PATRICK PITTMAN: As somebody who remembers looking in awe at the first issue of Zzap!64 in my cousin’s bedroom back in the mid 1980s, it’s quite a privilege to be speaking to the man who founded it.
Oh my goodness! Wow. That is a long time ago.
I think the art of the magazine has moved on a little since then, but that was a hilarious time. It was one of the first magazines that was put together with computerised typesetting.
It’s a very different game than the current one. It’s funny though, I think there was something different going on then, even in those magazines, that was inspiring me. It was a different game you were playing to the publishing industry at the time.
We weren’t fully sure of the language to talk about it then, but I guess the narrative was passion and authenticity, and trying to tap into real voices.
There was nothing more exciting at the time than computers, and they were being written about by slightly cynical jaded professionals. The insight with that magazine was to find the kids who were really passionate about it and teach them to write, rather than try to inject passion into jaded hacks who were never going to get the excitement of that new world.
Passion was the clue, when I first went to TED, that there was something really special there. That’s part of why I fell in love with it and decided it was the kind of thing you could devote a life to. So there’s a tenuous connection, at least.
That moment, when you first went to TED, and decided that you were going to buy this conference—was that a lightning bolt moment, an “I have to do this”?
I’d made some money from the magazine world. I knew that at some point I wanted to figure out some way of using some of that money to make a difference, but it wasn’t clear how.
I was interested in all the upsides of human intention: technology, mass media, education, entrepreneurship. All of those things were of interest, but the single biggest amplifier has always been the great idea, the idea whose time has come, because it spreads of its own accord, sweeping all before it, rewiring brains as it goes, persuading people to do its bidding [laughs].
There was certainly a lot of excitement that there was something very special happening here, but it took several years to actually acquire TED and put it into the foundation, and then to realise that this was something that I could spend all of my time on. That was a process, but the falling in love was a lightning bolt.
It was a very powerful first year experience. It wasn’t on the first day, there was bafflement mainly then—why on earth was I listening to people from all these different disciplines? Did I really need to listen to architects, primatologists and so on? It didn’t make sense, because we don’t normally do that. We’re interested in the thing that we’re working on. Most of us have tunnel vision and we’re focussed on that. We’re told that that’s what you have to do to be successful—focus, dig deep, all that sort of stuff, to the extent that many people have lost the context of their work, and the fact that knowledge is connected.
You actually don’t really truly understand anything unless you understand the context in which it happens.
There is unbelievable inspiration and wisdom to be gained from listening to people well outside your field. The breakthrough spark often comes from outside the little box in which you’re focussed. All those things in their different moments were clear in a way at that very first TED.
But it was a very personal story of Aimee Mullins, the athlete who unscrewed her artificial leg on stage and changed it for a different one, and talked about possibility in a very personal way. I was sitting there with tears streaming down my face, thinking, “Okay, I get it, I get what people love about this thing.” The journey since then has been one of trying to let what was special there out into the world.
The revelation a few years back of the power of the creative commons, and that these talks could be given away for free, that changed things again. It brought these ideas out into the world, well beyond that stage in California. Were you prepared for what happened there?
Back in 2002 when I first took over, YouTube was in no-one’s mind, and the power of online video and what that would mean, that just didn’t exist.
The early thoughts about what it meant to let TED out into the world were around the TED Prize—let’s get behind one of these ideas as a whole community and try to make it real—and things like early versions of our Fellows program—not everybody can afford to come to this thing, so let’s pick people who really should be here and pay for them to come.
We had a hopeful notion of a bigger audience, but we didn’t know how to do it. We’d talked with some TV companies about putting TED on TV, and really nobody was interested—“Talking heads are terrible television, you can’t possibly do that!” We thought they were wrong, but no-one was interested.
The economics eventually allowed online video to work. When you think about it, in pretty much two years, the de facto cost of sending one person’s heartfelt message from point A in the world to point B fell from about two dollars, when you’d have had to duplicated it onto a DVD and mail it in 2003, to a penny in 2006. There’s a spectacular cost reduction, and it really did change what was possible. Suddenly a whole bunch of things could be shared online that could never be shared before.
We decided to take a risk with some of the talks, a little bit fearful that we were giving away the crown jewels, but it felt like the right thing to do. The astonishing thing for us was not so much that it was hard to interpret the numbers—a few thousand people watched, it was neither small nor big—but what was special was the tone of the reactions to that experiment.
