It’s not often that a global phenomenon comes to Poland so on the 5th March and in the interests of all Polandian readers I attended the very first TED event in Poland. This will almost certainly become an annual event attracting thousands so before you register for TEDx Warsaw 2011 you ought to know what it’s all about. The “TEDx Warsaw” website provides a lot more information on this particular event including videos of all the speakers, or, going to TED.com you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of ‘inspirational’ video clips and be able to see where all this started.
To whet your appetite, here’s one of the top rated videos from TED Talks, Sir Ken Robinson talking about education at the main TED event in 2006:
Fear not if you’ve never heard of TED you’re not alone because neither had I. I might have stumbled across something on the web a while back but it was via one of those pesky ‘social networking’ things that I first heard about TEDx Warsaw. I’m on something called LinkedIn, which is a kind of Nasza Klasa for business people. It’s perhaps the only virtual networking thing I use (perhaps better to say it uses me!) and I must say it does a good job of connecting people who actually know each other, rather than complete strangers, without bugging the hell out of them with petty nonsense like Facebook does. It was via one of the “CEE Rools Okay” groups on there that I bumped into Ralph Talmont who was the main driver of TEDx Warsaw (along with a certain Colin Ude-Lewis, ex Polandian writer). He mentioned the event and I thought it intriguing enough to register and attend. I didn’t bother hamming up on TED talks before attending as I wanted to go in with a completely open mind and no preconceived ideas about what to expect. As it happens, hamming up would have certainly helped with conversation in the breaks, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is what TED is all about, according to them:
TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with the annual TED Conference in Long Beach, California, and the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford UK, TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Program, the new TEDx community program, this year’s TEDIndia Conference and the annual TED Prize.
It was started by a guy called Richard Saul Wurman and sold to the current ‘curator’, Chris Anderson in 2002. From what I can glean from the web, Mr. Wurman is a businessman who just wanted to have fun and make some money whereas under the direction of Mr. Anderson it has become part of a non-profit organization that wants to change the world. So now you know!
The Warsaw event was held in the Old Library at the University of Warsaw, a good choice I think. Around 350 people were allowed into the auditorium and many more were following via live internet links. We said ‘hello’ to Pakistan at one point, or maybe it was India or New Zealand, I can’t remember. There was a goodly collection of IT geeks sat in the back rows who spent a lot of time twitting and in other ways distributing and commenting on what was going on. The structure was of four main sessions with long breaks in between and individual presentations were between 3 – 18 minutes long. It started at 10:00 and finished at 20:00, after which people could drift into the ‘afterTED’ night-life, whatever that turned out to be. I found the sessions to be too short, the chat time too long and to expect people to stay for the entire event plus afterTED was asking a lot but I’m sure there were plenty who did.
The presentations were eclectic, to say the least, and the presenters ranged from those who had clearly modeled themselves on Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia to those who didn’t do this very often. I found myself getting more from the latter and less from the former although there were a couple of exceptions. In the end, I left at the halfway point as I felt I’d got as much as I was likely to get from the event but I did watch the videos of all the presentations I had missed, which predictably followed a similar pattern to the morning sessions. In total I counted around 23 presentations and I’d summarise these into three groups:
- Networking/collaborating, science, alt.gov, green – 9
- Oddball – 9
- Self-help & understanding – 5
The theme of the event was ‘collaboration’ and whilst a lot of effort had been put into making it all hang together I’m not sure it did. After all, collaboration can cover just about anything and so did the presentations – everything from horse whispering to Jews in Krakow to ‘love yourself’ to art to legal services to live music and storytelling to the future of the internet and the downfall of democracy. See what I mean? A kind of shotgun approach that would ensure it pleased most of the people some of the time.
I suppose it’s fair to say I was not really their ‘target audience’. This was clear when the crowd started gathering and the average age started dropping. It must have settled somewhere in the late 20s. Also not helping was the fact that you could count on one hand the number of people amongst the 350 who had corporate type jobs such as my own. Further in my disfavour was being a complete novice to anything TEDish as it became apparent quite quickly that most of the attendees had already watched plenty of TED talk videos and were there because it had ‘changed their life’ or at least had the potential to do so, so they thought. There was a definite ‘cult’ feel to the thing and I certainly wasn’t a signed-up member. I therefore started out the day as a lonely fish out of water. When I left I had perhaps evolved into half amphibian but it was obvious that no matter how long I stayed I was never going to blend into the TED wallpaper.
