- TED, the media organisation behind the popular ideas conference and video talks, is expanding.
- The 33-year-old company has stayed out of politics for most of its existence, but as political tensions create a crisis of ideas, TED now has to figure out where it’s going next.
- The first stop, beginning this month, is a new TV show in India.
“So, uh, politics,” Chris Anderson said as he paced across the stage in the Vancouver Convention Center. “Politics. Politics … How do I say this?”
It was a Monday evening this past April, and Anderson was standing in front of a sea of attendees at the 2017 TED Conference, where nearly 2,000 executives, entrepreneurs, celebrities, artists, and scientists had descended for five days of thought-provoking talks. Anderson, TED’s director, was doing his best to address the elephant in the room.
In the three months since Donald Trump had been sworn in as president of the United States, nearly every news story and water-cooler chat had been tinged with political rhetoric. TED, an organisation that says it’s set on remaining apolitical, was now thrust into the mix.
Anderson said he was sick of politics, to which he received raucous cheers. Then he said what could become a guiding philosophy for TED: “This week, we’re not going to escape it entirely,” he said. “But we are going to do our best to put it in its rightful place.”
A company on the rise faces a new reality
TED started 33 years ago as a low-budget, in-person series of 18-minute talks. In the past decade, it’s grown into a $US65 million juggernaut. All around the world, TED produces talks (available to watch online), podcasts, and books, offers fellowships and grants, and gives little-known speakers the chance to become industry leaders just by taking the TED stage.
This month it’s launching its most ambitious project yet, “TED Talks India: Nayi Soch,” an eight-part TV series that will be broadcast in Hindi. It’s TED’s first non-English TV program, and it’s expected to reach millions of people.
TED has hit an inflection point. The company was founded on the premise that fresh, innovative ideas can shape the future. But as social-media bubbles have made it easier to ignore ideas that don’t appeal to us, an increasing number of people seem uninterested in stepping out of their comfort zone. Whether it’s Trump’s election win or the UK’s Brexit, the world has shown signs of turning inward. TED’s success hinges on that not happening.
Politics and TED can still be compatible
In the wake of October’s Las Vegas Mandalay Bay massacre – the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history – political debates about gun control reopened and closed in a matter of weeks. But Anderson, seated in a quiet space at TED’s New York City headquarters a few weeks later, maintained that no topic, not even gun control, was too sensitive for the politically neutral TED stage.
He recalled a recent trip to Vermont during which someone informed him that the state had one of the lowest murder rates in the US despite a high rate of gun ownership.
“Maybe having the argument [on the TED stage] given by someone who loves guns, has hunted, and gets the pleasure and the appeal of them” would work better, Anderson said, “rather than the nanny wagging their finger at you and saying ‘No, you mustn’t.'”
TED relies on a three-pronged test to determine if a talk is worth including in a conference lineup.
The first is whether the talk gives people a fresh way of seeing the world. Anderson’s quintessential example is Barry Schwartz’s 2005 talk, “The Paradox of Choice,” in which Schwartz, a psychologist, suggested that people can be paralysed by how much choice they have, not liberated by it.
The second is whether the talk offers the audience a clever solution to a given problem, or the promise of a better future.
The third is inspiration. The talk should express an idea in a way that compels people to act.
The test has come to be even more crucial over the past few years. In a press call ahead of this year’s TED Conference, Anderson said that “ideas have never mattered more.”
“We have this tool for bridging that allows any two humans to see the world a bit differently. Call the tool what you want: reason, discussion, sharing of ideas. It’s actually an amazing thing that it can happen at all,” Anderson told Business Insider. “The single most terrifying thing about the current moment is that we are throwing away that superpower and descending into more animal-like behaviour.”
A dinner party goes viral
When designer and architect Richard Saul Wurman launched TED in 1984, he called it the dinner party he always wanted to have but couldn’t. Wurman united technology, entertainment, and design into one multiday event. He called it “TED.” (Wurman is a fan of cheeky acronyms. Recently, the 82-year-old hosted a dinner party called EAT, wherein conversation had to center on envy, admiration, and terror.)
Wurman and his assistant organised the first TED conference for 300 of Wurman’s closest friends and colleagues. If someone flubbed a line or lost their way entirely, Wurman, who sat onstage for every talk, would sometimes leave his chair and stand directly behind the speaker. It was his quiet way of saying, “Time to wrap things up.”