The people who were seeing them were reacting in ways that you could tell that the talks had just got inside their heads.
They made them laugh, they made them excited, they made them want to email all their friends, they made them weep. They sparked passion, and that was thrilling. That, to me, has always been the clue that you are onto something. It persuaded us to reengineer TED—instead of being a conference, it became a website. The conference generated the content, but the real audience was online, and it became “ideas worth spreading”.
A few months after that, in early 2007, we launched the new TED.com, and ever since, we’ve seen this constant upward march of viewership, which has been pretty exciting to see.
You draw a possibly outlandish comparison between the online video revolution and Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press. Will it really be that significant in our history?
It sounds preposterous at first, it sounds like a cheap throw- away statement, but I actually think it is true. The reason it’s true is that human-to-human communication is powerful at a whole new level, more so than written communication can ever be.
It’s a cliché to say that ninety per cent, or pick a number, of communication is non-verbal, I don’t know if that is dependable, but certainly a lot of communication is non-verbal. When a speaker in a theatrical situation is surrounded by a watching audience, they are tracking every movement of their eyes, every emotional twitch on their face, every sound of vulnerability or confidence in their voice. They’re looking at their gestures, at their body language, but there’s an explosion of activity going on in the audience that you don’t get by reading print.
Some of it is actually quite mysterious, but at its best it is unbelievably powerful. My view is that online video has allowed that process, that experience, to go global, and that is a very big deal. It’s meant that, for the first time ever, the world’s most ambitious communicators, instead of spending all their time writing—which has been the right strategy for the last 500 years—can actually consider communicating directly, and for some of them, for people with the right talent who can figure it out, that becomes an extraordinary platform.
Suddenly there are these invisible people, who had brilliant ideas but no real way of getting them out there, with global audiences in the millions. It has transformed them, and is in danger of sending ripples right across the world.
It’s a very thrilling thing.
Viewed from the student end of it, this is an amazing time. For the first time in history, any ambitious student gets to sit and meet, a foot away on their screen, the world’s most gifted teacher in their subject, and learn directly from them. That’s an incredible thing. So it’s exactly that: it’s a giant leap in the very process of spreading ideas, and there will be huge knock-on effects.
It interests me how this changes our ideas of the ways in which innovation and learning come about. Traditionally we have a very linear view of pedagogy—you learn one thing, you learn on top of that, you learn on top of that, you gain skills, and you create. Something that happens in the online video world, and particularly with TED, is that beautiful thing that comes about in the pool of ideas, of the pool of brilliance, of people who challenge, who open up spaces. Learning isn’t linear in there—there’s innovation in the chaos. It’s a pretty fertile ground, isn’t it?
It is fertile, and I don’t think it’s fully understood. It’s clear that a lot of learning is best thought of as linear. For example, to learn mathematics, there are certain skills you need to learn before you can learn other skills. However there are also many, many areas where the right way to think of ideas, or of innovation, is that those things happen as a result of the collision of different ideas in unexpected ways.
Matt Ridley’s phrase is that ideas spread by having sex, and I think that’s a perfectly good way to think of it. Every receiving brain out there is different, everyone is prepped a little differently, and when you combine a set of ideas from here, and a set of ideas from there, and mix them up, it’s in the mixing and in the provocation and in the catalytic work that occasionally something truly spectacular and new pops out.
Steven Johnson talks about ideas being liquid networks. This is why multidisciplinary thinking and provocation is so powerful, you can have these giant ah- ha! moments. Personally, for me about fourteen months ago, I had one of those moments watching a dance troupe. I realised that the process that had pulled them together—recruitment over the internet—and had driven their skills— seeing dancing online and that driving them to better themselves—was the exact same process that I’d seen happening in TED speakers: improvement through being shown stuff.
It got me very excited about the role that online video plays in innovation. By opening yourself up to stimulation from these different ideas, you can get a moment of blinding excitement from seeing the pieces together.
In your role as a curator, whether you’re presenting a scientist talking about emergent intelligence, or somebody designing a building in a desert, or a performance artist, or a robotics pioneer, or whatever, how do those go towards telling a story? Do you guide that by your own intellectual curiosities?
It’s a mixture of art and science, there’s no cast iron formula. In terms of putting a program together, it does seem to work to give exposure to lots of different parts of the brain. The reason that people get exhausted and bored at conferences is that they’re being hit again and again with one particular type of thinking. It’s your left-brain, analytical thinking, analytical thinking, analytical thinking, all in the same subject area. After not too long, it’s “take me out of here, I need coffee and I need it now.”
