How useful are global gatherings that invite great minds to share ideas and innovations in person?by Tom Chatfield / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Google’s US headquarters, which hosted the SciFoo technology camp in July. Attendees create the conference schedule on the spot
In Oxford, it was shaking hands with legendary videogame designer Peter Molyneux. In Mountain View, California, it was when Larry Page, one of Google’s two founders, sat down beside me and blandly introduced himself. A very particular conference skill-set kicked in: blinking in fame’s reflected glare while trying to appear entirely blasé.
The occasions were, respectively, the TED Global conference at Oxford in June—where I had been invited to speak about videogames (there’s a online summary of some of my key points here)—and the SciFoo “camp” at Google’s California headquarters in July, where I was representing Prospect. Each was, in its own way, glamorous. Each also embodied an emerging trend in digital culture, in which the confluence between science, technology and public life is explored at an increasingly high-profile series of events, aimed at sharing and sparking fresh ideas. Attending was a pleasure and a privilege. Yet both events also posed a question: was this a glimpse of the intellectual future, or simply a kind of club—delightful, stimulating, but more about ego than achievement?
TED—which stands for Technology Entertainment and Design—easily attracts this kind of cynicism. It began in the US in 1984 as a one-off event, becoming an annual fixture in 1990, but it was its acquisition in 2001 by the British computer magazine publisher Chris Anderson that began its current incarnation (of which TED Global is a European offshoot). Anderson, who runs TED through a non-profit foundation, upped the impact, pulling in some of the world’s biggest names: Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, Bono, Tim Berners-Lee. Speakers get no more than 18 minutes each, while attendees pay over $5,000 to hear them in person.
Given all this, accusations of elitism are easy to understand—although these were partly answered in 2006, when Anderson began posting videos of every talk free online. They have had over 300m views to date, with the most successful talks—such as Swedish doctor Hans Rosling’s dynamic visualisations of global health statistics—enjoying audiences of over a million. Perhaps inevitably, this has now brought accusations of a different kind of snobbery: that by turning scientists and thinkers into “rock stars,” TED favours style over content.
On the surface, SciFoo is the opposite: an invitation-only gathering held behind closed doors that is, thanks mainly to Google’s…