GRAND RAPIDS, MI — This year’s TEDx conference theme was “What’s Connected?” but that doesn’t impress Richard Saul Wurman very much.
Wurman, an international figure and prolific author who co-founded the original TED conference in 1984 and sold it in 2003 for $14 million, was first up at the fourth annual TEDxGrand Rapids conference, a franchised TED event held Thursday, May 7 at the Civic Theater downtown.
Conference themes — which, at past Grand Rapids TEDx conferences have included “Tag,” “What Now” and “Innovate X” with X as an “undefined variable” — are essentially meaningless, Wurman said.
TED Conference founder Richard Saul Wurman, left, and Grand Rapids information architect Dan Klyn, right, on stage at TEDxGrand Rapids on May 7, 2014.Courtesy photo | TEDxGR Ashley Porter
Any word could be a theme, he said. “Theme and title mean nothing.”
“Conversation means something.”
Wurman’s TED Talk was his third speaking engagement in Grand Rapids this week. On Tuesday, he spoke at Fountain Street Church to the West Michigan Design Week audience, and was also closing keynote to the International Downtown Association’s Midwest Urban District Forum.
The 79-year-old Wurman grumbled a bit about his flight from Chicago on the TEDx stage, which he shared with Grand Rapids “information architect” Dan Klyn, who is writing Wurman’s biography.
The man once described as an “intellectual hedonist” with a “hummingbird mind” gave the invite-only audience a highly esoteric, stream-of-consciousness talk littered with colorful asides on everything from the typesetting in the Gutenberg Bible to why college graduation commencement speeches are “horsesh-t.”
When the unfiltered ramble ran long, Wurman seemed to get accidentally played off the stage to a bizarre video produced four years ago for his 75-year birthday.
While that might bother other TEDx speakers, Wurman shrugs it off.
“I gave a good speech last night,” he said, sitting in a back room at the Civic Theater after giving a TED Talk that he doesn’t quite expect to show up in polished form online. “I thought I didn’t give a good speech today.”
Wurman gets invited to about 50 TEDx events every year, but his talk in Grand Rapids was among a select few he’s ever agreed to.
These days, he likes the way the franchised events have spread the brand globally, but when the concept of licensing independent conferences run on the TED model was initially broached in 2009, he wasn’t the idea’s biggest fan.
“I thought was going to be stupid and would make the brand weak,” he said. “It has done the opposite.”
But Wurman isn’t shy about critiquing the changes in the TED model since he left. In contrast to the highly-orchestrated, famously-expensive, application-based conference that occurs annually in Long Beach, Calif., and is replicated ad nauseum in cities around the world, Wurman’s original concept was stripped-down and simple.
He didn’t announce speakers. No press passes. Admission was first come, first serve.
“The policy was to give a speech you haven’t given before, not to rehearse it.”
Now, it’s a big production that’s “curated” before appearing online.
“Now, there’s censorship,” Wurman said. “Every speech is edited before it goes online. Everything is rehearsed 100 times. People memorize them. Even the singer, what’s his name — Bono? He read his speech on the teleprompters with all kinds of directions — turn to the left, look over there, pause, all those things. I find that is television, that’s not a live event.”
TED’s deviation from its roots has spawned a cottage industry of TED critics in the last several years, punctuated recently by University of California San Diego visual arts professor Benjamin Bratton, who took the TEDx stage in December to give a talk called “What’s Wrong With TED Talks.”
The gist of Bratton’s critique is that the feel-good format leads to an over-simplification of complex ideas, a criticism that’s been lobbed at TED before. TED, which stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design,” is trafficking in “middlebrow megachurch infotainment,” Bratton argued.
Wurman addressed the criticism:
“Maybe some of them are (oversimplified),” he said. “But, maybe they don’t appear that to the people who watch them. Maybe they are helpful to people who don’t know that. It depends on who is criticizing.”
There are worse transgressions, he said.
“I don’t mind that,” he said. “I do mind anybody who sells a charity from the stage, who sells a product from the stage, a book from the stage; who is a CEO or a politician. Part of the basic premise — the guiding principles of TED for 18 years — was not to have those people. Now, it’s half that. It’s a completely different conference.”
“Richard, you are a deeply curious and deeply impatient man,” Anderson told Wurman before the large audience. “And that somehow made this format work; a format perfectly suited for the YouTube age.”
Wurman spoke briefly, saying, “in spite of doing other things” (he’s written more than 80 books) TED “will be in my obit.”
Whether he’s entirely comfortable with that is open to interpretation.
“What Chris has done, I couldn’t have done,” he said. “I wouldn’t particularly want to, but that’s not dumping on it. I think he has the capability to market something to get an enormous amount of sponsorships and things like that. Those things were anathema to me — publicity, PR, the outreach. Of course, there wasn’t the Internet then, but I did record everything over those first 18 years.”
“But those first 18 years of tape, he chooses not to put up on TED Talks, even though that’s when Google was first announced, when Java was first announced, the Segway, etc. etc.”
Why? “Because I think I’m in them.”