TED: Ideas Worth Spreading

Segways, String Theory and Snacks: A Report From TED

Food and thought mark the opening day of the TED conference

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James Duncan Davidson

Brian Greene at TED2012: Full Spectrum on Feb. 28 in Long Beach, Calif.

You know you’re at a TED conference when one of the first people you see, aside from the concierge at the Marriott, is making his way down Linden Avenue in Long Beach, Calif., astride a Segway. (You resist telling him that Segway founder Jimi Heselden met his death on one of his own company’s two-wheeled vehicles — that, certainly, would not be considered an “Idea Worth Spreading,” to use the motto of the annual conference that began in 1984 and got its name from its original focus on Technology, Entertainment and Design.) Once inside the TED pavilion at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, there are no such reminders of mortality and failure; instead, there are people doing yoga, cappuccino bars and hydration stations, and everywhere you look, free high-end snacks: Matt’s Munchies, Kind bars, Sahale Snacks, Vosges chocolate.

None of which, of course, is why people flock here and pay the hefty price of entry. They’ve come to hear speakers give 18-minute talks, to “network,” and to rub shoulders with Al Gore, Peter Gabriel and Jeff Bezos. And TED’s opening day did not disappoint. The morning dawned clear and bright, after a bizarre hailstorm the previous evening forced the kick-off block party indoors. Brian Greene, the author of The Elegant Universe and a professor at Columbia University was the first speaker. Greene is a scientist of superlatives. He is a proponent not just of string theory but superstring theory, and in his lecture he advanced his notion that instead of a universe we have a multiverse. Next was activist Paul Gilding, who argued that our global resource shortage will lead to the destruction of civilization in three decades, followed by Peter Diamandis, who argued that the next three decades will create a world of abundance. All three were wearing black pants, black shirts and identical microphone earpieces.

So it was something of a pleasant change when Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking who wrote a very popular article for TIME Ideas, turned our gaze inward to talk about the transcendent power of solitude. Among her tips: Go to the wilderness. We can all stand to unplug and get back inside our own heads.

That’s certainly true, but it’s unlikely to happen for the next three days. TED is all about stuffing your brain with other people’s ideas. Not just any people, but Andrew Stanton of Pixar (the guy who wrote WALL-E,) former poet laureate Billy Collins, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, psychologist Steven Pinker, surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande. And when you’re not stuffing your brain, you’re stuffing your mouth during session breaks. At least, some of us are. “I’m starving,” said Susan Cain at the end of a long day of public speaking, signing books and talking to strangers. Tomorrow I think I’ll show her where to find the Sahale Snacks.

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