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Monday, December 6, 2010


When I heard that Brussels was hosting the largest TEDx event ever I signed up immediately. Now it's over, and I'm very happy I did. I'd certainly love to attend the real thing in Monterey, but until that becomes even faintly possible Brussels will do very nicely.

Organization was spot-on. Talks were scheduled to start at 15:43 and end at 15:53, and they did. Pacing felt just right: long breaks and longish sessions meant you didn't lose time shuffling in and out of the room, never felt overwhelmed and had time for meeting people and meaningful discussions. Every word could be heard clearly from everywhere. Whatever it is they're using for projectors, I want one for my home cinema, although I'd need a much bigger flat; the only thing comparable I've ever seen was at a Jean-Michel Jarre concert. WiFi didn't work, but, well, WiFi never works at conferences. (Good news is: I won't feel too bad if we screw this up for ER2011.) And obviously these are not normal people: there were 1000 attendees and 2000 WiFi devices in the room. At one point I wanted to download iMovie for iPhone so I could quickly edit and upload a clip I'd shot, and in that crowd there is nothing even remotely exceptional about this. Of the many iPhone 4 users I must have been one of the few who didn't have iMovie already. Anyway, I couldn't: as everyone with Belgium cell-phones or international roaming (i.e. everyone) switched to 3G the cell towers around the stately Palace of Fine Arts were hit with the kinds of bandwidth demands rarely seen outside the Bay area, and more or less gave up.

Talks were many and varied, about robotic cars, interstellar space flight, commoditized EEG as a human-interface device, how the digital doubles in Lord of the Rings were made, the internet of Things… My favorites were probably the ones about economics. Dambisa Moyo's talk on How the West was Lost, delivered with no slides while sitting on a couch, especially resonated with me. I don't think it's lost yet, and nor does she, but I've felt for a while that Europe and the US have some tough choices ahead and that they're not discussed nearly enough. Even though I'd be the first to say that you can be a nerd yet not socially awkward, seeing someone with a PhD in economics being that charismatic felt a little uncanny.

Although overall quality was staggeringly high, there were a couple duds. You'd think watching the founder of Doctors Without Borders talk about how innovative finance will save the world can't be anything less than good, but everyone I talked to agreed that Bernard Kouchner's talk was a huge waste of everybody's time. Not only was he late and slow and inarticulate and had lousy slides which he actually turned away from the public to read from the screen, (I wish I was making this up, but I'm not) no matter any of that, the real problem was his entire talk boiled down to: "getting a few countries to implement a Tobin tax is a good idea". You know, I actually agree with that. And I'm immensely grateful that someone as obviously gifted and influential as Mr. Kouchner is trying very hard to get it done. (Especially since, living in Belgium, I'm constitutionally unable to vote for anyone who even bothers having any opinion on anything other than language borders.) However, when I pay for the privilege of spending 18 minutes of my time listening to a world-class speaker, I expect to get a little more information out of it than can be found in the average tweet.

But that's not even the talk that really pissed me off. That would be Lynne McTaggart's, acclaimed author of "What Doctors Don't Tell You", who spoke about the Intention Experiment, i.e. the idea that "the universe is connected by a vast quantum energy field" and can be influenced by thought, and her experiments to prove it. The talk was quite polished and competently executed, and even featured a complimentary hands-on faith-healing session at the end, but the problem is this is not actually an idea worth spreading. It's an idea that, in a perfect world, would have long ago been gagged, garroted, thrown out the window, shot, cremated, dispersed out at sea and never mentioned again.

By the way, I do understand that a conference that tries to be at the leading edge of both technology and art will have a few, for lack of a better word, "edge cases". People who are controversial but may possibly be right. Sometimes the difference between the brilliant out-of-the-box thinker and the nutjob is only visible in hindsight. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Lynne McTaggart is not a pseudoscientific hack, but rather a visionary who's starting a revolution in how we perceive the fabric of the universe. It's possible. But I would bet a lot of money against it.

Anyway, if I'm spending a lot of time on the two talks I didn't like, it's only because I enjoy bashing people vastly more successful than I. They really didn't matter. After Lynne McTaggart came Paul Collier, who started by asking a trick question that tripped the entire audience (not 90%, not 99%, but literally everyone) and went on to give the most amazing talk about natural resources in developing countries, how they can help the poor improve their quality of life, and what he's doing to ensure they're used for this purpose. And after Bernard Kouchner came Stromae, who got the entire audience to stand up and sing and dance. Picture that: an audience of nerds, dancing in the fanciest classical concert hall in Brussels.

