Civic Lee Speaking

The Vancouver Sun
Published February 24, 2013 at 12:03pm

Original Source: The Vancouver Sun

I have a confession to make likely to cause some people to roll their eyes. In the case of my 30-something sons, they have already put their heads in their hands and moaned.

Until the organizers of the TED conference announced recently that they were moving it to Vancouver from California, I’d never watched any of the TED Talks videos.
Barely even heard of them.

Oh, I knew about them through my wife, who told me about Sheryl Sandberg’s view of why we have too few women leaders. Guess what my wife is.

But really, I have to be honest and tell you that except for the story in 2009 about Bill Gates releasing some mosquitos into the audience while talking about the need to solve the scourge of malaria, TED had never really made it into my consciousness.

Now, before you mutter “what a moron,” think of the upside of this. Here’s a middle-aged white guy who has spent nearly four decades as a journalist exposed to story generation, news and bright ideas. I can figure out – usually – what makes a good story and how to get it. I’ve covered national, provincial and municipal politics, been a war correspondent, covered the scenes behind the Olympics, been thrown into the middle of fast-developing crises and undertaken complex investigations that have led to changes in public policies. In other words, I’m not really a dummy.

And yet I’ve never been exposed to the ideas-exchange power of TED.

I don’t know whether that makes me supremely naive, criminally stupid or just plain damn lucky.

Lucky, you say? Why is that?

Because for the next week I’ll be exposed to some very smart people talking to even more smart people, all of whom presumably have lofty goals of bettering the world in which they live. I’ll be covering TED from Long Beach, writing stories, live-blogging and searching out the most interesting elements for you to read. I feel like I won the stories lottery of a lifetime.

I’ve not been exposed, until recently, to the supreme cynicism of some people who think TED’s format of short-burst talks in front of folks capable of paying an astonishing entrance fee of $7,500 a ticket is either elitist in the extreme or just misguided. My colleague Gary Mason, the national columnist for The Globe and Mail – whom I dearly love and respect – suggested in a recent column that TED might have descended into “new-agey mumbo-jumbo futurism.” He based that comment in part on the negative views espoused by Alex Pareene in a Salon article, and a highly critical book review by Evegny Morozov in The New Republic.

I haven’t developed the same judgement. I still have an open mind about what TED might be about. My rudimentary exposure has led me to think this is an ideas-exchange conference that exposes interesting ideas to people. Yes, the fee is high. Yes, Big TED in Long Beach caters to the very rich and famous, most of whom I’ll assume are treated differently from the rest of the crowd. Yes, the rest of us get to experience TED only through the videos posted in the Internet, books, licensed TEDx events and other distribution methods its owners, the non-profit Sapling Foundation, choose to make available.

But here’s the rub. What is objectionable about spreading good ideas, research and discoveries about the world in which we live?

TED isn’t holding back this information for itself. It makes these ideas freely available on the Internet. It gives its TEDx license away for free. It promulgates discussion and dialogue, using mass communication avenues available.

Someone has to pay for that. If it happens to be the Bill Gates and Larry Pages and Jeff Bezos of the world who help pay for that dissemination, isn’t that what we’d expect?

I’m not suggesting that everything TED puts up for discussion is great. In every crowd you will find the ill-prepared, the ill-informed, egotists, charlatans and those who just don’t care. I’m sure there are some who go to TED just for the purpose of trying to promote themselves to some of these philanthropists. I’m equally sure that there are TED talks that never make it to YouTube simply because they were off the mark, irrelevant or just plain bad.

But look around and you will also find individuals who have something to offer, who have observations that contribute to their neighbours, community, country, world.

Why is that something to scoff at?

Michael Green, the Vancouver architect who will speak at TED on Wednesday about the potential of tall wooden skyscrapers to offer a partial solution to climate change, told me last week we’re a society that sometimes doesn’t know how to celebrate success.

“I think there is a concept of what Australians call tall poppy syndrome, when one poppy grows taller than the rest in the field and there is a tendency to want to lop it off.

“I think that is a natural human instinct for not wanting somebody to shine, and for everybody to stay at the same level. We see that in our actors and in our musicians. We let them get big and then we find reasons to criticize them.

“With TED, I think that’s what happens. They’ve become a very successful organization doing something really meaningful for the world and now people want to found the counterpoint. It’s not that we hate success. It is that there is a mixture of jealousy or envy mixed with the reality that everybody is imperfect. Of course we’re not perfect. We give our celebrities a little bit of rope and then we reel them back in.”

Green went on to criticize my industry’s constant need for balance.

“The other part of this is media, and media’s need to sort of tell a point and counterpoint type of story. The climate change story tells that point the best. The vast majority of scientists are in alignment with that, with nuanced differences of opinion. But if you watch CNN, they are going to put a climate change denier to present the case as if it was equal. You choose. We are doing a great disservice to an organization like TED, when 99.99 per cent of what they do is just unbelievably transformative to society, and take that .01 per cent of a flaw and try to make it equal.”

Perhaps I will change my mind once I see TED up close and personal. Perhaps I won’t. But what’s most important is that I will bring an open mind and try not to close it before I’ve been exposed to what they have to offer.