This article in the latest issue of the New Yorker gives a pretty balanced picture of the TED experience. It does leave out, though, something that struck me so strongly during the five days I spent at TED Global: the raw, unfettered intellectual curiosity of the attendees—who could, after all, spend their money and time on a vacation in Fiji, but who choose TED instead. As someone who has spent many years attending academic conferences, I have to say I have never experienced this kind of openness to ideas from all areas, from people with no particular axe to grind or their own intellectual agenda to promote.
One point the author makes is that ideas are presented apart from their academic connections and references to other works. Fair enough—these are short talks, after all. But what he doesn’t mention is the way that the experience encourages the connection between different disciplines and approaches—which may not otherwise have occurred to most of us. Even I was surprised to find that the talks in my session—by a historian and philosopher of science, an artist running the Rhode Island School of Design, a computational architect, a quantum physicist, a researcher photographing light, and a behavioral economist—all could be seen as having a common thread. (Hint: the way that different ways of representing reality, especially art and language, are related to scientific explorations of nature.) It was a heady experience, one I am still learning from.