Tech confab with a conscience goes global

"Chris Anderson has put together an amazing organization," says Wurman, who last hosted TED in 2002 but attended the Long Beach show. "My hat's off to him. I don't want to turn the clock back. He has taken the DNA I gave him, and transformed it in a positive way."

'Thou shall not sell'

TED was never intended to be a typical tech show. In many ways, it was the anti-trade show: a summit focused on the convergence of technology and entertainment, and on ideas colliding. While selling was the central theme at Macworld, Comdex and PC Expo, TED dabbled in intellectual curiosity.

One so-called TED commandment underscores its vibe: "Thou shall not sell." (Another restricts featured speeches to 18 minutes, to avoid long-windedness. Audience members can comment for three minutes.)

"Back in the day, we had execs but they were specifically told not to sell," Wurman says. "I remember when (former Microsoft chief technology officer) Nathan Myhrvold did not once mention Microsoft."

As tech becomes more mainstream with the sweeping popularity of iPhone, Facebook and Twitter, TED has transitioned with the times into a bigger brand, says Steve Case, the AOL co-founder who is now CEO and founder of Revolution, his investment firm.

"There will always be people who reminisce to how it used to be," Case says. "It's like a rock band. Someone who saw (Bruce) Springsteen in a club will long for that same experience after he moved to arenas and stadiums."

Anderson credits the show's increasing sweep and growing vitality to the resurgence of the dramatic talk, as exemplified by Gore's work on global warming in An Inconvenient Truth. (Gore delivered the same speech, before the documentary's debut, at TED in 2006.)

The art of live presentations "is experiencing a renaissance," Anderson says. TED is "like a campfire, with a camp elder sharing a story. There is no man in a suit and tie, reading behind a lectern."

"It used to feel like a gathering of the cool, trendy kids," says Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of MIT's Technology Review, the world's oldest technology magazine. Today, he says, it is a "glossy, elegant piece of intellectual theater." After skipping TED a few years, he says he's decided the show is now "too big to ignore."

To be sure, the show can be esoteric, but it is still considered vital after 25 years — eons in Internet time.

"They can joust with windmills and lose focus (with some of their presentations), but this stuff never ceases to blow my mind," says McNamee, who has been to TED several times.

"It is brain candy," McNamee says. "For four days, you see and hear (stuff) that blows your mind."

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