Great Leaps Backward - Richard Saul Wurman + The Next TED

Last night I watched all of the talks from the 2nd day of the TED conference in 1997. Kicking myself the whole time, because the package of TED7 CD-ROMS I’d plucked from a box in Richard Saul Wurman’s garage down in Miami a few months ago proved to be lacking the Day 1 disc.


So I watched the clips on disc 2 instead: all 23 of them, with run-times that vary from 46 seconds to 47 minutes.

The pictures and sounds on these discs are bad. The pixellations and distortions of digital technology circa 1997 must have something to do with why most of the TED talks given between 1984 - 2002 are absent from the TED website.

They’re not slick enough.

And yet, the window into the used-to-be-world of TED that these clips provide (I uploaded them all to YouTube so you can see what I mean) frames a panoramic view of just how bland, homogenized, and low-rez contemporary conference culture has become in comparison.

The only TED I’ve personally witnessed in full, in the proper sequence (RSW says 80% of his effort to do TED each year was sequencing), is the last one Wurman ran as TED’s owner and chairman, in 2002.

At a date I’ve not yet pinned down, the format of the after-conference video package Wurman sent to each attendee shifted from CD-ROM to DVD, with a corresponding boost in video resolution that makes it somewhat easier to imagine what it was like to be seeing the talks in person. Based on my observations in these various videos, and the ones I’ve gathered up in the tellings of attendees from the 18 years that RSW ran TED, I believe it is both safe and fair to say that Wurman’s TED was lumpy.

Uneven, even.

Because Wurman curated TED for coherence, not consistency.

Sitting there in his better-than-ringside seat on the stage, as witness to and “conscience” of whatever was going to happen next, the gestalt of the thing was asymmetrical on purpose.  He was going for texture and contrast, not obedience to a theme. Not for pearls (as is so clearly the case with today’s TED), but for the silk thread that makes it a necklace.

Welcome to the dinner party I always wanted to have, but couldn’t
— Richard Saul Wurman

In 1997 at TED7, RSW’s “dinner guests” included a MacArthur Award-winning juggler.  A Tiananmen Square dissident turned venture capitalist. Music by Herbie Hancock. And one of the highlights for architecture nerds, of which I am one: Frank Gehry and Tom Krens giving the first public presentation of what they’d nearly finished building together in Bilbao.

In an interview I conducted with Gehry, who Wurman counts among his closest friends and considers his peer, the great architect positively pined for “Ricky’s TED.”  After attending and presenting at TED7, Kurt Andersen—the Peabody Award-winning radio presenter—enthused about the experience as “an intellectual spa” and  “a 21st century Chautauqua.” There’s a through-line in the interviews I’m conducting for Wurman’s biography, with all these amazing people who kept going to TED again and again. The TEDsters (as they called themselves) didn’t go to Monterrey to quell (or acquire) an annual headache. What I hear in their recollections is heart ache.

Wurman himself talked about TED as being “Christmas morning for the mind,” but I’d like to put the historian’s asterisk on that statement, on the word mind. Based on what I’ve been able to see in the rear-view mirror of recollection, in conversation with some of the key people in and around Wurman’s TED community, I think we should use the Japanese word kokoro instead.  Christmas morning for the heart-mind. Something you know through what you feel.  A great leap backward, if you will, from a laser-beam focused on the frontal lobes of our brains, back into the messiness of our embodiment, and the entanglements of our emotions.

The palpable longing in my conversation with Mr. Gehry left me wondering: what can be learned from, what is the meaning of, the heart ache of a 90-year old man?

What’s the next TED?  

What will today’s extraordinary operators in the fields of technology, entertainment and design pine for when they’re old enough to have seen and done it all, and can curate their regrets and desires as carefully as a Frank Gehry, or a Moshe Safdie (RSW’s other starchitect BFF)?

In 2012, Gehry and Safdie—in a lineup including TED stalwarts like Yo-Yo Ma and Matt Groening, and newcomers including Bjarke Ingels and—joined Wurman in exploring the bleeding edge of one end of the spectrum of what comes next after TED: a gathering in Redlands, California that RSW kicked off by welcoming the speakers to… wait for it:  “The Great Leap Backward.”

Serially ahead of his time, Wurman’s decision, at the age of 78, to continue playing with the modality of the professional gathering, once again using (as he’d done in inventing TED) the scalpel of subtraction, led him to the ultimate conference design epiphany: subtracting the audience.  

You couldn’t buy a ticket to WWW.  It was convened in a private space, by invitation only. Which, as I’m typing this, reminds me of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent and poorly-received presentation in front of a screen emblazoned with the words The Future Is Private.  

Mark. Dude. That was so six years ago.

RSW’s private future at WWW was the chamber music of intellectual hedonism: conversation.

He called it “intellectual jazz.”

No speeches, and no panels; instead, duets. Two human beings facing each other on the stage, with Wurman sitting in the space between and teeing-up each session with a question, or an observation, that occurred to him at that particular moment.

Paul Soulellis, a designer who’s known and worked with Wurman for years tweeted out from the event that “RSW just un-invented the TED talk.”

At the other end of the “what’s the next TED” spectrum, and in the biographer’s category of  “who gets, rightfully, to wear the master’s mantle,” the clearest answer to-date is Tommy Scott.  One of the few invited guests (don’t call it an audience) who didn’t speak at WWW, Mr. Scott’s annual conference in September on Nantucket, launched in 2010, is closer in structure and—more importantly—in feel, to what Wurman did with TED, than anything I’ve seen or attended so-far.  

