Patrick Pittman on Chris Anderson
I work in a building full of extraordinary people. These people are never so excited as when they are sharing their latest discovery from the thousand or so presentations on TED Talks.
Whether it’s a scientist prodding a brain, Bill Gates releasing mosquitoes into a crowd, a demonstration of a new prosthetic arm, a printable kidney, a mapping of the multiverse, or just a magic show, we gather around laptops enthusiastically carried between offices, gasping at the possibility of ideas. We’re nerds that way.
Chris Anderson made his fortune in publishing, back when people could make their fortune in publishing (we have not, as yet, made our fortune in publishing). He grew up in Pakistan, the child of medical missionaries. After a childhood that took him through the Himalayas, Afghanistan and India, he pioneered the British computer magazine industry. In the 1980s and early 1990s his company Future Publishing was responsible for some of the biggest-selling magazines around. These were the magazines that made my unashamedly geeky childhood bookshelves sag. Around the turn of the century, after moving across the pond and cracking the American market, Chris turned his attention to a much more ambitious project: changing the world.
The TED conference had been taking place in California since the early 1980s. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) was, historically, a place where well-to-do entrepreneurs could gather and be inspired by revolutionary thinkers, and by each other. After Chris and his not-for-profit foundation took the reins in 2001, TED went through some remarkable changes. Over the course of a decade, it has become a stage upon which some of the world’s greatest and most innovative thinkers share their ideas and, in eighteen minutes, give the talk of their lives, to an audience of hundreds of millions.
The real revolution happened in 2006, when Chris and his team made the decision to give all of their content away, on the internet, for free. A conference which had often been described as a fascinating, elitist playground of ideas for the privileged (who could afford the several-thousand-dollar seats) became a radical force for the spread of innovation. Its audience spiralled into the hundreds of millions.
In 2008, the conference spread its tentacles further into the grassroots with the launch of TEDx, a brand and toolkit for community-organised conferences staged around the world with the endorsement of central command. There are now several hundred TEDx conferences taking place every year, run by volunteers and attended by thousands.
TED has grown from a conference into a movement of ideas. Chris has come to believe that the power to share video online may well become one of the most important innovations in human history, up there with Gutenberg. As we attempted to speak on Skype, and I took in the pixelated bookshelves of TED’s New York offices, we grappled with disappearing sound and stuttering video, leading me to believe we may be a way off of that ideal. But Chris’s enthusiasm and world-changing fervour can’t be quelled by the simple limitations of the technology we have—the future is just around the corner.