricks.

Mary Roach projects a slide titled, “Ten things you didn’t know about orgasms.”

The strategies that get us through childhood alive keep us from growing up.

Willie Smits lives in Borneo, Indonesia, where he works as a forrester and microbiologist. But he’s better know as the guy who saves orangutans.

Don’t worry about octopuses taking over the world – not only is their structure wrong for life outside the oceans, but they have very short memories, appropriate for their short lifespans.

The legs she wears today make her 6′1″, not her usual 5′8″, and she tells us that friends say, “Aimee, it’s not fair that you can change your height.”

Other things I love about TED:

TED is expensive (it costs $6,000 to attend)

TED is free (you can watch and participate online)

TED is a fierce meritocracy (you have to be really good to present there)

TED is egalitarian (they work hard to get people of all kinds)

TED is serious (hey you could win a fellowship of $100k, that’s no joke!)

TED is silly (I just registered, was offered the chance to identify myself as “atheist, blogger,foodie”)

Let me clear – I’m not saying that people in development or nonprofits aren’t openminded or creative but after a year in Cyberland going to a media development conference (as I did in December in Athens) made me want to hang myself. Even though GFMD2008 was a GREAT conference by the standards of typical conferences (all the right people, some good discussions, very well organized), it could not come close to the chaotic, creative juiciness of the Knight Digital New Challenge gathering (which Ethan liveblogged, of course) organized by my friends at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media last June.

Many of the people I work with in media development are dedicated, passionate (even obsessed) about their work, and also fun to hang out with. But like most people they draw lines between stuff they love that they keep separate from work, which must remain serious and serious=dull. Whereas, at their best, my new cyberpals consider that everything they’re interested in may be a learning experience, even when silly, and that everything they learn must belong to the world, just in case someone might need it. They actually work incredibly hard (take a look at the output of people like David Weinberger, Doc Searls and Ethan Zuckerman on their blogs and you will realize how much effort it takes) to share it. They understand that they are phenomenally privileged to have the time and opportunity to meet people and learn about things and they feel compelled to give back.

Anyway, thanks people for a transformational experience, hope I can do it justice as I return to life as an electronic paperpusher.

Images: Aimee Mullins‘ amazing legs; Living Skyscraper, Blake Kurasek

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1 Comment

  1. Jessica Clark

    February 10, 2009 @ 11:09 pm


    this made me smile…