My first TED conference was in 1995, it was so overwhelming that I immediately had to get the experience out of my head and write the story down. At TED 2011 I found myself describing my essay to several people, and promised that I would post it on my blog. Here it is… happy reading!
Dear family and friends:
A week or so ago I attended TED 6, a three day “state of the” Technology, Entertainment and Design worlds conference held in Monterey, CA. February had already been a blur for me… five days in Lake Tahoe at the Young Entrepreneur’s convention, presentation to the MIT Enterprise Forum in Cambridge, and four rocking days at the New York Toy Fair. By the time I arrived in Monterey, I was fairly fried and having serious doubts about whether this last bit of traveling would be worth it.
It was worth it, all right. This was one of the most power-packed, outrageous experiences I have ever been through… totally amazing, and for me, totally unexpected. With this narrative I’m going to try to capture a little bit of the spirit of the place before it starts to fade for me.
The conference started on Thursday morning with Alexander Tsiaras demonstrating a new medical imaging software system his team has developed. A good part of his talk featured 3-D images of his own head whirling dynamically on a computer screen, and we all watched in amazement as he shifted resolution from the muscles to the bones to the brain and back, spinning his cranium around and around in space and displaying it from every whichway. To me, the most fascinating thing was to see how deeply imbedded the eyes are into the brain and how big the optic nerves are, although at first I couldn’t believe that the images were not somehow fabricated or enhanced. The talk concluded, though, with an account of an operation on a two year old girl whose entire skull had to be removed from her brain and then reconstructed and refitted. Using images from Tsiaras’ machine, surgeons had cut their operating time down from eight to four hours, and the operation was a complete success… on the way out, I found myself fondling a little bit around my ears.
From there, the three days just pulsed with energy, as world class experts and artists and cutting-edge avant gardeists rolled out their best work one after another after another. Moses Znaimer gave us an incredible video introduction to Citytv, Toronto’s public access TV channel, apparently the most throbbing television station in world. Igor Aleksander came from London to show a neural net computer system that can recognize and remember patterns without memory storage; we got to see how the Shaq on Shaq and Budweiser cut-out football player commercials were made, by Bob Greenberg and Osbert Parker respectively,
Throughout the conference, optimism about the future was palpable… electronic money, limitless bandwidth, genetic engineering, computer displays you can wear like clothes. Somebody, Stuart Kauffman I think (one of several MacArthur grant winners in attendance) introduced the concept that we are now in the electronic equivalent of the Cambrian explosion, essentially the second most important time in the history of the planet. Someone else (Jonas Salk?) pronounced that we at the conference were all mutants; our host, Richard Saul Wurman, seconded this, declaring how pleased and proud he was that so many of us were having progeny at this time. (Wurman himself was wonderful throughout, a complete master at playing host to this melange.)
In his talk, Arno Penzias (Nobel Prize) declared that unemployment would be no problem in the future because of all the new job creation that was sure to come in the service sector. As an example, he mused that if we as a society were to simply abolish cars, we could fill our transportation needs with ubiquitous shuttle-bus services to be be run by computer switching systems and global positioning devices. The services would be controlled by those taxi-cab companies nimble enough to evolve into the role, and these presumably would then hire hundreds of thousands of service workers as fleet drivers. (!) Nicholas Negroponte chortled as he declared that he is now ready to cash in a bet (case of Dom Perignon) he made not 18 months ago that by the year 2000 there would be a billion people on the internet. A billion! The Dom! Foreordained by early ’95!
The spirit of celebration was everywhere, heady, self assured, at times dramatically reckless. After the first morning session which featured John Gage (Director of Science Office at Sun Microsystems), Nathan Myhrvold (Sr. VP Adv. Technology at Microsoft) and John Warnock (Chairman and CEO of Adobe), Alberto Vitale (Chairman and CEO of Random House) was unexpectedly called up for inclusion in a panel discussion to finish up the session. He was then summarily blown off the stage, just shut down cold, as Warnock informed him that an electronic tablet the same size as a magazine and just as comfortable for bedtime reading would be on the market within a year and a half. “Hey, we sometimes like to do unexpected stuff like this”, Wurman commented.
