Rolling your eyes is not allowed at TED. There’s no rule in the conduct policy (I assume, I haven’t actually checked); it’s just one of those powerful unspoken maxims that goes ignored at your peril. When they hand you your TED badge, you’re consenting to check your cynicism at the door.
The TED Conference, which has taken place annually since 1990, was founded on the principle that spreading ideas from passionate people can change the world. This year’s theme is “Bigger Than Us,” which is meant as an acknowledgement of the lasting effects this era will have on the planet and the future of humanity, according to Chris Anderson, head of TED. Experts and enthusiasts will be talking about everything from hunting bacteria in the furthest reaches of the oceans to how to restore the very idea of truth in a post-truth era. All week, I’m going to run from talk to workshop to branded experience (Gatorade personalized sweat reading, anyone?) looking for gems and surprises and mind benders while staying hydrated and keeping an open mind.
This will not be natural for me. I am a hopeless eye-roller, a skeptical journalist and Twitter addict, a child of the ‘80s whose brain was forged in the crucible of “duh.” “Lol Nothing Matters” is my meditation mantra. In other words, I’m the exact wrong audience for the sincerity of TED. And yet, here I am in Vancouver, Canada, for a week of inspiring talks—and god damn it, I’m excited to be here.
It’s exhausting to be irreverent all the time. I woke up to this when I attended TED Women late last year. Rather than find the environment of passionate idea sharing stifling or worthy of mockery, I felt relieved. Relieved that there was no pressure to make a joke, no pun to volley, no cool group smoking outside making fun of all the losers. We were all there together, to learn and share something. It felt, frankly, transgressive.
Cynicism and nihilism are the hallmarks of our age. They’re the lifeblood of internet discourse; even the issues we are most passionate about and outraged by find their way into sardonic memes. And while this ironic detachment has been weaponized by some as a cover for hate—I’m not racist, I’m only joking—memes can also feel like great coping mechanisms for a world gone mad. Everything’s terrible? Lol nothing matters. This is fine. Of course it is, but it’s also alienating and exhausting.
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For a moment after Trump was elected president, I wondered if the age of ironic detachment was over, and if earnestness would reign. People were marching in the streets again! But the #resistance, like so much other partisanship, seems to co-opt earnestness in a way that leaves little room for everyone else.
That’s the thing that’s refreshing about TED: since its inception, it has been shamelessly earnest, but mostly nonpartisan. Its core values are not political, they’re techno-optimistic. The radical idea of TED is that technology, entertainment, and design can make the world a better place, and that you should know about the thinkers, scientists, and creators who are trying to make that happen.
Now, there’s still plenty to be skeptical about techno-optimism, as I’ve written about a lot. Often technologists use innovation to solve the wrong problems, or unwittingly create new problems, or ignore real solutions in a misguided effort to apply technological fixes to problems that require different answers. And the format of TED can make it seem like there’s no room to question or challenge the ideas presented—here’s an awesome thing, and here’s another! That’s gotten it branded a cult, and of course resulted in the mocking meme treatment itself: “Thank you for attending my TED talk,” people tweet derisively after explaining, for instance, that they hate mayonnaise, or think LaCroix seltzer is not all that amazing.
And yet here I am. I will be attending all the TED talks. And I can’t wait. Sure, there will be talks that don’t resonate with me, or you. There will be people I disagree with, and points I feel are omitted or glossed over by the week. But I’ll share them with you here and on Twitter, and people at TED will debate them as we stand in line for a new VR experience. I look forward to bringing you the good stuff, to engaging in constructive conversation about the weird stuff, and spending the week with my eyes firmly rooted in my head. Please stay tuned for dispatches from the show.
Thank you for attending my TED talk.