SAN FRANCISCO — A marriage of convenience unites technology and globalism, as better communications and transportation shrink the world and increase the flow of goods, services and capital. This confluence of interests took on an almost spiritual fervor last week when tech dignitaries gathered in Long Beach, Calif., for TED 2009, the 25-year old event whose acronym is now a more powerful brand than its original name, Technology, Entertainment & Design.
Event organizer Chris Anderson has given TED a certain techno-evangelical tone. The son of British medical missionaries, Anderson spent much of his youth on the Indian subcontinent before going to school in England and making a small fortune as a trade press publisher. Since 2001, when he acquired TED and made it his passion, Anderson has evolved the event beyond its original role as the tech-trendsetting session where Apple first introduced the Macintosh. Instead, he has transformed TED into a secular retreat, a drum circle of sorts, where technologists can feel part of something beyond the next product cycle.
Last week, for instance, Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates released a swarm of mosquitoes into the TED ballroom during a speech on the eradication of malaria. They were not infectious but the stunt was a stinging reminder of the world’s health gap in a privileged and powerful setting.
Anderson has struck world-changing themes in recent conferences. He hosted former Vice President Al Gore’s slide presentation on global warming before it appeared in theaters as “An Inconvenient Truth.” He honored epidemiologist Larry Brilliant with a TED Prize in the same week that Sergey Brin and Larry Page picked Brilliant to head their philanthropic Google.org.
Anderson has continued to use TED as a catalyst for tech-driven social change with a program he launched last week. The conference awarded 40 TED fellows special access and other perks to attend what is normally a $6,000-a-seat, invitation-only event. The program, which is partly supported by the foundation of Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, described the fellows as “remarkable thinkers and doers that have shown unusual accomplishment, exceptional courage, moral imagination and the potential to increase positive change in their respective fields.” They include:
—A young reforestation activist from Madagascar named Andriankoto Ratozamanana;
—The former Senegalese health minister Awa Marie Coll-Seck, who now runs an anti-malaria organization in Geneva, and so on, with literally dozens more accomplished and exotic persons each of whom applies technology on some global issue.
Stirring groups of passionate newcomers into a gathering of business-hardened veterans is a bit of social gardening. It’s as if Anderson has sprinkled ideas over a well-tilled field and now waits to see which might blossom.
In method and style the Ted Fellows program captures the ethos of technological optimism – the belief that human ingenuity can solve any problem and that knowledge levels the field and elevates people and ideas of merit.
Gates touched on this belief in his speech about eradicating malaria when he is quoted as saying, “I am an optimist; I think any tough problem can be solved.”
There is also a certain noblesse oblige to the TED approach, the sense that success in the technological arena bestows the obligation and savvy to help solve planetary problems. And not through some bureaucratic, sausage-making process but through ad-hoc initiatives carried out by the best and brightest of one’s private-sector peers.
Without subscribing to the creed, or being among the chosen, it’s comforting to think such impulses ripple through tech’s upper crust. Because it remains a big and problem-ridden world, as hard as the industry is trying to shrink it, and some virtuous ideas may arise from TED’s cross-pollination of technology, activism and capital.