It was left to John Leo of US News & World Report, presenting the next day, to pick up the mantle of the actually printed word. Noting that Alberto had perhaps been a tad intimidated the previous morning, Leo asserted that books and mags do indeed remain more than just modern-day buggy-whip equivalents, as Myhrvold had whispered in a sidebar comment the previous morning. “Thanks, John, you’re a real pal”, we thought. “Now let’s get on with the show.”
“On with the show”, however, was not on the mind of Gloria Nagy, Wurman’s wife (novelist)… who got up on stage soon thereafter for an impromptu session. “I’ve come to five of these conferences now,” she said (liberal paraphrasing on my part), “And I’ve never seen anything like what I’m seeing now. Up ’til now, you little techno-snots have just slithered around the corners of these conference halls and kept to yourselves. But this year you’re suddenly everywhere, insisting that you possess the one true path to the future. What is it with you all? It’s like you have some demented need to choke out everything that doesn’t conform to your own twisted vision of things. I can see it… you’re turning into Nazi Thought Police, marching in the streets with your bonfires, ready to break into our homes and confiscate our old Smith Coronas and our back issues of the New Yorker so you can force us to read only your ideas on only your computer screens. Well, I have my own message… fuck you! If you’re going to take me down, come get me, but don’t expect me to do down easy. I’ll be kicking and screaming the whole way, you bastards!” To which everybody applauded wildly, the chief techno-culprits most of all. What fun! What controversy! What theater!
Wonderful sub-plots and sub-controversies played out all through the conference, like near and distant thunder. Distribution versus content, the future of mankind, will we have the wisdom to invent good new life forms once we achieve the technical capability to do so, political correctness. Interestingly, though, nothing much about resource constraints… nobody calculating when the oil supply is going to run out, for example. Whatever.
Jaron Lanier gave a great self-described controversial talk, warning us about the dangers of letting bad ideas like MSDOS and Bob take root in our culture without understanding the long term implications of this inaction. This he dubbed to be “sedimentation theory”, the idea that early-vector ideas settle deep and exert their influence for extended periods of time. People gasped, people reeled. But by the end of the second day, after having internalized the idea that we are in the midst of a neo-Cambrian explosion as grand and glorious as the original, the notion of fossils in the silt had come to seem perfectly reasonable. Who cares if intelligent agents are actually making us dumber? So many new forms of cyber-life are now forming, it might not even matter. Hey, it’s A Wonderful Life!
Stephen Jay Gould mercifully avoided this hype himself, instead presenting the audience with an elegant little essay on the history of evolutionary iconography, the march from slime mold to monkey to man. This March of Time calendar thing turns out to be an enormously powerful icon, with rich cultural meanings in America and Europe alike. It also turns out to be dead wrong, and worse, it turns out to have its structural origins back in heartland creationism, essentially amounting to a direct rip-off of the “And on the next day God created…” artistic genre. Implication… bad vectors in all our heads. Sedimentation. MSDOS!
Speaking of MSDOS, the Microsoft folks also were there, though they were not among those overtly looking for controversy. Nathan Myhrvold avoided corporate politics by a country mile, dazzling us instead with a compelling explanation of the origin of the universe… a tear in the space-time fabric caused by a medium-size black hole. Happens all the time, it turns out, our universe just got lucky in the balance of forces and stayed stable for a while. Myhrvold, who had promised to discuss Microsoft proper, finished his talk by calculating the fair market value of a Windows ’95 galaxy wide site license covering an area of 1,000 spherical light years, about $26MM at today’s electricity prices. Thanks.
Linda Stone, Director of Advance Technology, delivered on what we love most about Microsoft… with an impassioned plea, she implored us all to take risks, to explore, to challenge ourselves and to create new forms of expression and entertainment on the computer without burdening ourselves with base concerns such as profitability or copyright. “This is like the time of the Cambrian explosion!”, she cried, echoing the others. “Just explore where your hearts take you!” Sing sweetly, my Siren… we’re all safe here.
