TED, an elite ideas conference for the brilliant and wealthy, can't seem to avoid Trump

Garry KasparovMarla Aufmuth / TEDGarry Kasparov at TED

At the opening session of the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Canada, curator Chris Anderson made a remark that was intended to set the tone for the rest of the event: “Speaking personally, I’m completely sick of politics right now,” he said to rapturous applause. “This week, we’re not going to escape it entirely, but we will do our best to put it in its rightful place.”

Almost immediately after he uttered those words, politics entered the picture. Chess champion (and vocal Putin critic) Garry Kasparov managed to avoid the topic during his talk on artificial intelligence, but Anderson brought Trump’s election up onstage with Kasparov afterwards.

“As we found out, Putin skipped taking over Poland and went straight to Wisconsin,” Kasparov said. A collective “ooh” emerged from the audience; my seatmate muttered, “Give me a break.”

Laura GalanteMarla Aufmuth / TEDLaura Galante at TED

Later in the session, cybersecurity expert Laura Galante delved further into Russia and its relationship with the 2016 US election, explaining how Russian hackers meddled with our minds during the campaign season.

The final talk of the first session came from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a British rabbi and scholar who called for unity in the face of a divided world. “He should run for office,” an attendee said to me later that evening.

Traditionally, TED has tried (successfully, in most cases) to stay a step removed from political conversations. It’s a conference about big ideas, and the most popular talks of all time cover topics like creativity in schools, body language, and the power of introverts.

Attendance at the event costs $US10,000 for a standard ticket (first-time, early-career attendees can get a discount), which means the in-person TED experience is filled with notable leaders in science and technology. But TED’s brand also relies on the millions of people who watch the talks for free online, so associating with a particular political identity could be damaging.

While a number of attendees I spoke with highlighted the less political talks as their favourites, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero’s presentation got some of the biggest applause of the conference thus far. “We have to contest [Trump’s] values even as we recognise that our democracy rendered us a president who champions those values,” Romero said.

As I write this, the conference is less than halfway over, and there are plenty of non-political talks and performances coming up. But there’s also an upcoming session featuring a glaciologist, a geoengineering researcher, a climate scientist, and a meteorologist. It’s hard to discuss the big ideas of 2017 without getting at least a little political.

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