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Dispatch from TED: Ingesting information and sampling celebrity

Artist Janet Echelman speaks at TED2014 yesterday in Vancouver

I’m attending my first TED this week, a spectacle to behold even for a hardened conference-goer like me. In its 30th year, TED has convened its main conference in Vancouver for the first time. The sun was shining on the harbor as attendees filed into the convention center Monday afternoon. It was an auspicious start.

It’s hard to pin TED down. My plane from San Francisco was full of many of the people who work the tech-conference circuit and whom I’m likely to see on plenty of other planes. I sat next to a famous patent lawyer who represents some of the Valley’s biggest companies. The chief technology officer of an esteemed IT company sat behind us. A couple of successful VCs were onboard as well.

Yet the conference itself isn’t primarily a business conference. Not only is it not a business conference, it’s something of a non-business conference attended by a ton of businesspeople. As an aside, TED is owned by a non-profit entity that makes an absolute killing on the event, judging from the $7,500-and-up attendance fee and the oodles of corporate sponsors, including Adobe, Delta Airlines, Jawbone, Autodesk and Target, to name just a few I noticed. The hallways of the conference are a little like the outfield walls of major-league ballparks: Every inch is for sale.

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And what their money buys! Everything about TED is gorgeous. The conference built a new theater just for the event. The artist Janet Echelman created an amazing rope sculpture in the public space outside the convention center, and she described her creation to the audience at the outset. It was one of the highlights of the opening evening. Another amazing moment was a TED talk by the DJ and music producer Mark Ronson. In a highly entertaining speech, he passionately surveyed the history of “sampling,” the largely hip-hop practice of borrowing from the past with an artist’s own twist. It would be hard to imagine Ronson taking the stage at any other industry conference I’ve attended. (The audience is eclectic as well: As I waited to go into the opening session I said hello to Isabel Allende and told her I’d been enjoying her books since I was in college.)

The first session’s other choices were less inspiring. The MIT Media Labs founder Nicholas Negroponte opened the conference. TED impresario Chris Anderson said Negroponte gave the first TED talk in 1984, however TED founder Richard Saul Wurman later contradicted that assertion, making for an awkward moment. Negroponte took an informative walk down TED’s memory lane, reflecting on his 14 talks and the increasing size of his bald spot over the years. Curiously, he saved some of his best material for last, when his 18 allotted minutes had almost expired. He thinks the “Internet of things” so far has been “incredibly pathetic” because the intelligence is being added to cell phones rather than the devices they are meant to control. Negroponte thinks connecting the “last” billion people to the Internet is the tech world’s biggest challenge, not the “next” billion. He ran out of time for a planned prediction, and Anderson wisely asked him to make it anyway. It was a doozy: Negroponte believes that in 30 years we will be able to ingest information—rather than read or see it—and that the brain will be able to then send information through the body’s bloodstream to where it is needed.

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Other opening talks were emotional if unfulfilling. Canadian hero Chris Hadfield, an astronaut who lived on the International Space Station, gave an overproduced romp through the theme of “fear versus danger” by way of describing his adventures in space. An accomplished guitarist, he ended his talk by playing the “Major Tom” ode from David Bowie’s song Space Oddity. Education activist Ziauddin Yousafzai won applause for noting that until his daughter Malala was attacked by the Taliban in Pakistan she was his daughter but now he is known as her father. He was outshone, however, by a short video recorded in England by Malala herself, who wisely stayed home to pursue her studies.

The opening TED evening ended with a giant party that included, for me, anyway, more tech-crowd schmoozing. As a left the building to head to my hotel I held the door open for two women engaged in a deep conversation who were walking a few steps behind me. Only after the first of the two thanked me and I was on my way in the opposite direction did I notice that the two were Sara Ramirez and Shonda Rhimes, an actor on and the creator of, respectively, the TV series Grey’s Anatomy.

Ho-hum. It’s just the first evening at TED.