It was a rich show from end to end. Other notable presentations included Frank Gehry, who began by claiming how he distrusted computers and probably always would, and then (with several colleagues) launched into an inspired description of how his firm is designing outrageous free-form architecture and then relying on software to exactly specify all dimensions, all fittings and all construction techniques. Fantastically complex, totally new, exactly on time, within budget, fits right the first time, every time. Plus, architects and contractors can now communicate better than any time since the Middle Ages. (Another sub-theme… current revolution is bigger than Gutenberg.) Given these accomplishments, it is hard to argue with Gehry’s initial complaint that computer renderings do not completely reflect true reality to his satisfaction. When the revolution comes, he for one can keep his old New Yorkers.
Stuart Kauffman, in a virtually impenetrable talk, nonetheless left us warm and fuzzy with the notion that we will optimize our success in long run if we just ignore 7% of the noise in our lives… true both at the corporate level and for all life as we know it, by the way. Kauffman gets the award for the most primitive transparencies… hand scrawled jobs with fat magic marker. Several of us wondered later what might have transpired if Bob Greenberg had produced the AV portion of Kauffman’s talk.(!) Roger Schank, Director of the Institute of Learning Sciences at Northwestern, presented a fascinating interactive software learning program that he has been using with kids as well as for a variety of other purposes. The talk was engrossing, but turned momentarily strange when he demo’ed a custom program he had created for a regional water utility in England. In the program, the main characters suddenly began to look and act suspiciously like Roger Law’s Spitting Image puppets. (You had to be there to understand this, but it was bizarre, trust me.)
If there was bizarre, there was also pathos. I felt for the poor eco-biologist/artificial ecologist who gave an excellent talk but had the misfortune to be scheduled right after Stephen Jay Gould and right before Jonas Salk. No goodie bag for him as he left the stage… hopefully he picked his up later. And then there was the poor impassioned fellow with the elaborately choreographed presentation, who at the last minute was asked to move his speech up by a day because of a glitch in the T1 line. Without time to prepare the final polish but determined to stick to his scripted ballet, he proceeded to strip down from a clean suit through dress suit through turtleneck and finally down to his boxer shorts, metaphorically illustrating his thesis that man is a social animal whose body has stopped evolving, thus leaving our future in the hands of our minds (roughly speaking). Somehow it seemed a shame that he was reduced to reading his points off of notecards while standing in his U-trou on a darkened stage, especially considering the controversy potential of the topic. Later that evening over drinks, a number of us marveled at Richard Wurman’s ability to raise even the spirit of Sigmund Freud for a TED conference.
And there was entertainment. Late in the first day, Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone soothed us with a wonderful vibraphone/piano performance; Herbie Hancock & Raster Masters blew it out to shut down the second evening; and Hazel Miller began each morning with a beautiful sweet song. Penn and Teller performed Friday night, a reasonable effort that included a great levitation act featuring a woman plucked from the audience. Penn’s tour de force, though, was his production of Arno Pensias’ “Eat Chee-tos and Masterbate” joke on Saturday… rumor has it that Penn considers this to be a master stroke, so to speak. Look for his account on the screens of Hotwired in the not-too-distant future!
If these conferences are incredible because of the issues, ideas, entertainment, stimulation and drama, they also turn out to be outrageous because of the intense real-time experiences that happen there. The day after Rick Smolan presented last year, we were told, he got on a plane and flew to Vietnam where he began work on the acclaimed Passage to Vietnam photo-journalism book. At this year’s TED conference we got a tour of the Passage to Vietnam CD, which looks to be right up there with the best CD ROM work ever done. In a separate tale, late on the last day Jane Metcalfe told us the story of how Wired Magazine was birthed at TED 2, and she and Louis Rossetto led us on a tour of the new HOTWIRED. (“If Wired is the chronicler of the digital revolution, Hotwired IS the digital revolution”(!))
The realtime feature for TED 6, though, was the Kevin Mitnick bust, which had happened just days prior to the conference. Both Tsutomu Shimomura (captor) and John Markoff (NYTimes reporter) were on hand the first day of the proceedings, and they blessed us with an impromptu 20 minute question and answer session right after lunch. Markoff told a great story of how he and Shimomura had been the first-ever witnesses at a Congressional hearing to request prior immunity for a felony that they intended to commit during the course of their testimony. It turns out that if one knows what one is doing, it takes a mere 14 keystrokes to turn a brand new AT&T cellular phone into a highly illegal general purpose cellular scanner-receiver. When called, they carted a fresh still-in-the-box phone into the proceedings and proceeded to surf the airwaves until they were ordered to desist.
