TEDActive was a different kind of conference

TEDActive was a different kind of conference for me ( though similar to other technical conferences in its lack of sleep, regular pace, and of course, being thrown in with large quantities of people I didn’t know before I came). That lack of sleep hampers the writing of this blog post, but I wanted to capture impressions before they vanish back into the rhythm of my everyday life.

For those not familiar, TEDActive is an event affiliated with the main TED conference and who shares the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading.” The main TED has been popularized by public exposure to the educational and inspiring “TED Talks” of about 18 minutes long that are shown on the TED Web site. TEDActive is a small conference, only a few hundred folks larger than Gnomedex in Seattle, whereas the main TED conference in Long Beach was over 1,500 attendees. Unlike Gnomedex ,TED talks are not streamed live to the public, but to the TEDActive and other satellite events only. Later, the public will see the TED talks on the Ted.com Web site but in the timeframe immediately around the conference, only a few trickle out at a time.

For this reason, and the fact that TEDActive is also curated in terms of who they let in, the conference has an intimate feel that I suspect (and was told by some folks) doesn’t exist at the larger TED in Long Beach. TEDActive takes place at the same hotel, and if you happen to stay there, you will see the same folks over and over at meals as well as in the conference sessions.

The Palm Springs conference viewing area had beanbag chairs, two elaborate circular beds with ceiling-mounted viewing screens(fits up to 4 adults) , couches, and individual stuffed chairs. The space shared with TEDActive attendees fosters more casual conversation, the TED talks themselves are provocative, and the picnic lunches (have to form groups of 6 to get the basket) also encourage more intense conversation.

What did I learn at TED? There was one point where I said to a woman stuck accidentally near me for a few minutes during a large party logjam of people – “we should probably chat because I’ve found at TED that everyone I talk to, I was meant to hear something they have to say.” Lo and behold, she was working in the education field, and though she was likely thinking I was a nut for being mystical, she had some observations about my critical thinking project and the challenges of online high school learning that were insights I needed to have.

Because you will likely get to view the TED talks themselves on TED.com I won’t report on those, but I will elaborate on the overall effect. The TED talks forced an intellectual and emotional focus that, even while prone in the TED bed watching the overhead screens, I felt like I had run a brain marathon. All my high school and college science and math classes officially mattered - otherwise I would have been left behind. The insights I could draw from design projects (Web or otherwise) and game theory articles reverberated as speakers invoked words related to those prior learnings. The insistence on being mentally present and exploring what it means to be a human, trying to do good, created a rigor that was exhausting even with coffee but brilliantly invigorating like a good gym workout. TED talks themselves referred to pattern-seeking, the difference between experiencing something and experiencing the memory of something, and hit home with themes like obesity and food. And the tone was positive.

While I was tweeting that TED’s message is that everything is possible and humans can do some good, (and I did a bad job on twitter, my phone was having button problems) UW Professor Kathy Gill reminded me that I was speaking from a position of privilege. And let’s face it, I am. I have a graduate degree, a hitherto exciting life, an exciting job, and I live in a nation with a better record of treating women well than some. I am not a slave and I can decide to divorce or marry on my own. I can vote.

But sitting pretty in the aura of privilege that is my life – or for many TEDsters, their lives – really isn’t enough after you’ve been through several days of the conference. By being shown the world’s problems and how we are all implicated and affected by them, it is just embarrassing to think about how little potential we are likely using. And one’s notion of privilege completely shifts when faced with some stark realities.

Don’t get me wrong, I did the businessy stuff I had set out to do there. I participated in the social media workshop (above photo), talked to people in the Bing innovation lounge, wore my Techcrunch50 startup shirts for our beloved-by-Bing TC50 startups, and cheered Microsoft employees Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Gary Flake on as they demoed fresh innovations from search and a new way to look at Internet data, Pivot. But don’t think that was the only thing I was doing at TED – far from it. I am still digesting the impact the talks and the conference had upon my brain.

But back to stark realities. Glenna, a woman at TEDActive with a terminal bran cancer diagnosis who likely won’t be around for Christmas 2011 told us how she reveled in her choices – to go to school, work, play, do only what she wants to do with her life for as long as she has left. Any of us who expect to live to see Christmas 2011 are privileged – rich or poor, able to attend TED or not, and she asks us: what will we be doing?

Most of you reading this blog have choices, have the smarts, have the capability to make this world a little better from where you stand. Let’s make this next year really matter.

Live it vivid!