TED: Big Ideas

UPDATED: May 24, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 5, 2013

First things first, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Nearly a 30-year-old organization, it could never be accused of having modest aims, but it has fully blossomed since Chris Anderson, a media mogul, attended one of its conferences in 1998 and was so fascinated by the concept of knowledge-by-association that he took the whole thing over in 2001.

Ever since, Anderson’s mandate for TED has been nothing short of the mammoth yet beautifully simple goal of disseminating “ideas worth spreading.” His personal mantra embraces the notion that a powerful enough idea has sufficient force to alter our lives, our attitudes… everything.

For Anderson, TED is, at its core, a cerebral warehouse where knowledge and provocative ideas, ambitions and goals are shared by some of the world’s greatest achievers. Its content is drawn from an endless variety of disciplines—the arts and philanthropy, science, religion, humanities, nongovernmental organizations, and business.

Structurally, each of its two major annual conferences lasts four days and is built around 18-minute-or-less presentations made by approximately 50 speakers. The talks often weave in video and other visual and audio aids, or they can be entirely built around a musical or performance element.

As TED.com puts things: “It works because all of knowledge is connected. Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole.”

Thinking Grand

Rather than simply provide a venue and an audience for the discussion of progress, TED has, time and again, created progress, often in the most unexpected ways. “What I think is really wonderful about TED,” says Diana Reiss, a professor at New York’s Hunter College who specializes in animal cognition, “is that it becomes this wonderful place to get new ideas from. For instance, at my last TED Talk, as I was describing the latest in dolphin communication through touch-screen technology, I met a whole bunch of different people—from computer engineers and touch-screen technology specialists to philosophers—all of whom were willing to help out.”

It was Anderson who gave renewed life to a teenaged TED just after the turn of this century. His biographical passport was already stamped with all manner of exotic ports of call, starting with his birth in 1957 in a faraway stretch of Pakistan. One of three children, he spent much of his early life in that country, Afghanistan and India due to his eye-surgeon father’s missionary work. He attended India’s prestigious Woodstock School, an academy for expat boarders high up in the Himalayas, and eventually landed at an academy in Bath, England.

Looking back, Anderson has no doubt that growing up in such varied environs contributed mightily to the curiosity and intellectual predilection that would eventually lead him toward TED. “I wouldn’t trade the experience and exposure to lots of cultures and people for anything,” Anderson says. “It informed my value system. Take my Indian school, where there were at least 30 countries represented. In that environment, you stopped fretting about the usual [social] issues. They became invisible. Instead, you started to appreciate what people’s innate talents were and what they ultimately are interested in.”

After he earned a philosophy degree at Oxford University, the journalism bug bit Anderson hard. Following several years spent drifting from one newspaper to another and even to radio stations, Anderson became an unapologetic tech geek, enamored with the nascent invention of the home computer.

He then combined his two loves—journalism and technology—to become editor at one of Britain’s earliest known computer magazines, and only a year later, in 1985, formed his own startup, Future Publishing, and launched the first of numerous successful magazines, many of them in the computing arena.

He tagged Future Publishing “media with passion,” since it was its readers’ diverse obsessions that allowed it to eventually print all manner of niche publications, covering topics from music and design to cycling, video games and technology. While nurturing all these products, Anderson began to realize the vital role passion plays in high achievement. And he noticed how caught up his subscribers were in their particular highly focused field. The same level of fiery commitment stood out to Anderson when he attended his first TED conference in 1998.

“I will never forget how those TED speakers showed such off-the-charts love for a particular subject,” he says. “And the audience shared the same passion. It got my heart beating faster. I just fell in love with it. I felt like I had come home.

“I was initially puzzled—the objective seemed broader than any kind of conference or event I’d ever attended—but by the end of that TED, I started to understand that all knowledge is connective, especially when you hear people from all different fields, and what the speaker says in one talk starts to resonate with what another person says soon after.”

Anderson had settled in San Francisco by then. In 1994, his media empire expanded to the United States with the launch of Imagine Media and its magazine Business 2.0, and from there he had also gone on to build, from scratch, IGN, a popular video game website. In total, Anderson’s companies were churning out around 100 monthly magazines.

The healthy revenue from these startups allowed Anderson to form his own nonprofit, the Sapling Foundation, which was established in 1996 with the overriding mission of discovering inventive new ways to tackle thorny global problems. Three years after he attended his first impactful TED Conference, and hoping to amplify its reach, Anderson’s Sapling Foundation purchased TED in 2001. He immediately went about putting his unmistakable stamp on it.

Creating a Movement

“I really thought I could go very broad with the subject matter and give people a platform from which they could frame their own extraordinary work,” Anderson says. “My journey with TED has been to try to figure out how to let out its amazing-ness to the broadest audience possible.”

Explaining his sudden desire to devote most of his energy to the new baby, Anderson said at a past TED Talk, “I discovered that while I’d been busy playing business games, there’d been this incredible revolution in so many areas of interest.… All this stuff had changed.” Today Anderson looks back on his initial immersion in TED and draws some clear lines from his early fascination with all things computer.

“That same enthusiasm that drove my interest in computers and amazing technology is what I feel TED tries to look at in terms of how technology amplifies human intentions,” Anderson says. “Technology gives us all superpowers.” Indeed, it’s been the revolutionary growth and improvement of Internet connectivity, as much as TED’s bold, provocative ideas, that led to the organization’s explosion in fame and impact over the last decade.

For Anderson, the great gratification is that although the Internet has no shortage of pet-trick videos, knowledge is in demand as well. “The minute online video came along,” he says, “we went from being a conference that 800 to 1,000 people saw once a year to having a global audience.”

