FORTUNE — TED, which stands for ‘technology, entertainment and design,” is almost impossible to characterize beyond that ridiculously broad rubric. Best known for its slick, 18-minute “talks,” some of the best speakers on Tuesday read from their typewritten texts. Most of its highly accomplished speakers wear sneakers despite being on one of the world’s most important stages. (Female speakers are more likely to dress professionally and stylishly; the men have been cowed by tradition into not wearing neckties.)
My biggest surprise so far at TED, taking place this week at a convention center on the harbor in Vancouver, is the uneven quality of the talks. Knowing the Steve Jobs-like rehearsal regimen TED’s producers impose on presenters, I expected to be wowed by every talk. But upon reflection, that just wasn’t realistic on my part. Besides, judging a speech is a highly subjective endeavor. What sings every time is the production value of the entire conference. The seamless flow is nothing short of stunning, and the content itself in an eclectic collection of lectures that can best be described as the most intense college seminar you never attended.
Bran Ferren, a “technology designer” who once was a Disney “Imagineer,” is a case in point of the TED serendipity and diversity. With almost no visuals, he read a speech that was the opposite of slick — and totally engaging. He likened the Internet to concrete, a valuable building material but no more than that. He gave perhaps the most compelling explanation I’ve heard for why what he called “autonomous vehicles” will be one of the most positive developments for civilization for years to come. Self-driving cars, once they are perfected, will reduce pollution, eliminate congestion and “recapture vast amounts of lost productivity,” said Ferren, due to all the time humans no longer will be stuck in traffic. There are a few kinks left to be worked out, like teaching cars how to “wake up” their passengers for input about surroundings best left to a human to analyze.
The best talk of the day, in my book, was a rollicking presentation on three decades of architectural history by the architect Marc Kushner. He lucidly explained that architects swing on a predictable pendulum from innovation (which they love but the public often hates) to symbols (which bore them but the public finds comforting). “Symbols are easy and cheap,” said Kushner, with architectural disdain. “Instead of making places, we make symbols of places.” Good news though: Kushner says digital media is changing everything because architects now have the ability to seek real-time feedback from their clients and the public as their projects are being built. He cited a public building on Fire Island in New York that his firm designed and posted drawings about on Facebook and Instagram as it moved from planning to construction. He said residents already knew what to expect by the time the innovative building was finished. And they liked it.
Edward Snowden was Day 2’s surprise highlight. Chris Anderson, TED’s “curator,” interviewed a robot that moved around the stage with a video screen with Snowden’s face broadcast from his undisclosed location in Russia. Listening to Snowden speak at length was riveting and revelatory. He comes across as totally reasonable, sane and convincing. He made a strong case for his motivations, love him or hate him. “Who I am doesn’t really matter at all,” Snowden said. “What matters are the issues.” The issues that Snowden passionately argued are the rights to privacy he says his former contract employer, the National Security Agency, has trampled. “Your rights matter because you never know when you’re going to need them,” he said. “They are part of our cultural identity” as Americans. Snowden also called on big U.S. Internet companies to encrypt web browsing on their sites as a default setting, which would prevent governments, including the U.S., from gaining easy access to the behavior of U.S. citizens.
In an interesting moment, TED’s Anderson asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought Snowden was a hero or a villain. About 10% rejected his heroic status, and a louder, more enthusiastic group supported Snowden. Anderson astutely noted that many people — myself included — didn’t raise their hands at all. Importantly, Anderson noted that he invited the NSA to send a representative to the conference, and that they claimed logistical challenges. Given that he’d accommodate a video hookup for the NSA as well, it’d be a fascinating contrast if they accepted his invitation. I left the extended interview, which lasted much longer than 18 minutes, convinced that Snowden has done a service to the country. But I am unprepared to say he shouldn’t be punished for what obviously are violations of the law.
Another highlight of the day was Amanda Burden, the head of planning for New York under Michael Bloomberg. She explained the painstaking process of zoning in support of a policy to ensure that all new housing development in New York take place within a 10-minute walk of a subway station. She detailed her constant fights with real estate developers, including the builders of the massive Hudson Yards project (featured last year on the cover of Fortune magazine), who wanted to tear down and then re-build a portion of the now treasured High Line park. “Commercial interests will always battle against public spaces,” said Burden.
Eclecticism didn’t end with self-driving cars, architecture, national security and urban planning. David Kwong, a magician and New York Times crossword puzzle creator dazzled the crowd by combining his two professions while presenting the thesis that “human beings are wired to solve.” (The New York World published the first crossword puzzle 100 years ago. Who knew?) Physicist Michel Laberge spoke about commercializing fusion, activist Peggy Liu reviewed environmental efforts in China, typeface designer Matthew Carter discussed the technology behind creating new fonts in the computer age, and documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen described her efforts to track the histories of civil rights with gay rights in the U.S.
TED also knows how to change the pace of events, understanding that a repetitive cadence of talks of just one length would get boring. So in the afternoon Tuesday it gave past speakers the opportunity to update quickly their popular talks from past TEDs. The famed psychologist Phil Zimbardo explained the demise of “guys” and suggested things are getting worse. (He says schools are “feminized” by too few male teachers and that Japanese men are so hooked on computer porn they don’t want to have the traditional kind of sex.) The oceanographer David Gallo said the only word he can think of to describe a climate denier is “dumb ass.”
Bill and Melinda Gates were the focal point of the final session, in addition to a charming and enjoyable performance by Sting. The Gateses didn’t say much new, though they did show photos of their children, they said, because the kids told them they want the world to know they care deeply about the philanthropic work their parents are doing with the Gates Foundation.
It’s a lot for one day. Expect more Thursday.