I confess to being a little dismayed at the email I received a little over a year ago in response to my application to attend the TED conference in Long Beach, Calif. “We’re sold out,” it said, “but we’re happy to take a bunch of money from you so you can watch it on TV down the road.”
Obviously, it didn’t use exactly those words, but that was my initial interpretation of the email inviting me to attend TEDActive instead. And my initial reaction to that email was no less positive. But I cogitated on it for a while, and finally figured that it was worth the risk -- banking on my faith that the folks at TED don’t do lame things.
Turns out it was a risk well worth taking. That week was a whirlwind of connections and ideas, of delight and inspiration. I met people doing amazing things and fed that part of my spirit that lives for a sense of possibility. Obviously, it was a no-brainer for me to come back this year.
But there is still something atypical about this model. We watch all the talks live, most of us gathered in a huge ballroom with giant screens. The experience is not unlike going to a concert where it is easier to watch the musicians on the Jumbotron than on the stage.
Despite the fact that we are a two-and-a-half hour drive from the action, we clap and cheer and deliver standing ovations just as if the speakers were in the room. (Every now and then the Long Beach show does a throw to Palm Springs so they can see us applauding.) Through the shared experience of an enthralled crowd and an immersive audiovisual environment, the TED folks have effectively delivered the sensation of “being there” when, of course, we are not.
The opposite possibility, that of a sensation of false intimacy, came home to me last week when I got a seemingly exciting email. “Phone conference with First Lady Michelle Obama,” read the subject. The message described an opportunity to join the First Lady on the phone to discuss the campaign in Colorado.
I don’t know how many millions of people received the email, nor how many millions would phone in, but I could imagine what it would be like if I joined the call: handset held up to my ear, the First Lady’s voice coming over the line. From a technological perspective, it’s no different to calling into a radio station to listen to her speak; from an experiential perspective, it would seem as if she and I were suddenly friends. “Michelle? Oh, yeah, I was just on the phone with her last night…”
Technology is forcing a reexamination of how relationships are forged; where connection happens, and where value is created. For me, TEDActive is about the engineered serendipity that comes from hanging out with a crowd of energized people and about the collective encounter with new ideas. Attending a Super Bowl party is not the same as attending the Super Bowl, but the social nature of tuning in together has an impact on the way we react to the content; the shared experience makes it feel somehow more “real.”
Today I met Henrik Scharfe and his identical twin robot Geminoid DK. Henrik says the robot elicits all sorts of questions about relationships, and humanity, and what it means to “be there” with someone. As the virtual comes closer and closer to approximating the real, these are questions that have to be examined. As much as I love the Internet, it cannot replace a smile, a serendipitous encounter, a hug with an old friend or a new one. “Be human where it counts,” said Henrik. In an ever-more-wired world, it’s important to remember that.