It didn’t help when trying to strike up conversations in the breaks. I spoke to three of the presenters; the first spent the whole time looking over my shoulder for something more interesting to do, the second was too busy talking to her friends and the last was only trying to sell me something. And this is the point where I should give a massive vote of thanks to Michał Paradowski (Assistant Professor at Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw) who single-handedly restored my faith in humanity. I stood talking to one of the presenters who was busy trying to work out an angle as to how he could make some money from the connections between what he does and what I do. A few others had already gathered around and then Michał joined the group, I assumed wishing to bask in the waves of success emitted by the presenter. Conversation was drying up and the guru was looking restless so I nodded politely to Michał as if to hand the baton of presenter-chat over to him when to everyone’s surprise I discovered that Michał had actually come over to talk to me! Shurely shome mishtake, methinks. It turned out that Michał works for the company that publishes the Warsaw Insider a magazine for which I wrote for a year or more a monthly column. I stopped doing it in the end as the editor changed and I hated having to write to a ‘theme’ for peanuts but it turns out that Michał used to enjoy reading my columns and despite it being perhaps two years since I stopped, had remembered them and the name sufficiently to pick me out from the crowd. In this one act of kindness he managed to not only make me feel a lot better about the TED thing but also by the power of “what are the chances of that…” put renewed willpower behind the idea of writing something publishable in the not too distant future.
While we’re on the subject of synthesized happiness, here’s another popular TED Talk video by Dan Gilbert:
So, back to TEDx Warsaw. In further research after the event I keep finding references to things that end in 2.0. For example, so far I’ve discovered; government 2.0, science 2.0, web 2.0 and business 2.0. Nothing has really explained what this is all about but I assume it is the beginning of a ‘new world order’, version 2.0 being better than the version 1.x that we have now. This would match with what seemed to be the underlying essence of TEDx Warsaw and probably TED generally – there are ways to improve both yourself and the world around you and here’s something to think about. That’s fine, God knows we need things to change, but for me there was rather too much naive and slightly obvious theory or speculation and not enough action and truly new and inspiring stuff. I was very disappointed by the amount of both overt and covert commercialism I encountered from the various advertised sponsors to the exchanges of business cards in the chat sessions. It is supposed to be free of such influences and it wasn’t. You can argue that someone needs to pay for the venue, the A/V equipment, the food, drink and so on and that’s true but if motherTED thinks this is such a great idea then why doesn’t it divert some of its income to the independent events rather than it all going to the Sapling Foundation? To not do this and to therefore leave these independent events open to sponsorship, no matter how subtle, seems to be against the whole idea of TED and therefore removes a large part of the attraction, for me anyway.
I think the Warsaw event did well considering it was the first one. There are various minor changes I’d make next time but the major issues as I see it are: 1/ remove all commercial aspects, 2/ try to choose a more focused topic and align speakers appropriately and 3/ try to cut out the Tom Cruise characters in favour of those with a real message, even if they are not good presenters. It’s too much to ask for the presenters to come to a point I suppose but it would certainly encourage action rather than passive admiration if they could close with some examples of what the audience could actually do about it.
It’s kind of funny that a dinosaur like me who’s allergic to modern networking ended up discovering and attending such an event but sometimes life is a funny thing.
If you want to browse the videos (click the speaker), I found the following to be the most interesting from the ones I saw live:
- Jonathan Ornstein – About Jews in Krakow. (Note: it does mention a forced emigration from Poland in ’68, for those who remember our Madagaskar debate.)
- Lori Kent – about art. I like art.
- Alek Tarkowski – about ‘cultural cornucopia’.
Unfortunately, despite TED folk being tech-heads, they are not able to show the speaker and the slides at the same time, which makes it a little difficult to follow at times.
Also worth a mention on the arty interlude side of the event are Michał Malinowksi who runs a story museum in Konstancin and gave a slightly psycho performance of story-telling and Magda Bojanowicz (cellist) and Maciej Prąckiewicz (accordion player) who’s performance was fantastic although public demand for ‘more’ went unsatisfied because they didn’t have any other sheet music to play from.