As critics grow ahead of its 30th anniversary, Chris Anderson continues to build brand TED.
Chris Anderson was sitting in a very low-power pose. Off to the side at an all-staff meeting at TED’s New York headquarters in January, he was folded forward with his hand on his neck, a posture that communicates self-protection according to the 2012 TED Talk on body language by social psychologist Amy Cuddy (15.7 million views).
By letting his employees give mini TED Talks on what they were working on, Anderson was allowing for what Alain de Botton, in his 2009 TED Talk (2.9 million views), called “a kinder, gentler philosophy of success”.
When Anderson took the floor himself, he raised the question, “What are we building today that honestly is going to impress historians in 2,000 years?” It could have come straight from the playbook on “practical wisdom” outlined in a 2009 TED Talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz (1.9 million views).
At 57, Anderson, the British former magazine publisher and Internet entrepreneur who took over the organisation in 2001 and built it into a colossus, is in many ways the embodiment of his famous ideas organisation. Like the TED Talks millions love, Anderson is high-minded but sometimes inaccessible, forward thinking to the point of “whoa”, and so earnest it can be easy to smirk.
But as the 30th anniversary TED Conference this month in Vancouver, British Columbia, approaches, Anderson, forever mild-mannered, is quietly celebrating all he’s accomplished.
What began somewhat modestly in 1984 when architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman summoned 300 friends and colleagues to Monterey, California, to discuss Technology, Entertainment and Design, now has more angles to it than a Mandelbrot set. Part of Anderson’s non-profit Sapling Foundation, the organisation has two annual conferences (this month’s includes 1,200 attendees from 42 countries), the free online collection of more than 1,600 TED Talks has been viewed 2 billion times, a $100,000 TED Prize, a TED Fellows programme and global education initiative, TED digital books, the TED Radio Hour and TEDx events in more than 150 countries.
By helping turn under-the-radar “thought leaders” like Salman Khan, Daniel Gilbert, Brené Brown and Sir Ken Robinson into best-selling authors and lecture-circuit Godzillas, the TED stage has replaced Oprah Winfrey’s couch as the platform most likely to thrill one’s publicist, publisher, accountant and mother-in-law. Al Gore, who first spoke at TED in 1996, for 18 minutes or less, as per the guidelines Anderson established, said: “Every time I have a feeling that TED has come so far that it is about to jump the shark, it doesn’t. Instead, it renews itself.”
Not everyone thinks that way. Lately, Anderson has spent nearly as much time defending his operation as he has running it. Thomas Frank wrote an essay in Salon last October with the headline, ‘TED Talks Are Lying to You’, about the perils of turning “innovation” into an industry.
Then in December at an independent TEDx event in San Diego, Benjamin H Bratton, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, used his moment on TED’s round red rug to talk smack about TED itself. Bratton called TED “a recipe for civilisational disaster,” pointing to the tent-revival nature of the talks, the faith in technology and what Bratton called a “dumbing-down” of complex science and scholarship. Spreading ideas via short orations adds up to “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”, he said.
In person, Anderson is less imposing and certainly shyer than the Yoda figure in a Nehru jacket on the TED stage. “I’m terrible at the kind of conversations that are normally expected in a social environment,” he said. Susan Cain, whose 2012 TED Talk on introversion has been viewed nearly 8 million times, said of Anderson, “He’s an introvert, I’d say, definitely.”
In recent weeks, Anderson has been blasting back at TED’s naysayers. He comments on threads critical of TED on Reddit and he wrote an essay in The Guardian in January, explaining why most complaints about TED are based on misconceptions. TED is not leftist propaganda nor corporate-sponsored misinformation, he said. And because TED is a non-profit, nobody is getting rich off the $6,000 conference fees that many like to bring up. As for the dumbing down of Internet content, Anderson smiled wryly and said: “Compared to what? Hilarious cat videos?”
The son of British medical missionaries who grew up in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Anderson said he spent much of his childhood “reading, observing and lying out, looking at the stars and thinking about ideas”. After studying philosophy at Oxford, he turned to journalism, writing about the convergence of video games and computing, before moving to the publishing side.
With fortunes made and lost and made again in publishing, Anderson purchased TED with the idea that it would “change minds and maybe the world,” he said.
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