If you mix it up a bit, not just in subject matter terms but in way of thinking, so you include the aesthetic, you include comedy, it just works, our brains say “thank you very much”, and they find extra inspiration from that. The hard stuff, you are somehow more motivated to understand it, and when you do understand it, you feel it with greater excitement than if you were just being endlessly exposed to one serious topic after another.
So that’s part of it, trying to explain the artful ways of mixing it up. Beyond that, we try each year to come up with a theme that’s narrow enough to be interesting but broad enough to allow a really large array of content, and then you try and take people on a journey. It often starts off with some big ideas, big new discoveries and so forth, and you weave in some storytelling and remarkable artistic endeavour. As time goes on, there’s music in there, there’s comedy. Towards the end you may have some very personal storytelling, from people who are willing to be vulnerable. By that point, people have come away from a very closed and defensive attitude, and are willing to embrace that. If all goes well, by the end of the four days, people have a very strong sense of possibility.
How have the TEDx conferences changed your idea of what TED is?
In lots of ways. It was a big surprise, the extent to which it has taken off. We’re getting about ten to twenty license applications per day at this point. We’re not accepting all of them, but there are three or four TEDx events every day in the world, and it has been absolutely incredible to see how much time and effort and brilliance these organisers are putting into these events.
They’re mostly selling out. It’s become a number of things. One of the most exciting things it has become is a global laboratory of reinvention in the art of human-to-human communication. People are learning from each other, and we are learning from them. My view is that it still early days in this reinvention process, the way in which rediscovering what a modern campfire really looks like, we’re all in the process of doing that. These organisers are playing a fantastic role in that— apart from anything else, they are recruiting this massive army of speakers from every city on the planet that people have heard of, and giving them a chance to shine. Thousands of TEDx talks are posted on YouTube, so it’s this huge content aggregator, and we get to cherry pick the best of those for our site. Right there, being a funnel of great ideas from all over the world is a very powerful thought, and it’s turned TED from being an organisation of 50 people in New York, to a global force of thousands of volunteers, who are all as passionate about TED as we are. It’s been amazing to see.
You’re a long way from growing up in Pakistan, learning in the Himalayas, through life as a magazine entrepreneur to a life now as a curator and steward of ideas for an impossibly large global audience. When you look at that now, do you trace a journey for yourself ? Do you see a consistent drive that you’ve had?
You know, I’m not sure that the narrative is about this vision of one person. My internal narrative on this is that TED has a life of its own. A number of things happened, I hired an amazing team, there’s a lot of talent and commitment here, people love TED’s mission and work their hearts out for it. It is spectacular seeing that team fly, but beyond that,
seeing this global army of volunteers, as translators and TEDx organisers, doing their thing, and realising that we’ve tapped into an idea whose time has come.
The world is at a point where mass media has let us down in certain ways, the conversation there has gotten hijacked, to the dramatic or the confrontational or celebrity gossip, and there are actually millions of people out there hungry to learn, who believe in the possibility of a better future, and believe that they might even play a role in shaping it. They get really, really turned on by people willing to share that vision.
TED is best thought of as a way of sharing ideas that just happens to be a great fit for the world that we’re in right now. It really, really works well live and really works well online. It really works live because it is profoundly respectful of the audience’s time. Speakers are expected to make a massive effort to make sure that their eighteen minutes are really valuable, and useful to other people. And that turns out to be a lot more interesting than listening to another “blah, blah, blah” panel. It works well online because it’s long enough to say something really serious and be a counterpoint to all the trivial buzz that’s out there, but it’s still short enough to go viral, to be listened to on a coffee break and forwarded to your friends.
For better or worse, you can’t grow up in an international school and spend time in lots of different countries and not end up as some kind of global soul, so my lens has always been that there’s a big world out there, with lots of issues, lots of problems, it would be nice at some point to figure out some way of contributing. So that’s been there and I’ve been looking for it, and there’s huge, huge serendipity in ending up at TED at the right moment in my life. I play a role, but this thing, if we hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. And TED of course is only a small part of it; there are lots of other people doing amazing things and sharing video online, this world in which you can tap into crowd wisdom, and we can connect with each other in a whole different way. It’s a very exciting time to live and to work in media.