When TED began in 1984 as the brainchild of an architect named Richard Saul Wurman, it was an obscure four-day symposium held in Monterey, Calif., with the goal of bringing together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. But in the last decade, its format and mission have evolved, stretching beyond those three disparate fields. Today, TED invites some of the world’s leading thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs to its two major yearly  conferences.

Full and free access to the talks is available at TED.com, for those without the time (or the $6,000 to $7,500 required) to attend an event in person. It is a high cost, but people will pay it to soak in the wisdom of luminaries such as Sir Richard Branson, Jane Goodall, Philippe Starck, Bill Gates, Isabel Allende, Al Gore and Bono, not to mention such lesser-known names as Jennifer Lin, an improvisational pianist, or Danny Hillis, a computer theorist working to develop machines that can think like humans.

At last check there have been more than 42,000 completed translations of TED Talks into 100 different languages, with—as of late last year—approximately 1 billion online views.

The brand has expanded exponentially, by the grass roots and at the global level at the same time. Behind it all is Anderson.

He has overseen a movement to stage miniature TED gatherings—more than 7,000 events have been held in 149 countries since 2009— and adapted technology to provide a live feed of the major conferences to any local community staging its own smaller event. TED tries its best to install no roadblocks to the spread of knowledge, making it extremely easy for local organizers to license the three-letter brand, even offering them assistance and direction at no charge.

“TED helps people find their voice and gives them a platform,” says Jeff Johnson, Ph.D., chief organizer of the Fort Worth, Texas, chapter of TEDx, which stages the local events. “They all discovered that the TED format, with a little guidance, is the absolute right way to deliver an idea and to get an audience to react to it.”

The organization continues to expand, with a book series, an education initiative and special stipends to help exceptional innovators guide their projects and ideas to fruition.

Reaching from Within

Both science and art are involved in how TED builds its eclectic cast of speakers who appear at the largest annual confabs, Anderson says. “It is not necessarily finding the best person in the world on that particular topic, but rather the person who can best articulate those ideas to make them understandable and appealing to the broadest public possible. Really, TED is all about finding that person with all this brilliant knowledge and realizing it is almost a scandal if those ideas aren’t out there circulating. To have them circulating is good for all of us.”

As to the disciplines that Anderson particularly favors, “I’m a bit of a science geek,” he says.

More often than not, the speakers will come recommended to Anderson by the public at large or specialists in an individual field, and he is able to find examples of their lectures in the form of YouTube clips. “Most of the people in the ideas business have something up online,” Anderson says. “And that can serve as a kind of first audition.”

The selection of speakers may also depend on the theme of a particular conference. Of course, TED will occasionally resort to the old-fashioned tryouts where, in one instance, 3,300 specialists auditioned in 14 different cities. Of those, 34 were chosen to come to California to participate in the final event. “That part of the process made for an amazing experience in and of itself,” Anderson says.

According to numerous TED presenters, Anderson leaves an indelible mark on conference participation.

“He’s got a chess game moving in his head at all times,” says Camille Seaman, a photographer who gave a TED Talk in 2011. “Ultimately what Chris Anderson brings to TED is a very human experience. He communicates a level of compassion that comes through not only when he’s introducing someone, but when he’s offering his personal feelings about something. He never holds back.”

TED’s curator has studiously kept his private life on the hush, yet during the 2011 spring conference Seaman got a clear window into Anderson’s capacity for stoicism, as he coped with an almost inconceivable personal tragedy. Only a few months before, Anderson, the father of three daughters, was informed that his eldest, Zoe, had been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning—the result of an accidental leak from a malfunctioning boiler in one of the family’s properties.

“In light of what happened,” Seaman says, “it was totally stunning and remarkable that Chris made it to the conference at all. We all gave him his space, and it was just so amazing how he held it together. Amazing.”

In his late daughter’s name and in honor of her love for underwater exploration, Anderson and his family created a fund to save a stretch of coral reef. In a blog post, Anderson began a pictorial memorial to his daughter with a quote from Jack Kerouac: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

In another window inside the man behind the TED machine, Seaman recalls vividly when, after a particular presentation, Anderson immediately took the stage, “Asking right then and there, ‘Who can do something about this particular problem or issue?’ He will go through the audience and, sure enough, some participants will raise their hands and commit to doing X or Y. At TED, there is no procrastination. It is never about ‘Let’s arrange a meeting to have another meeting for still another meeting.’ No, it is, ‘What do we need, right now?’ ”

Thinking Ahead

Anderson is particularly stoked by TED’s ability to cause a ripple effect of change by way of someone attending a talk and becoming markedly inspired by the experience, just as he had.

In one instance, youthful architect David Dewane watched a talk by the computer game designer Jane McGonigal and was so taken in that he decided to use one of her games as inspiration for the design of a new fiber-optic, digitally run library network in Africa, dubbed Librii. Not only did McGonigal become an adviser to the project, but her presence undoubtedly spurred further seed money from the World Bank Institute.

“The causality between a TED Talk and the library—it’s just delightful that can happen,” Anderson says. “The ideas you hear at TED might change how you see the world, but not lead to anything immediately. But 50 years later, they might lead to someone doing something differently. After a TED Talk, someone might leap out of their chair, quit their job, and do something amazing.”

Anderson’s wish list of speakers to grace the distinctive TED stage is wide open.

“If the pope wanted to come to TED, well, that would be good,” he allows. “But I personally would love one day to get Aung San Suu Kyi [the Nobel Prize-winning, pro-democracy leader in Myanmar] who is one of the great global leaders and has inspired so many.”

For now, Anderson is basking in TED’s growth and taking the approach of a spectator as much as he can.

“My job is really to watch, to listen, to nurture, to encourage, and to be as surprised as anyone as to what comes out of it,” Anderson says. “As for our future, I’ll be as excited as anyone to find out what happens next.”