TED 2009

TED (noun)1. Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, held annually in Long Beach and Palm Springs, California. Includes approximately 50 short-format talks on myriad topics over 3.5 days. (see also, TEDActive, TED.com). 2. A fire hose.

Before I first attended TED, this is what I thought it meant, particularly that second definition. As my third conference approaches, I know better. TED is no fire hose. A fire hose is tame. It’s more like deep-sea diving, but without the scuba tank. The format of several 18-minute talks per session, interspersed with shorter 3-5 minute talks seems innocuous enough, digestible. Now that I’ve been through it, I realize the format it isn’t about making it bite-sized. It’s about making it survivable. The content is so rich, the intellectual, emotional and spiritual stimulation is so powerful, that those short talks are really all a person can take in.

The beauty and paradox of TED is, in part, that immersion. I use the word “immersion” specifically. As with immersion studies of French, for example, I do leave TED feeling as if I’m speaking a new language - a language of refreshed connection, of renewed speed, action, passion. The talks have powerful initial impact, but the aftershocks resonate for years. The talks are deftly arranged into 10 sessions, each of having a specific theme (such “Provocation,” “Boldness,” “Invention”). Unexpected connections from talk to talk and session to session bubble up in the days, months and even years following each conference.

Here’s just one example. In one of the shorter talks during TED2009, Renny Gleeson hilariously mused about how technology is impacting how we are present in the moment and how we capture and re-tell that moment.

I didn’t think too much of it at the time or for months afterward. Fast-forward to August when I read The New York Times’ article “At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap, but Few Stay to Focus,” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/arts/design/03abroad.html?_r=1 which delved into how people experience art museums.

Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.

Having been to Paris earlier in the year, the journalist’s observations certainly seemed familiar. Not only had I observed the behavior, I had participated in it (along with sketching and long bouts of gazing). The article bothered me for two reasons, the clearer of which being centered around art appreciation itself. As an art lover, I’d long since observed that many people raced through galleries, even in the film camera era when the cost of film and processing was the great discourager of taking lots of photos, and photo-taking itself was banned in many museums. Frankly, many were already emotionally distant. Technology did nothing to change that.

After a couple of days (and one very spirited debate on the subject on Plurk, a social network similar to Twitter), I finally got clear about the other reason the article bothered me. I recalled Gleeson’s talk. He had asked TEDsters to consider how the ability to capture an experience impacts our shared narrative. While he didn’t apologize for or explain away distractions from the here and now; he encouraged a dialogue that acknowledges change, recognizes that people are being impacted by technology, and challenges us all to be thoughtful about that change. It was a striking contrast to reading the NYT piece, where the message seems to be, put simply, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Linking these two pieces, I took their thinking and my own a step further. I can’t help but believe that technology has only changed the semantics of a conversation that centers on a common refrain: “You should think and do like I think and do.” Art, religion, cultural norms, the workplace—it all adds up to the same, clear message that we should wedge our square selves back into the round holes carved out for us. Why are people so eager for me to experience something, but only in a certain way? I can’t help but wonder who is caring about my experience once I’m back in that hole.

During that last trip to Paris, I took a picture of the Mona Lisa, but did that image focusing on the small portrait behind a bullet-proof glare capture the experience? I wanted to capture what she looks like in her context— not simply the painting itself, but the juxtaposition of a 500-year-old icon in its climate-controlled cocoon. But if I truly wanted to capture the experience, I’d have been better off turning my back to the painting so I could gaze at this:

This crush is similar to what I experienced that day: people 20-30 deep, jostling, cameras raised. There is none of the normal museum hush in the Salle d’Etats housing the Da Vinci work. You’d be hard pressed to emotionally engage with the Mona Lisa, or any other painting in the room for that matter. In fact, it’s hard to even get a clear camera shot, let alone an unobstructed view.

So why go see the world’s most famous painting? If I apply the reporter’s message further, why would I even go to TED? After all, I’m not in the room with most of the speakers. I’m not in the same building or even the same city. I’m watching it (or most of it) on a screen at the Riviera Hotel in Palm Springs, in a ballroom the TEDActive team converts into a modern viewing lounge with rows of leather armchairs, couches, beanbags and blogging stations. And all you TED.com site fans—the millions upon millions around the world who have taken part in the TED experience—why even bother if you can’t be up-close and personal with the speakers, hearing the talks as they happen?

I’ll tell you why I’ll keep doing what I’m doing: because technology allows me to dole out my time and attention as I please, in ways that work for me and help me enhance my experience. I’m less often at the mercy of other arbitrary factors. It allows me to not just experience something, but often to share that experience with others in a richer way. (It takes me from “I saw this really cool painting” to “See how this part is in shadow and how light is treated here? This is why I really liked this painting.”) Most of all, it allows me to revisit an experience more fully, perhaps more accurately, without the veil of mis-remembering. It is in that revisiting that I often find the connections to other experiences flow, adding new meaning and impact. So I’ll continue to take my museum pictures and take part in the TED satellite conference. Sure, there will always be times when I simply experience without recording anything, and I’ll continue to cherish and honor those moments and memories. But in the meantime, that will be me snapping a picture of Venus de Milo on my iPhone. That will be me, cozily ensconced on a couch a the Palm Springs ballroom, watching and listening to the snippets of thought that will replay themselves in my mind, in my blog and in my conversations for years to come.