Is It Possible to Be Elitist in a Good Way? The Organizers of TED Would Like You to Think So

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."

TED for the elite few

TED's tagline is "Ideas worth spreading." And while TED has made significant strides in widening the reach of the ideas it gives a platform to at its exclusive events, any analysis of the impact made by ideas presented at TED must necessarily include discussion of the conferences that continue to define the TED brand.

According to June Cohen, the executive producer of TED media and co-producer of the conference, attendees are "still skewed toward technology. With that comes that they skew white, male, and little bit older. Our community has been evolving, but we continue to welcome that core community."

It's not easy to find someone who has been to a TED conference who won't say anything but glowing things about it. Robert Scoble, a tech journalist in Silicon Valley, was among the few members of the media who was invited to TED2010 in Long Beach. He got a free ticket and doubts he'll ever get one again. "It's like driving a Maserati. I can't afford one but do I want to drive one for a few minutes? Yes!" Scoble exclaimed.

Despite his own success as an influential tech blogger, Scoble was floored by the power in the room with him. "Bill Gates is there. Larry Page is there. Arianna Huffington, Meg Ryan, the guy who started Crate & Barrel," he said. "It's a pretty exclusive place and that's what makes it so cool. You can talk to these people, and everyone there has done something interesting. It's maybe the one place where I don't mind elitism."

The elite nature of the conferences also doesn't bother Aubrey de Grey, who heads the SENS Foundation, which focuses on defeating human aging. He has spoken at TED events multiple times and believes the exclusivity has had a huge impact on his life's work. De Grey wrote in an e-mail that his 2005 talk at TEDGLOBAL, in particular, "probably attracted more people to the anti-aging cause than via all my other talks combined, of which there are probably about 300 now! So it's pretty hard to beat that." And this was before TED talks were available online.

Although attendees and speakers may feel that exclusivity helps TED -- making it "an intellectual Mardi Gras," according to a CBS employee who received a media pass; and leading Bill Gates to assert that the "combined IQ of the attendees is incredible" -- it hasn't stopped outsiders from claiming otherwise. Tech writer Sarah Lacy wrote for Newsweek in 2008 (after failing to get a ticket to TED), "I question whether even the loftiest ideas lose some relevance when they're aired in so rarefied an arena." This year, she wrote that TED still felt like an "invitation to rub shoulders with celebrities and talk about how compassionate of a millionaire you really are."

"The curation of the audience is important," Cohen says. "But there is an application process, it's not an invitation-only event." She estimates that the acceptance rate through the public application process is about 25 percent, though it varies from year to year. A "handful" of people don't need to apply, she says, adding that most people come through the application process.

Cohen assures TED doesn't want "all billionaires, venture capitalists, CEOs, celebrities," adding: "I don't think landed gentry describes TED attendees well." Scoble, however, feels that accurately describes the majority of the people he met at TED. "The rank-and-file attendees are people who have money," he says.

The mainstay of TED is still the original TED conference, which has expanded to host 1,500 people and is now hosted annually in Long Beach, Calif. The vast majority pays the full $6,000 cost. About 20 people each year from the public, education and nonprofit sectors apply and are granted a discounted $2,000 rate -- a price that is still rather exclusionary. A dozen or so people who have volunteered for TED -- say, as translators or as organizers of TED events -- are invited to attend at a lower cost as well. And another 30 to 40 who have been nominated and accepted as TED Fellows attend for free, all expenses covered. This means that of the 1,500 attendees, only about 3 percent of the audience attends at a discount or for free -- and only if they pass the application screening process. Put another way, TED is arguably 97 percent wildly elitist and 3 percent less so.

There is also TEDActive, a simulcast event in Palm Springs, where attendees pay $3,750 for the honor of watching the Long Beach conference on a huge screen with a few hundred others. (Even this second-tier event -- which does include a few live speakers -- sells out.) As TED tries to evolve outward from technology and tech-industry types, it has organized other conferences. The other annual event is TEDGLOBAL, which is held in Oxford and costs $4,500. That audience is more international and diverse in terms of race, gender and age, Cohen says. TED also held a conference in Africa in 2008, and one in India in 2009; at each event 100 TED Fellows were invited to participate for free.

In order to extend the impact of TED, the conference offers a yearly TED Prize, which grants recipients a $100,000 wish deemed "big enough to change the world." Past recipients have included Bill Clinton and Bono (who are likely not itching for grants), as well as the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, who wished to establish a networked encyclopedia of all the world's knowledge about life, and Neil Turok, a South African mathematical physicist who used the money to found the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

This year's recipient was TV chef Jamie Oliver, who put the money toward his wish to create a grassroots movement to end junk food culture in America and teach families and children about healthy, sustainable eating. (A recent AlterNet story revealed the shortcomings of Oliver's media-hyped project, raising questions about the lack of debate at TED. It seems as though one can communicate whatever one wants, as long as the message has style and aplomb.)

TED for the rest of us

In 2004, TED started exploring how it could more effectively fulfill its mission of spreading ideas beyond the room of attendees at each TED conference. By 2006, it started making the best of its TED talks available online for free. (And during each conference, people can pay to livestream the event at $995 per location.) In 2007, it launched an open translation project that relies on volunteer translations and has resulted in TED lectures now being available online in 70 different languages.