The comparison holds up in big and small ways, from the attention that’s paid to the catering and to the spaces between the sessions, to the choice of venue and optimizing for a captive audience; convening off-season in a location that’s too remote for the attendees to find any value in skipping sessions, or taking business meetings on the side. Like TED, Scott’s Nantucket Project is at the top end of the conference ticket price range, yet sells out each year before any of the speakers have been announced.  

The strongest affinity between Wurman’s TED and Scott’s TNP is the emphasis on a visceral, experiential kind of understanding that knits the audience together with the speakers. In a single-track conference format, everybody at the event sees the same talks. At Wurman’s TED and at TNP the audience and the speakers dine together, for all three meals of the day. There’s no VIP area. You can just talk to people, and make friends you’d never have otherwise made.

The year I went to TNP, I befriended a Fox News on-air presenter, who sat next to me in the front row during RSW’s time on stage, and then just started talking with me like I was on the same level as she was. The conference format caused this to be literally true: we were both in flip-flops in a tent, on folding chairs. I met her husband at the lunch break that followed, and introduced them both to RSW.

In the evening session break I talked with Marcia Clark and Chelsea Manning.

Like ya do.

The next morning, about a third of the audience and many of the speakers got up at 5am to pose nude en masse for a Spenser Tunick photograph.  

I “accidentally” slept in that day, but in my defense, I did wake up at 5am the first morning of the conference when the shoot was originally planned, but the weather was bad and the schedule changed.  As I recall, there were a lot of schedule changes at TNP. Mr. Gehry told me that the reason RSW’s TED was so good was because Richard took risks every day of the program. He was willing to risk a few sessions going very badly, in order to stoke the furnaces of possibility that one or two might be transcendent, and change your whole way of thinking and seeing.

One of the most vivid examples of this risk-taking in programming TED7, and optimizing for the thread more than the pearls, was putting Jackie Torrence in the middle of the program on day two, sight unseen. The thread for the 2nd day was storytelling, and somebody he trusted told RSW this was the finest storyteller they’d ever seen. So he flew her to Monterrey. And then this happened.

That’s what I saw Scott doing at TNP. Why else invite Chelsea Manning, or Marcia Clark, or Lance Armstrong, to talk about experiences that were largely terrible, and of their own making?  Why else bring Dick Cavett, and Glenn Beck, and Vicente Fox, and (oh my God is that really ) Jennifer Garner under the same tent, in the round, where the audience sees and feels everything, not just the front-facing mask a speaker knows how to paint on when performing at the audience?

Two of the biggest problems I see with TED and TNP are interconnected: elitism, and the inability to scale all the way up the population growth curve, and make a dent (or better) in what’s gone so terribly wrong in modern life.

Of the many differences between Chris Anderson’s TED and Richard Saul Wurman’s TED, scale is among the most marked. By making TED talks available and ubiquitous on the internet, for free, Anderson took TED to the global tipping point. Videos on and YouTube have been viewed more than a billion times.  And Wurman is the first to admit that he’d never have done that.

In the many years I’ve spent as his hanger-on, I’ve never seen RSW light up so much as when he’s wrong; when things don’t work. When he’s mocked mercilessly by a friend.  “Difficulty excites me,” he says. Wurman’s wife Gloria once told the audience at TED that “Richard only warms up upon rejection.”

The same goes for the wildly successful franchise of TEDx events. Like free TED Talks on the internet, Richard says he’d never have done that. And then goes on to praise Lara Stein for how brilliant she was to have done so.

Because it means more, and is more meaningful, to be present with people in a place, engaged in a process, than to consume something that streams through a screen. RSW has said many times, and I believe him, that he would rather see one of his ideas made better by somebody else than to retain sole proprietorship of an obsolete innovation. The right to copy, not copyright.

At the Business Innovation Forum (BIF) conference in Providence in 2014 (a gathering RSW helped design, and chaired for its first three meetings), Wurman observed that, with the advent of telepresence and other kinds of hi-def video conferencing, we’ve never needed to attend conferences less.  And that, this is why we cherish them so dearly and have never needed them more.

The full extent of the existential crisis in the world of conferences and professional gatherings remains to be seen.  As Wurman muses in the clip from BIF linked above, when oil goes back to $300 a barrel, maybe that’ll be the end of it, of these multi-day events away from home that feed our hearts, and minds, and heart-minds.

One of Wurman’s signature approaches to innovation, along with subtraction, is opposites.  He had a company for a time called TOP: The Opposite Principle, and I see Mr. Scott dipping into Mr. Wurman’s playbook with TNP’s latest initiative, which is around neighborhoods.  It’s been said that conversation is the smallest unit of change, and the genius I see in Scott’s Neighborhood Project is the pairing of that smallest unit of change—what Wurman describes as the most sophisticated information technology humans have yet created—with what’s potentially the most coherent and knitted-together unit of audience: a household.

Each household or neighborhood is, in this new model, substantively a necklace and a pearl. In this way, Tommy Scott’s neighborhood project is the polar opposite of today’s TED. Not a billion individual users, consuming and chaining-together video views on their own individual screens.  Scott’s setting us up for one of those great leaps backward: neighbors and family members in lightly-facilitated, creatively-provocative conversation. Just imagine: talking with each other. Listening to each other. Expanding the range of tolerance for each participant’s way of seeing, and point of view. Sharing one screen for a time, and then turning it off.

A note about these videos I’m digging up and publishing (many for the first time online): they are going up to YouTube in alphabetical order by filename. So-far I’m pulling files off from discs intact, not transcoding them. They’re in playlists based on the day or session number found in the data on the discs, but not in the sequence that attendees experienced them in. Not yet. I’ll be publishing the fact-checked sequence of all the TED speakers and talks as curated by RSW in his biography, which I’m trying to finish writing by the time of his 85th birthday next March.