Despite TED’s unveiling of the world’s first compact disc – quite the feat at the time – it wasn’t until 1990 that Wurman held his second conference. Gradually, the event began to attract bigger names and bigger audiences.
“Steve [Jobs] would call me up at home and say, ‘What stuff do you want at the conference this year as far as equipment?'” Wurman recalled.
Wurman sold the enterprise, in 2000, to Future PLC, a publishing company that Anderson had built into a media giant in the 1990s. Through his personal nonprofit, the Sapling Foundation, Anderson bought TED from Future PLC in 2001 for $US6 million. The company has stayed under Anderson’s watch since.
Under Anderson’s stewardship, TED has grown into a bona-fide kingmaker.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say my life very much divides itself into pre-TED and post-TED,” Sarah Kay, a spoken-word poet, told Business Insider. Kay’s 2011 talk, “If I Should Have a Daughter,” has amassed 10.5 million views since it hit the TED site. “I’m very much aware that my career would not be what it is had that video not gone online.”
Leadership expert and author Simon Sinek said TED has given a similar golden touch for his career. When Sinek’s 2009 TEDx talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” was uploaded to the TED site, it coincided with his first book, “Start With Why,” which has gone on to sell nearly a million copies and has seen rising sales every year since the talk was uploaded. At 34 million views, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” is the third-most-viewed TED talk of all time.
“All of our careers have been catalyzed thanks to TED,” Sinek told Business Insider, referring to the site’s top-viewed speakers. “When you hang out backstage at TED now, the anxiety is palpable. People truly believe it’s this make-or-break thing for their careers.”
Even people who are already famous when they hit the TED stage feel this pressure. Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell gave his first TED talk in 2004. He chose as his topic the mystery of creating the perfect spaghetti sauce.
“I was very nervous, and in fact I never liked that talk because I lose my way halfway through,” Gladwell told Business Insider. “It’s kind of obvious if you watch it. To me, it’s painfully obvious.”
TED-driven fame doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes.
In 2012, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a talk called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” It hinged on a 2010 study in which she found standing like Wonder Woman boosted testosterone and lowered stress.
Almost overnight, “power posing” became a life hack for millions. But as Susan Dominus recently reported for The New York Times Magazine, a movement among psychologists looking to highlight flaws in research has since discredited Cuddy’s 2010 study.
The prominence Cuddy gained from TED made her an easy scapegoat, Dominus wrote. In the spring Cuddy left her tenure-track job at Harvard.
Getting bigger has brought new challenges
Anderson saw the TED acquisition as his big second chance to deliver these kinds of inventive ideas to millions, if not billions, of people. By 2006, he had broadened its scope so that religious leaders, artists, life coaches, poets, and other bright minds could join original stars like Jane Goodall and Stewart Brand on the TED stage. The son of two missionaries, Anderson also bestowed upon TED a subtitle: “ideas worth spreading.”
TED is now a household name in educated, urban pockets of the US and beyond. At TED’s home office, a counter projected on to the server-room door shows a live feed of the day’s video views. Shortly after lunch on a recent October visit, the counter had already reached 1.3 million. The most popular talk – Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” – has been viewed more than 61 million times.
But as it’s gotten bigger TED has seemed to at times struggle to maintain oversight at its conferences and offices. Several attendees of the 2017 TED Conference said they’d been sexually harassed or groped, according to The Washington Post.
Casting a broader net has also invited critics who take issue with what TED has become. In 2013, Benjamin H. Bratton, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California at San Diego, gave a TEDx talk in which he argued that TED doesn’t actually inspire people to think or behave differently.
He called the platform “middlebrow megachurch infotainment” and suggested TED is complicit in “dumbing down the future.” In a 2014 New York Times profile of Anderson, David Hochman called TED “the Starbucks of intellectual conglomerates.”
Sinek defended TED’s emphasis on simplifying complex topics as one of the reasons TED exists in the first place.
“That’s the idea,” he said. “If ideas are so complex that nobody can ever hear them, then what’s the value to the general population? But if we can learn to communicate our ideas in ways that people can understand them, isn’t that a good thing? Many academics hate TED because they’re the ones who didn’t get TED famous.”