Shimomura turns out to be not your average bear. When asked about a rumored deal for movie rights, he commented, “Yes, I have received something on this. That note is in my pile of notes.” “OK, so this is going to be a little bit mystical,” muttered Wurman into his off-stage mike. Later, fielding a long, rambling question which sought to explore civil liberties, the clipper chip, freedom of expression and the future of privacy in the information age, Shimomura summarized by saying “So the question is, is it ethical to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities?” (This was left dangling for me through most of the conference, until John Perry Barlow called for the internet community to secede from ordinary life, stop paying taxes, and declare the internet to be sovereign space. OK, those law enforcement authorities. Got it.)
My own personal experiences at the conference were nearly as extraordinary as the main events. During the opening session, for example, I found myself standing immediately beside Shimomura. On the way out we struck up a conversation, chatting about puzzles, about hanging around airports with Ken Thompson, and about how his vacation was being interrupted by the media furor. After a few minutes I managed a casual plug for my cousin Peter the news producer… in response to which Tsutomu scanned through his palmtop and said, “You mean the ABC guy, right? I’ve got email from him now.” Good luck Peter!
It was all like that. Coming out of the elevator on Saturday, I found myself being invited into a private demonstration going on in one of the hotel rooms. On display was a software product featuring the collected works of M.C. Escher indexable in several ways, an educational module on tesslations with video-over by Dale Seymour, and, as an added bonus, a group of yet-to-be-determined Scott Kim puzzles. Halfway through the demo, the door opened and in popped Jane Metcalfe, founder of Wired Magazine, with a friend… so we all hung out for a while, oohing and aahing at the software, great stuff. Only towards the end of the demo could I work up enough nerve to announce to everybody that, even though I had stumbled into the room by accident and didn’t know anybody there, I do happen to be one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject of brain-teaser puzzles and I was willing to weigh in that this was indeed a very promising program. To which everybody kind of looked at me blankly for a second and said “ahhh, right,” then returned to their conversations in progress. Ah well… their loss.
Overall the experience was euphoric, slightly hallucinogenic at times. It was only fitting for John Perry Barlow to tell us, late on the last day, that as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead he didn’t have to hide the fact that he had tripped a zillion time in the past thirty years like the rest of us did. For a moment I imagined being on acid, until a more powerful thought overtook me… that Barlow might make a good next candidate for Alexander Tsiaras’s computer-aided CT scanner. From there it was a chip shot to flash to the idea that a free brain-scan with viewing software could be a great raffle prize to give away at the next conference… except that there isn’t going to be another conference. Oh shit.
The Saturday wrap-up was perhaps the most endorphic experience of all. After the last speaker (a humanist, word guy), Tom Rielly of the Digital Queers passed out helium balloons to the 500 or so of us who remained, and we all inhaled deeply and sang Happy Birthday in al donaldo soprano to Richard Wurman, who will turn 60 next month for what he rightly considers to be a milestone year. After raffling off a Sun Microstation and assorted other prizes, we then headed across the street for a final dinner bash where we drank and ate and all deeply bonded with each other one last time. As Wurman had promised, those of us whose age ends in a “0” all gathered during the midst of the party for a mondo-birthday group celebration. I found a spot right up in front, with Jonas Salk immediately to my left celebrating his 80th and Linda Stone to my right sharing her 40th with me, a bunch of other folks around and behind. We all basked in the glow as Hazel Miller came close and sang Happy Birthday to All of Us. Talk about trippy… as I stood there I couldn’t help but observe that Jonas Salk has the exact same body structure as does my Dad, and that at the time of the celebration, Dad was in the last day of his 80th year, just prior to his 81st birthday. Holy TED! Happy Birthday to all!
Binary Arts… The Smarttoy People
P.S. The following Monday I spent with our new internet provider, where I learned we had received clearance for PUZZLES.COM as a domain name. You’re all invited to come visit us at www/puzzles.com/puzzles, soon under construction and due to be humming by April or May. Our job will be to broil your brains!