Nice to meet your big idea

A piece looking at digital gatherings in the light of my trips to TED Global and SciFoo; first published in Prospect, August 2010

In Oxford, it was shaking hands with legendary videogame designer Peter Molyneux. In Mountain View, California, it was when Larry Page, one of Google’s two founders, sat down beside me and blandly introduced himself. A very particular conference skill-set kicked in: blinking in fame’s reflected glare while trying to appear entirely blasé.

The occasions were, respectively, the TED Global conference at Oxford in June—where I had been invited to speak about videogames (there’s a online summary of some of my key points here)—and the SciFoo “camp” at Google’s California headquarters in July, where I was representing Prospect. Each was, in its own way, glamorous. Each also embodied an emerging trend in digital culture, in which the confluence between science, technology and public life is explored at an increasingly high-profile series of events, aimed at sharing and sparking fresh ideas. Attending was a pleasure and a privilege. Yet both events also posed a question: was this a glimpse of the intellectual future, or simply a kind of club—delightful, stimulating, but more about ego than achievement?

TED—which stands for Technology Entertainment and Design—easily attracts this kind of cynicism. It began in the US in 1984 as a one-off event, becoming an annual fixture in 1990, but it was its acquisition in 2001 by the British computer magazine publisher Chris Anderson that began its current incarnation (of which TED Global is a European offshoot). Anderson, who runs TED through a non-profit foundation, upped the impact, pulling in some of the world’s biggest names: Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, Bono, Tim Berners-Lee. Speakers get no more than 18 minutes each, while attendees pay over $5,000 to hear them in person.

Given all this, accusations of elitism are easy to understand—although these were partly answered in 2006, when Anderson began posting videos of every talk free online. They have had over 300m views to date, with the most successful talks—such as Swedish doctor Hans Rosling‘s dynamic visualisations of global health statistics—enjoying audiences of over a million. Perhaps inevitably, this has now brought accusations of a different kind of snobbery: that by turning scientists and thinkers into “rock stars,” TED favours style over content.

On the surface, SciFoo is the opposite: an invitation-only gathering held behind closed doors that is, thanks mainly to Google’s largesse, free to attend. “Foo” stands for “friends of O’Reilly” and refers to Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media, a publishing company devoted to computer technology. The first Foo event was held in 2004 when O’Reilly convened a cross-disciplinary spectrum of people for a meeting of minds. It has since grown into one of the defining modern “unconferences”—events that reject the formality of traditional formats in favour of spontaneity. Attendees are expected to play an active part and, although people come well-prepared, the schedule itself is created on the spot.

Arriving at Google HQ for this year’s SciFoo (one of several Foo events now held annually: this one, devoted to science, was initiated by the journal Nature), attendees were confronted by a blank timetable and a stack of Post-it notes. A dignified scramble ensued, as people scrawled and stuck up ideas. Sessions ran in parallel, and topics were modified on the fly. One highlight was a three-way exposition of an ancient Greek computing mechanism by an archaeologist, an author and a programmer.

Despite their differences, TED and the Foo camps share crucial similarities. Anderson’s publishing roots lie in the kind of fan-driven magazines that were vital fuel for bedroom technology enthusiasts in the 1980s and 1990s. O’Reilly Media produces serious technical works, but its Silicon Valley ethos is of a piece with TED’s, while the unconference movement is rooted in a tradition of science-fiction fan conventions dating back to the 1930s. In both cases, the emphasis is on energy and optimism as well as excellence. This year’s TED Global slogan was “and now the good news,” while SciFoo kicked off with a utopian soundbite from Larry Page: “Ask: is what I’m doing going to change the world? If the answer is no, then maybe you should do something else.”

Gatherings of like-minded enthusiasts are, of course, just about the oldest new idea digital culture could have happened upon. Yet, with governments speaking increasingly loudly about the need to revitalise everything from manufacturing to education, they also suggest some timely lessons about innovation.

Modern science tends to be super-specialised, as do most conferences, and the benefit of more communication between fields is obvious. The melting pot of the internet is itself a peerless counterpoint to this—and yet its great advantage is also a hazard. Online, words and concepts float free of their originators. We forget that an idea arose from a particular person, or people, at the end of a particular history. At an event like SciFoo, the thrill of meeting Larry Page or a Nobel laureate is not just about seeing someone famous. It’s about a potentially frank encounter with the person and the history behind the achievements.

Even the greatest minds are experts only in a sliver of human knowledge, and watching them step outside their expertise is exciting fuel for debate. At one Foo session, the idea of using open-source technologies to revolutionise the processes of drug research was discussed late into the night. At TED, world-changing technologies have been premiered over the years—from the CD in 1984 (although not the Apple Mac, as is sometimes reported) to one of this year’s highlights, inventor Tan Le’s demonstration of a computer interface able to respond to users’ brainwaves. Other transformative devices have won newly global attention, like inventor Michael Pritchard’s 2009 demonstration of a low-cost bottle that can make dirty water drinkable.

The result is a double shift in awareness. At SciFoo, experts in different fields learn not only about each other’s work, but about each other. At TED the world gets to watch individuals at the forefront of their fields standing up and sharing their passion. There’s a pleasing irony here: that digital culture is rediscovering the importance of personalisation and embodiment. Both conferences actively discourage delegates from blogging, tweeting or browsing during sessions. Full, undistracted human attention is demanded—and given.

The formula can be exported: unconferences are spreading while, under a programme known as TEDx, hundreds of independent TED-style events are being held across the world. But governments and private organisations, in Britain and elsewhere, could do far more to tap into this movement. Digital resources alone cannot generate innovation. As ever, the best of the new will only arise when older truths—the exchange of ideas across generic boundaries, the importance of personal relationships, the drive to change the world—are given fresh scope.