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Those Fabulous Confabs

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The Babble Bubble: A History
Photos: World Economic Forum (Davos); Ron Frehm/AP Photo (New Yorker) ; Joi Ito (Foo); Auberjon/TED (TEDX); Courtesy of Picnic (Picnic )

Julianne Wurm, the organizer of New York’s TEDXEast, has attended TEDXes in Colombia, Kenya, and seventeen other countries as part of her own academic research into how ideas spread and has come to see that “these events make you feel intellectually and emotionally elevated. There’s research about how if you hear a good idea, you feel as if you’re part of the co-creation of it.” But if that explains some of the audience appeal of TED, the speaker appeal of TEDX is slightly different. “People can become little heroes and celebrities locally,” Wurm says. And there’s always the seductive hope that your TEDX talk will get posted on ted.com, though. There wasn’t even a spinal cord attached.

What happens when the idea of ideas worth spreading gets spread thin? What happens when the concept of innovation itself becomes stale? One person who thinks he has the answer is TED’s originator, Richard Saul Wurman. In the years since Wurman sold TED to Anderson, their relationship has been high drama, with alternating acrimony and rapprochement. While Wurman is quick to credit Anderson for his achievements (“I am amazed truly at what he’s done”), he has continued in interviews and speeches to issue backhanded compliments (“I think TED is the greatest conference of the twentieth century”) and front­handed insults (saying the eighteen-minute format is now “ungenuine”). Anderson, somewhat understandably, has been antagonized. Last year, Wurman, having gotten his TED ticket and booked a hotel room, suddenly found himself disinvited. “He won’t let me back in,” Wurman says. “I love TED. I was very hurt not being able to go last year. I’m unforgiving about that.”

Rather than stewing, though, Wurman is planning four new conferences. Prophesy-2025, in 2013, will be about the future. Geeks and Geezers Summit, in 2014, will pair young and old. fedmed, in 2015, will be about global health. But the one he is most focused on right now is what he calls the WWW Conference, which is scheduled for this coming September. Completing his new-TED dis, Wurman envisions WWW as “the first great 21st-century conference.”

The title stands for lots of w words like wealth, war, and water. Wurman has already lined up more than 50 speakers—many of them, it’s hard not to notice, TED veterans—including Steven Pinker, Arianna Huffington, Julie Taymor, David Blaine, and David Brooks. He will pair them off and put one of 33 premises to each pairing, then have them talk about it in a kind of “intellectual jazz.” Wurman is especially excited about “a new modality” he is working on, an app through which you and I will be able to access the conference content in a Siri-like fashion.

As much as WWW is a conference of the future, it seems a return in spirit to Wurman’s TED and a repudiation of Anderson’s. Wurman is stripping down a form he sees as having become overly packaged. Speakers will likely not know what they’re going to talk about until Wurman poses a question. There will be no time limit. “People will have a conversation onstage until I get bored.” And there will be no tickets. The only people at the conference will be the speakers, a guest each, and a few sponsors. “I’m having nobody come,” Wurman says, merrily. “That’s the ultimate ‘fuck you.’ ”


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