As enjoyable as the event was, from the start I felt somewhat weird about it. Only standing in the bus back home did I figure out what it was: it's not, actually, a conference. Both academic conferences and trade conventions are gatherings of people who come together to discuss their work. Yes, this involves a lot of people talking in front of slides, but this is only a means to an end. The end is to get people in a given field to discuss what they do. That's not at all what TED(x) is.

At TEDx, you don't meet the speakers. To be honest, I didn't really try to, but even if I had, the odds were severely stacked against me: there are 20 speakers for 1000 attendees. Add all the breaks together, and even under the ridiculous assumptions that speakers don't talk with each other, you only talk to speakers, never go to the bathroom and are comfortable talking to Nicholas Negroponte while sampling the cheese platter, statistically you can only hope for four minutes of face time with speakers in the entire day.

So you don't even try to. What you do is talk to random attendees, about nothing in particular. During the coffee breaks of a normal conference, you meet people who closely share your interests and discuss these. TEDx feels more like a speed-dating/networking session targeted at the kind of crowd that attends TEDx. It's a great crowd. Mostly young technophiles with a creative bend, yet diversified. I chatted with a retired English professor about underwater photography. I learned how the Yugoslav wars were perceived by Croats who were six-year-olds at the time. (Apparently it was kinda fun if you were lucky enough to be a child and not get killed.) The place is chock full of amazing people: scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers… and not the kind of engineer who's a lifelong employee at a major utility company, but the kind who taught himself graphic design and understands the music business and wants to use that combination of skills in a unique way. Everybody reads Malcolm Gladwell. Many want to be Tim Ferriss.

The "conference" part, with the speakers and the slides and the introductions, is actually a sort of day-long entertainment that simply happens to be co-located with the networking session. Nerdy entertainment certainly, and great entertainment. If I were to list the five best talks I've ever attended, four of these would be from today. (The fifth would be the EuroPython keynote by Hans Rosling, who also spoke at TED in Monterey.) At TEDxBrussels, you get to see Nicholas Negroponte throw his laptop on the ground and tell how he dares intel or other competitors to do the same with their prototypes when he faces them. You get to see a fashion show by Bibi Russell, a former top model who gave up her modeling career to create a fashion house that employs 35,000 workers in rural Bangladesh who make fashionable clothes you really want to wear. You get to see truly amazing people make passionate statements about the world and wild predictions about the future. As Rik Torfs said in closing, they're unlikely to all be right. "Maybe we're just telling jokes. But they're good jokes, by brilliant people." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a pretty good day to me. It's a surprising event, unlike anything I've ever been to and not quite what I expected. But one thing's for sure: I'll definitely go again.


Clare said...

Excellent summary Serge, and I absolutely agree with your point that the value of TEDx is largely in the social interaction in the breaks, with the talks acting as interesting ice-breakers.

Having attended last year when it was smaller, I was worried the larger numbers would change the vibe a bit. But apart from affecting the wifi and lunch queues, it really didn't have too much of an impact - people were still interesting, willing to talk, and full of enthusiasm for day and its events.

Gavin Watt said...

Thank you for making such a long and interesting summary.

Besides the interactions at break time - which I probably didn't do enough of - I felt that I particularly connected with about 50% of the talks, and enjoyed almost all of them - including Lynne's. (I had read one of her books many years ago, 'The Field' - the title says it all.) I'm estimating this on the number (of speakers) I remember well.

I missed last year's event through work commitments - but am glad I didn't miss this year. There was a good vibe and the right mix of people (nice to see so many from abroad).

Wacondah said...

Thanks, although I don't agree with everything, the vibes were cool, most of the speakers interesting to outrageous and the overall organisation OUTSTANDING; those who missed this edition are already complaining - my summary in a mindmap available here:

Wacondah said...

Thanks, although I don't agree with everything, the vibes were cool, most of the speakers interesting to outrageous and the overall organisation OUTSTANDING; those who missed this edition are already complaining - my summary in a mindmap available here: