The feeling that you may have just boarded a Scientology cruise ship is not accidental. It’s rooted partly in Silicon Valley’s techno-Rapturist soil, and partly in Anderson’s own evangelical yearnings. Those invited to speak at TED are mailed an actual stone tablet engraved with “The TED Commandments.” (One is “Thou Shalt Not Sell From the Stage.”) June Cohen, who runs TED’s media operation, told an audience two years ago that her sister-in-law calls the TED Talk “a secular sermon.” The atheist Daniel Dennett suggested that TED could “replace” religion, observing that it “already, largely wittingly I think, adopted a lot of the key design features of good religions,” including giving away content.
At times, the piety grates. Gabe Rivera, creator of the news aggregator TechMeme, tweeted during the 2010 conference: “Learning today that many of my friends at #TED are anti-slavery. I’m proud of them and admire their outspokenness.” After comedian Sarah Silverman riffed at TED 2010 that her wish to adopt a terminally ill “retarded baby” made her an “amazing person,” Anderson, who had invited her, tweeted to his million-plus followers that she had been “god-awful,” and AOL co-founder Steve Case tweeted, “Shame on you.” (In an ensuing tweet war, Silverman schooled both Anderson—“a barnacle of mediocrity on Bill Gates’ asshole”—and Case—“should be nicer to the last person on earth w/ an AOL account.”)
But such flaps are sideshows. TED has not only cracked the Internet’s popularity code and established a preeminent status marker for the digital economy; it’s also a money machine, aggressively introducing premium pricing ($125,000 for “patron” privileges), brand extensions (TEDGlobal, TEDActive), and other new sources of revenue (TEDLive, a conference webcast), while taking in an estimated minimum of $23 million per conference.
Over coffee in Dumbo, Andrew Zolli is laying out his theory of dolphins and whales. Whales, he explains, are large, slow-moving, well-known entities. Or, as Zolli says, “Whales are boring as shit. Does anyone not know what Bill Gates thinks about the world? Does anyone not know what Bono and Clinton think?”
PopTech is interested in dolphins, less famous innovators like Jay Keasling, a synthetic biologist who has found a way to genetically modify microbes and accelerate the production of a cheap anti-malarial drug and is now working on using the same process to generate biofuel. “Fuck yes,” Zolli says, “sign me up.”
Though Zolli doesn’t say it, PopTech, a scrappy contender in the ideas-conference game, is a dolphin, too. Founded in 1996 by a group including former Apple CEO John Sculley and Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, the PopTech conference is an annual innovators’ gathering with a decidedly more intimate feel than TED. It’s held in an old opera house in Camden, Maine. Lights stay on, so it doesn’t feel like a show. The swag is modest. If TED is a launchpad for the marketing of memes, PopTech brands itself as a network for converting those memes into action. PopTech’s “theory of change,” Zolli says, is that by fostering collaborations between “new disrupters” and “new forms of capital,” PopTech can “accelerate the edge.” (For instance, since 2007, through its Accelerator program, PopTech has gotten its hands dirty guiding several projects, most impressively a game-changing anti-HIV/AIDS initiative in South Africa.)
In the ideas-conference boom, everyone is staking a claim. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, well-heeled empty-nesters congregate to hear people like Thomas Friedman featured on broad-topic panels like the future of Israel. Summit Series is the anti-Aspen, targeting twentysomething entrepreneurs, 1,000 of whom last year paid $3,500 to spend four days on a cruise to the Bahamas. The event featured glow sticks, condoms, Russell Simmons–led yoga, a shark-tagging excursion with Timothy Ferriss, and talks on philanthrocapitalism by people like Richard Branson and Peter Thiel.
Jay Walker, who bought TEDmed last year, is moving it from San Diego to Washington, D.C., in April and wants to turn it into the Davos of health care. FOO Camp, short for Friends of O’Reilly, brings a geek-heavy group to the Sebastopol, California, campus of Tim O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Media, where they pitch tents and design their own “unconference.” There’s no preset agenda, and the attendees spend the first night filling in an empty grid with a program they design on the spot. (One year featured a spontaneous group disassembly and reassembly of someone’s Prius rental.) BarCamp is a free, open-source foo Camp knockoff co-founded by a disgruntled foo Camp veteran. A few years ago, David Hornik, a venture capitalist and frequenter of status gatherings, noticed that he spent all his time at them yakking in the lobby. Thus was born the Lobby, his invite-only annual gathering that sidelines the traditional “content” and expands the informal social aspect into an entire conference devoted to it.