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Those Fabulous Confabs

Of all the gatherings, it’s TED, which might as well be the official event of digitization, that has acquired an outsize cultural footprint. Giving a talk at TED, the technology journalist Steven Levy has written, is “a rite of passage for an Internet-age intellectual.” The conference makes the Stuff White People Like list. In last year’s The Muppets movie, the character Scooter is updated to be a Google employee and TED attendee. And just as Davos is darkly symbolic to those who believe the world is controlled by 300 people, TED is uniquely able to stir up the Internet’s latent intellectual-class resentments. To attendees, or “TEDsters,” as they refer to themselves, tweeting from behind the velvet rope is a chance to camouflage pride as wonderment. From the 2011 conference, Ashton Kutcher shared that he was “jazzed to be here” and “Wow.” To speakers, filing a dispatch from TED is the jackpot of false modesty. “As I was stepping onstage,” Eboo Patel blogged in 2008 in a classic of the genre, “I thought to myself, ‘Literally everyone in the audience is smarter than me.’ ”

André Balazs could come up with an even more lucrative nightclub by studying TED’s marketing model: Create a Boom Boom Room that not only won’t let you in but also videocasts what’s happening inside so you’ll know exactly what you’re missing. Imagine, further, that everyone in the club is miked, so you hear them going on about how “amazing” it is and how “combined our contacts reach pretty much everyone who’s interesting in the country if not the planet,” as TED’s curator, Chris Anderson, told one TED crowd. TED Talks, curated clips of the eighteen-minute lectures that are gathered on, have become today’s Cliffs Notes to sounding smart. They are, despite their length and seriousness, some of the most popular material on the Internet.

TED is now on something of a populist kick. Three years ago, it spun off a franchise version of itself, called TEDX, of which there have been thousands so far. Last month, it announced a global American Idol–style search for speakers for next year’s main conference.

To judge by TED’s remarkable success, we may well be living in a golden age of ideas, a time not just of counter-counter-­counter­intuitive concepts but of their exhilarating democratization. Yet it’s also possible to see in TED’s recent growth strategies the marks of desperation and dilution. With more and more conferences fighting over the same speakers, sponsors, guests, and ideas, the sustainability of the movement has begun to look increasingly tenuous. Might there be a cap on the number of interesting ideas in the universe? “Then it becomes Coke and Pepsi,” says Jolie Hunt, the global head of PR for Thomson Reuters, who has gone to virtually all the big status confabs. “Then it becomes: ‘Whose curation, whose guests, whose audience is better?’ ” Or, as Zolli says, “What’s happening to the whole category is it’s all becoming commoditized. The secret sauce has been fully digested. There’s a general feeling of replication and fatigue. Most of this conference explosion will die.”

Richard Saul Wurman lives at the end of a gravel drive in Newport, Rhode Island, on the old Firestone estate called the Orchard. He and his wife mock the area’s Waspiness with his-and-hers license plates that read MOMSEY and POPSEY.

Wurman is an impish 76-year-old designer and professional pattern recognizer. He was a protégé of the modernist architect Louis Kahn, coined the term “information architect,” created the Access city-guide series, and invented TED. Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline and current owner of TEDMED, a health-care conference Wurman also founded, told me Wurman is “clearly a genius by several different measures.” Perhaps above all, Wurman is a theorist of conversation, and a couple of months ago I went to have one with him. We sat in an outbuilding that housed both his “receiving office” and his “winter greenhouse,” where his banana and hibiscus plants were sitting out the cold weather. Over green tea and sushi, he told the story of TED.

The first, in Monterey in 1984, was a bust. Only 300 people came, and Wurman had let half of them in for free in order to fill seats. By 1990, when he held the second TED, the convergence of T. E. and D. among the California elite was further along, and the conference was a hit. It became an annual event. Wurman emphasized short talks, and eschewed podiums, because they covered speakers’ genitals. We were sitting at a glass table now, he explained, for the same reason, “so we are vulnerable to each other.”

Wurman’s TED was an animated curiosity cabinet. It included the ultimate insider show-and-tell, with early viewings of the Macintosh, the Segway, Shrek. It had talks both mind-bending (mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot on fractal geometry) and whimsical (former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold on “how dinosaurs fuck”). “Larry and Sergey” first publicized Google in a TED talk. A hallway conversation at TED led to the creation of Wired. A few celebrities, like Michael Douglas and Herbie Hancock, were always on hand to glam things up. “Doing the conference was just sort of doing everything I felt like doing,” Wurman recalled. “It was like being a child being able to say what I wanted to have happen. ‘I’d like a juggler. I’d like a magician.’ ”