Mysore: Over a thousand thinkers and doers — and even those in between — from across 46 countries have gathered in the clean never-never land of the Infosys campus in Mysore for one of the buzziest conferences in the business and non-profit world.
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences began in 1984 in Monterey, California. The TED brand has ballooned over the years, embracing all kinds of provocative topics from the sciences, arts and social sciences and the cusps of these domains. Chris Anderson’s Sapling Foundation took over TED in 2001.
TED India is the first event in Asia, though there have been conferences in South Africa and TED Global was held in Oxford in July. The conference usually costs $6000, and while TED India has been reduced to $2000, that still makes the event inaccessible — and highly coveted — to most.
In fact, most Indians know of the conference through the famous TED website, where the greatest hits from the conference are edited and presented, free of charge. Does throwing it open for everyone on the Web take away from the cachet of the conference?
“It’s exactly the other way round,” insists Anderson, who curates the conference. “TED is about ‘ideas worth spreading’, and it’s central to the whole mission that these ideas be made available to anyone who’s interested. In fact, as the talks went viral, there was much more awareness of TED around the world.”
TED.com has talks uploaded everyday and volunteers can translate them for the world. Conference proceedings are also tweeted in real time. “I came here because of the online talks, after someone directed my attention to them — they were fascinating”, says Subbiah Murugappa, erstwhile head of the Murugappa group and enthusiastic TED first-timer.
From Al Gore to Bill Gates, Isabel Allende to Jane Goodall, the typical TED speaker roster is usually tremendous. TED India’s list is somewhat patchy. From Shashi Tharoor to Abhay Deol, Eve Ensler to the Karmapa — each speaker gets an exact 18 minutes, TED-style, to entertain and edify the audience.
In the opening session, conference favourite Hans Rosling showed off some splashy statistics claiming that average income in India and China would catch up with the US and Western Europe on July 27, 2048.
Later, Mallika Sarabhai delivered a scattershot lecture-demonstration that spanned rape statistics, sanitation, dowry deaths, and corporate rapacity with a couple of hurried skits, and then insisted that her performance was proof of art’s universal appeal. Usha Uthup, though, proved she still has a superb set of pipes, belting out a bunch of songs in different languages, moving the audience to swaying, hand-clapping joy.
One of TED India’s pleasant surprises was a talk by superstar neuroscientist V S Ramachandran, on mirror neurons, which are fired when one watches someone else perform an action, or being touched.
When these neurons are not overridden by touch receptors in the skin, they can actually convince you that you are being touched — so, a patient with a phantom limb can feel relief by just watching someone else’s arm being massaged.
This has huge implications for human empathy, and as Ramachandran puts it, “this isn’t just touchy-feely stuff... mirror neurons are literally about what separates you from other human beings.”
But while the light-bulb moments are few and far between in the formal talks, TED India succeeds in bringing people together. It’s the chance conversations, overheard scraps, and palpable crackle of ideas in between sessions that make it memorable.
“I’ve been to all three TEDs this year,” says data visualiser Tommy McCall, “and they’re all different. It works at a couple of levels — first you have the superficial networking, then there’s real business connections being forged. And then, when you meet so many people who’re dedicated to changing the world, that spirit sort of rubs off”.
“It’s like an adult campus — I’ve been having so many interesting interactions with people”, says speaker Harsha Bhogle, who delivered a rousing defence of the IPL. Kavitha Kannan, from the Stanford Center for Social Innovation came all the way from Zurich “because I’d never made it to a TED conference, and I just had to, this time”.
Conscious of the skew towards “affluent, North American fortysomethings.” who can afford entry, TED has a large Fellows program — over a hundred young people have been brought over, all expenses paid.
TED brings them together, connects them to important networks and attempts to amplify their work. “If the speakers are somewhat underwhelming, TED Fellows more than make up for it”, says an attendee. Drawn from across the world (though predominantly South Asian), it includes social entrepreneurs, artists, students, and academics. The attendees themselves are a diverse bunch, from technology investors intently scoping out the scene to TED groupies, who’ve been trailing the conference through the years, and in different places, to those who just paid up for a mental rejuvenation camp.