Teri Orr: Technology, Entertainment and Design
When slam poet and wonder woman, Sarah Kay, welcomed “all the guys, gals and non-binary pals” … it drew a great laugh from the seasoned audience. All week long speakers had tripped a bit over how to address the attendees in proper respectful language — beyond men and women. “Male and female” they would say and stop and trip and add … “and trans” as an often awkward afterthought. But a sincere one. The intent at TED — to make all feel welcome — is embraced fully.
And strong opinions are the order of the day. All day — in four to five sessions which last about 90 minutes each. With about five speakers per session. Yes, you can see 25 live TED talks in a single day with all kinds of little films and live performance woven in between. You never worry about food or beverages or diversions. Within the amazing glass-walled convention center in Vancouver that sits atop the water in the harbor we are suspended in both place and time. And cared for with nearly endless opportunities to tease and ease the mind.
Cruise ships enter the working harbor and cargo ships and seaplanes land and take off and this week, a pod of orcas swam by, just to signal our interconnective-ness. The harbor is ringed by snow-capped mountains and the sun broke through the mist, more than once, to drop diamonds on the water.
The actual theater space — created out of cedar wood in the style of the Old Globe theater and dismantled at the end of each TED conference — seats about the same number of folks as the Eccles Center here in Park City. A little over 1,000 people. The sight lines are perfect and the stage is an ever-changing canvas to present the smartest people in the world who are creating the most incredible art, revealing scientific discoveries, pushing us to rethink how we consume news and talk about those things we are aching to talk about.
Some folks like to call it a kind of brain spa but that always sounds too passive to me. And though we spend the day sitting more than moving I return to my room each night fully exhausted by the sheer volume of new ideas and big ideas and sometimes slightly frightening ideas that are revealed on that stage.
The community is global with over 53 countries represented. Over the years locations have varied from Aspen to Whistler to Qatar to Banff to Palm Springs to New Orleans to Tanzania and back to Vancouver.
Here’s what doesn’t change — the remarkable quantity and prescient choice of speakers who set the tone and reveal how — the where we’ve been — sets the stage for the where we are going…
Invariably, folks ask me upon my return — “What was your favorite talk?” and I never have an answer that satisfies. Because just when you think you’ve seen the single most impactful speaker another comes on those heels and another and another all from different disciplines.
This year the first talk on Opening Night came from journalist Carole Cadwalladr — who just that very day had been announced as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for her investigative work on trying to unravel how the Brexit vote was influenced by propaganda propelled by Facebook. She called the popular social media and networking service … “a crime scene and we have the evidence.”
A day later in a small special session for about 200 people Chris Anderson interviewed Roger McNamee, the man who wrote “Zucked,” about his time mentoring Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And when it came time for the Q and A session, a tall man with cartoon-colored bright yellow hair stood and asked the first question. His name — Christopher Wylie, the original whistleblower on the Cambridge Analytica piece of the puzzle.
The attendees at TED are as impressive as the speakers. No one asks what do you do or where are you from at this conference. It is more … what are you working on and where do you call home — right now and yes … how’s the family?
When you hear from someone who has changed the world — like filmmaker/journalist/activist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won an Oscar last year for her documentary film — you feel hopeful. Her prime minister finally declared, “There is no honor in honor killing” and he forbade it in Pakistan. And you look in awe at the bravery it took for her to decide to fight that fight.
And when Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro talks about cooking advocacy you understand how the creation of meals is a conversation all its own that weaves race and class and inclusion into a dining experience. You understood food as a weapon — against bigotry and poverty — and also a chalice.
At a small lunch between sessions, Al Gore is talking about his climate change project and the New Green Deal. He explains “Environmental Racism” and you understand it when you see the pictures of fire devastation on tribal lands and floods in farmlands in the poorest communities around the world.
Notre Dame has burned as the conference started and we are saddened and questions arise about the possibility of “yellow jackets” being the bad actors having stared the blaze. Global citizens seem interested but also a bit confused about the days on end discussion and speculation about the fire in a single old church in Europe. And we get it. We with memories of that church and/or who feel attached by symbolism or history react strongly but when you weigh it against famine and the global refugee fatigue — it is not the same.
When African musician Richard Bona takes the stage he looks out at the audience and says … “so this is The TED.” He is pleased — after a Grammy Award-winning career — to have made his way there. Ditto the director of Cirque du Soleil who brings two performers to wow us — but then talks about the science of awe.
As I write this, we are still one session from the closing of the conference. The wrap of the week. Those talks that will put the icing on the crazy cake that is “The TED.” I will return home and come Monday be back at work — grateful to have spent Sunday so far out of the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.