Musk's TED Moment

Photo Credit: Host Chris Anderson and Elon Musk speak at SESSION 11 at TED2022: A New Era. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Every now and then, someone will look at my CV and then, with a quizzical expression, ask me “Who is TED, actually?”

TED isn’t a person, it’s a gathering. Hundreds of people work on the conference and the eponymous TED Talks.

Twenty years ago, a British magazine publisher, Chris Anderson, the son of missionaries, took the proceeds of the sale of his magazine company and purchased a tiny but influential conference of technologists, entertainers, and designers. It was, and is, called TED.

TED has been a safe space for inventors, dreamers, and explorers across a remarkable array of disciplines. In what is an uncivilized moment in world history, TED is -- among other things -- remarkably civilized. 

The scope of the annual undertaking is global -- and the scale of the problems that TED explores can be overwhelming. This year, perhaps the best-known Russian after Vladimir Putin began with a forceful talk about the war. Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasperoff was searingly critical of his homeland. For the TED team, it was a piece of curatorial elegance. Ukraine needed to be addressed, but it also couldn’t eclipse other conversations of worldwide importance. 

Anderson has a strong voice, but as a Brit, he is mostly reserved and stoic. Over the years he’s carefully and strategically grown TED from a small group of  technologists and creative thinkers to a global movement of ideas, conversations, and an urgent search for solutions.



Which is why, as perhaps the globe's most savvy curator, TED’s two overarching conversations this year were about Climate and Capitalism. The Climate conversation explored green hydrogen power, nuclear energy, replacing leather with a material created from mushrooms, and more. The issues around Climate are urgent and complicated -- and while TED is rigorously nonpartisan, the challenges of government’s environmental missteps hung in the air. Bill Gates and Elon Musk were both on stage. Jeff Bezos, a longtime and regular TEDster, was absent this year for almost the first time I can remember. 

Anderson's editorial efforts are mostly unseen, other than his role as a cohost introducing speakers. But it’s relevant to notice just a handful of times that he has acted as an interviewer. One was for Twitter’s Jack Dorsey in 2019 -- and this year for Elon Musk, the rapidly growing shareholder and potential owner of Twitter.  Links to both talks are here (Dorsey) and here (Musk).

Anderson is a media entrepreneur. And TED is perhaps the world's largest creator of nonfiction media content. So his understanding of Twitter’s importance as the world’s most impactful curated town square can’t be overeremphasized.

On stage, in what was the longest segment I can remember in my more than a decade of TED conferences, Anderson carefully probed what he called “Musk’s extraordinary mind,” and played a clip from “Saturday Night Live” where Musk acknowledged his place on the autism spectrum. 

In gently coaxing out Musk’s plan for how to embrace free speech on the Twitter platform, Anderson  quoted a series of each more threatening pieces of hate speech. "Someone has to make a decision as to which of those is not OK. Can an algorithm decide that?” Anderson queried Musk. Musks’ answer was that “Twitter should match the 
laws of the country." He paused. Then: “I think there’s an obligation to do that.”

For an engineer who prefers numbers over people, who cavalierly suggests that “Twitter should remove the W from its name," Musk revealed a likely Twitter with less concern about misinformation. “When in doubt, leave it up,” he said.

The question that hung in the room: Would Donald Trump be allowed back on Twitter? It wasn’t asked, but it was answered. Musk rejects permanent bans, and said the definition of free speech is “is someone you don't like allowed to say something you don’t like.” Musk and Trump aren’t friends, but it seemed clear in the room that Trump’s return was a certainty under Musk. So far, Trump hasn’t given a clear indication as to his return.

In Anderson’s interview with Musk, you saw an extraordinary interviewer: sensitive, careful, respectful, yet probing. In Musk’s answers, you learned a lot in his silences, as Anderson asked him questions that required nuanced answers. “Oversharing…oversharing," Musk said after admitting that he tweets from the toilet.

As an institution in a complicated world, TED is most certainly not algorithmic. The curation of Anderson and the TED team is elegant, full of surprises -- an expansive media network of platforms, languages, and audiences. 

One would hope that Twitter might take a note from TED, and shift from a playground of bullies, trolls, and robots to a more curated conversation seeking to brighten divides and seek solutions.

But Musk’s honest admission on national television back in 2021 makes one thing clear: Empathy requires emotional intelligence. And that’s simply something that Musk lacks in his remarkable collection of gifts. 

Do we need Musk to get driverless electric cars on the roads, and maybe take us to Mars? Yes, we most certainly do. But do we want Musk to be an artist, musician, poet, or painter? Art requires emotional intelligence. Journalism, too, because stories aren’t math problems or provable scientific facts.  When Musk says he loves truth, he’s speaking about scientific truth, like physics. For the potential new owner of Twitter to be counting on truth seems to be setting a bar for Twitter’s curation guardrails that he is unlikely to meet.

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