Giving videos away for free isn’t cheap
The company’s main TED Conference is held every year in Vancouver and remains its flagship moneymaker. Capped at 1,800 attendees – or “TEDsters” if they are regulars – the event features five days of nonstop activity.
Many academics hate TED because they’re the ones who didn’t get TED famous.
Titans of the tech, science, art, design, and entertainment world attend TED for the chance to adjourn, however briefly, to a brighter future. Access to this future isn’t cheap. Tickets cost $US8,500 and up, and the high price has rankled some who say TED is hypocritical for spreading ideas only to those wealthy enough to hear them. At the 2017 event, branded partner BMW let people test-drive new high-end models. Lululemon provided an indoor pod for meditation and yoga.
Anderson said he’s trying to structure the 2018 conference so that more of a general audience can attend, perhaps through a lottery system. And he defended the cost of admission as a way to bring TED talks to a broad audience. “They’re the people who are actually paying for us to spend literally tens of millions of dollars every year on a website that distributes these talks to the world,” he said.
An evolving company figures out what’s next
Anderson’s goal is to allow the 3 to 5 billion people expected to come online by 2020 to draw inspiration from TED. He called this digital migration “the most extraordinary social experiment we’ve seen in history.”
“There just hasn’t been a time when a girl in a remote village or a boy in a slum who is unemployed and angry and trying to figure out what to do with his life, can actually have, 18 inches from their eyeballs and plugged into their ears, some of the most inspiring speakers and mentors,” he said.
Attracting that new audience comes with a new set of quandaries. It means thinking about how to bring TED’s ideas to people who don’t speak English, can’t access technology, or may want to hear certain ideas at critical moments.
“There were a number of talks we shared in the wake of the events in Charlottesville,” said Colin Helms, TED’s head of media, referring to the August riots that took place in Virginia between white-supremacist groups and counterprotesters. “We’re always sensitive to not taking a political stance, but we also have an obligation to share ideas that we think will empower and help people, particularly in times of need or the world is in a sense of disarray, wherever that may be.”
Expanding TED also means considering future speakers even more carefully.
There will always be the marquee stars Anderson wants to get, like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (who has yet to accept an invite). But for the young person living in a slum, Anderson said, “How do we find the person who will speak to them and will give them what they need?”
The clearest sign TED is making good on its global mission is the December launch of “TED Talks India: Nayi Soch,” its first foreign TV series. Broadcast in Hindi with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan as its host, the series will air on India’s largest TV network, Star Plus. The network reaches 650 million people.
Juliet Blake, the executive producer of the series, said the program would consist of eight one-hour shows, each with a different theme. The talks were developed with the TED team in English and then translated to Hindi for the stage.
Khan, one of India’s icons, said the global crisis of ideas has reached India.
“This kind of show, at this time in the world, is an encouragement to people,” Khan told Business Insider. “If you’ve got a simple idea, let’s exchange it. Let’s not get chained to the thoughts that are pervading or being talked about around us.”
According to Blake, TED wanted to make a focused effort to emphasise equality in the Indian series, so the company appointed women to roughly half the lineup spots. Many of the talks become quite intense, Blake said.
During a talk on violence against women, “I looked at the audience, and so many of the women in the audience were crying,” Blake said. When the woman finished her talk, Blake said, she rushed out of the control room and down four flights of stairs to meet her as she got offstage. The audience was on its feet. Khan was in tears.
“It started off as a brilliant talk,” Blake said. “But it became something more than a TED talk. I think it will be life-changing for many women in India.”
Future unknown, but exciting
As TED has grown into a public-facing behemoth over the past three decades, it’s been forced to reevaluate what kinds of responsibilities it has to the people who catch wind of its ideas.
TED’s role as global ideas curator comes with an open-ended future, and it’s a matter of ongoing discussion inside the company, Helms said.
Even though the world is engulfed in a crisis of ideas, Anderson said people still crave rational, lucid insight into issues related to their basic livelihoods and ongoing challenges. He brought up the rise of artificial intelligence and wealth inequality as two examples.
“When you can have 2 billion customers two years after starting up a business, that’s a recipe for a few people getting extraordinarily wealthy – and then what?” Anderson said. “What happens next? We don’t have answers to that yet, so I’m definitely interested in that.”
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