Is It Possible to Be Elitist in a Good Way? The Organizers of TED Would Like You to Think So
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Is it possible to be elitist "in a good way"? That's the defense that TED, the $6,000 annual VIP gathering, offers as a prebuttal to potential critics on its Web site's FAQ page.
TED was founded in 1984 as a yearly invitation-only gathering in Monterey, Calif. to celebrate the latest and greatest in technology, entertainment and design (hence the acronym). Since Chris Anderson acquired the conference in 2001, TED has maintained a focus on tech and design in particular, while it has expanded to include lectures or performances from Jane Goodall to Billy Graham.
Fans (and attendees) like billionaire and media mogul Rupert Murdoch call TED "stimulating." The mainstream media is fawning, too. The New York Times Magazine says each "talk starts with a bang and keeps banging till it explodes in fireworks." The Wall Street Journal (owned by Murdoch) writes that it's a "tech antidote to our current pessimism."
The elite love to gather at conferences where they are free to fraternize with other rich and powerful people, with no need to fend off the common folk. The Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting is one such place, which you can only get to if you shell out for a $20,000 annual membership. And certainly the most exclusive is Davos. Only after paying an annual fee of about $39,000 are you eligible for an invite to the Swiss conference, which costs an additional $20,000. (Chauffeured limos and five-star hotels not included.)
For the vast majority of Americans, shelling out $6,000 to attend a five-day conference is just as impossible as spending $59,000. The price ensures an exclusive social setting, made possible by organizers who put attendees through a rigorous application and invitation process. In recent years, TED has become an object of much fascination and curiosity to people who've never attended because while going to a TED conference is being part of an exclusive group, most of the content is available online, giving the ideas a viral nature that reaches far beyond the room where the talks are given.
Through different initiatives, TED now reaches a global audience, many of whom are curious about the TED club. The talks have been translated into over 70 languages. There is TEDGLOBAL for a more international audience and last year, TED starting licensing independently organized events called TEDx, conferences that follow the same platform as the official TED summits. Already 1,000 TEDx events in over 70 countries have either been hosted or are slated to be hosted. The TED platform has caught on unofficially, too -- an "unconference" called BIL functions as a much more egalitarian satellite event that runs alongside TED's biggest meetings. Like TED, BIL attracts techie, futurist types who believe technology holds the potential to address society's most pressing problems
Yet it is this tech-worship that elicits some observers' criticisms of TED. One such critic is Jeff Chester, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy. TED, in exalting technology and catering to the wealthiest among us, loses significance, Chester says, adding: "It's kind of a non-virtuous circle where they're convincing themselves that they're changing the world, but it's really about the status quo."
You need only look at the sponsors to see who is financing the visions presented at TED, Chester says. TED2010's sponsors included Walmart, Target, GE, Shell, AT&T, and unsurprisingly, Google (whose two founders sit on TED's " Brain Trust").
In Chester's view, "TED is a big cheerleading contest for the technology industry, though one can't accuse TED alone of being the sole occurrence of self-congratulatory narrow-minded thinking when it comes to issues relating to the Internet or tech."