According to TED, its free videos are viewed 15 million times each month across all platforms. Its own site boasts 8 million visitors a month, of which 5 million are unique.

"It's turned our organization inside-out," says Cohen. "We've gone from focusing on small, elite, expensive events to really focusing on this large, expensive, democratized audience and that's where all the energy in the organization goes."

TED has certainly pioneered a new vehicle of communication that reaches many people. The videos have made TED a tremendous tastemaker, and an alluring way for people to get their ideas and information out to a relatively incomparable market. But the democratization of its broadcast hasn't really democratized debate or taken into account criticisms of TED.

Though TED could not immediately confirm what percentage of the organization's revenues or grants go into and other such democratizing efforts, the latest publicly available tax return for the Sapling Foundation (which runs TED), from 2008, shows that conference-related costs ran up to nearly $14 million, while the organization's total expenses and disbursements in 2008 came in at just under $23 million.

The move to what Cohen calls "radical openness" isn't just relegated to the online realm -- last year, TED started to allow less exclusive versions of its conferences to sprout up. Perhaps this trend was partly inspired by the success and interest in BIL, an entirely unofficial, more egalitarian version of TED. Founded in 2007, BIL is touted as an "unconference for people changing the world in big ways," and it runs alongside TED, attracting up to 800 of its own attendees, each of whom are asked to pay a suggested $20 donation or volunteer to help run the $5,000 event. BIL -- whose tagline is "Minds set free" -- even shares some of TED's speakers, and 10 percent of those who attend BIL are also TED attendees. Finally, like TED, BIL offers its content online.

Bill Erickson, 23, one of BIL's founders, says: "BIL is an experiment in a bottom-up structure; TED is talk-down. BIL is for people who are going to change the world; TED is for people who might already change the world."

Erickson's assessment may be true of the official TED conferences, but not of TEDx, which was launched in 2009 to oversee independently run, licensed events. No money is exchanged between TED and TEDx organizers, and the latter must commit to not turning a profit -- all ticket sales and sponsorships are used to cover event costs. TED approves the venue, date, name and size but does not necessarily approve the speakers. (Example: this TEDxNYED speaker spoke about how lectures are an outdated form of education and news.) Lectures must be filmed -- some videos even make it to -- and in order to ensure quality, 20 percent of each TEDx program must be recorded talks from the official TED conferences. Just as with TED, there is an application process for each TEDx, and while it is not as rigorous as the one for the official TED events, Erickson actually found himself at at party for TEDx Austin rejects.

There have been 500 TEDx events to date, with more than 500 planned. TEDx events range from 1,000-people conferences to a two-hour gathering hosted last August in Kibera, a massive shantytown in Kenya. It was open to anyone in the slum and a white sheet was strung up in order to project TED's videos. According to an organizer, the event avoided issues that are commonly discussed in Kibera, like HIV/AIDS and poverty, and instead included talks about art and other inspiring topics.

What are TED's ideas?

The mix of ideas at TED fall into six broad categories. An analysis of the content available on TED's Web site indicates that technology is the most highly represented lecture area, followed by science, global issues and design, which are all relatively equally represented. Entertainment and business follow, in that order. (About 30 percent of lecturers are culled from recommendations made by users.)

Talks can be risqué (Cindy Gallop might be the first TED speaker to use the phrase "Cum on my face" in her discussion of how porn has distorted younger generations' views of sex), but not too risqué. The comedian Sarah Silverman was panned this year by even Chris Anderson who publicly voiced his displeasure. Her raunchy routine, which is not available online, involved repeated use of the word "retarded" in an attempt to satirize Sarah Palin and politically correct culture, as well as a song about penises. (TED2010 attendees report that only about half the audience in the room "got it" -- the half that missed Silverman's point booed or withheld applause.)

In any case, these kinds of talks are the exception, not the rule, as tech continues to dominate. Because the conference has placed a historical emphasis on technology, and because tech continues to be the most lectured-about topic, critics say the preeminence of technology may be TED's weakest link.

David Morris, vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is among these. "There's a presumption in TED that technology is almost always going to improve our lives and that is a presumption over which there has been much debate over the past thousands of years," Morris says. "There could be serious shortcomings in assuming technology will improve the world."

June Cohen says that while TED strives to stay at the forefront of what's happening in technology, and gives a platform to intriguing technological solutions to societal issues, it does not subscribe to the idea that technology can solve the world's problems. "We're actually champions of innovative, bottom-up solutions across the board," Cohen says.

While there are certainly examples of TED talks that extol low-tech, low-cost solutions to many world problems, such as Anupam Mishra's lecture on the socio-economic and environmental virtues of ancient water harvesting techniques, they are overshadowed by the numerous lectures that are more of the gee-whiz variety -- and the ones most likely to go viral -- like Jane McGonigal's lecture on how gaming can save the world. (Seriously: McGonigal argues that "reality is broken" and we have to make it function more like World of Warcraft.)

It would be interesting, Morris says, if TED hosted lectures that asked some of the harder questions about technological advancement. Such as: Who will benefit and who will control? And what is the impact of previous technologies?

But these questions have yet to be asked. Politics are also off the table, according to TED. Those ideas, it seems, are not worth spreading.

An earlier version of this article misidentified TED's curator, Chris Anderson, as the media entrepreneur. They are two different men.


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