November 6, 2009
Yesterday’s TEDx was my first event of the genre. I have looked at the TED site itself before to get an idea of what kind of people attend these events, and moreso, who speaks at them. This Conservative bomb-thrower didn’t feel all that hot about the fact that the actual TED event has been “graced” by such “luminaries” as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and U2′s Bono. I thought to myself, am I about to walk into a Liberal snakepit?
There’s no denying that the Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington triangle is a hotbed for Progressivism, but I also keep an open mind and engage my Progressive friends on the merits of their arguments and try not to make it personal. (Of course if all I get is “your belief in this makes you a bad person,” I just agree to disagree and just keep at being the Spawn Of Satan they so fear me to be.) So I decided to go through the application process and see if there’s anything I can take away from the talks. Besides, the organizers have made it a point to avoid pushing a specific religious or political agenda.
Setting up shop
With an open mind, a gracious heart and my sharp intellect in tow, I made my way from the MARC Penn station parking garage up to MICA’s Brown Center, which by the way is neither brown, nor central. It’s a hulking, gorgeous edifice of concrete and glass. It calls attention to itself from outside, but inside acts as a frame for what is built within. I was among those who arrived at 730AM on the dot, and had plenty of time to socialize with friends old and new.
I decided to stay in the balcony. My fidgety nature is legendary: nothing would be worse for me than to sit amongst the middle of the audience on the main floor as I stretch my legs, shrug, creak my neck, physically react to the contents of the speeches… If you’re hoity-toity, you wouldn’t want to be beside me.
In which we are reminded of Murphy’s Law
A number of people I know fell ill and were unable to attend. To them I have extended my sympathies. My plight, slight as it was, has nothing on a bout of the flu. I have known of attending TEDx since the beginning and have put in an off day at work and have told them of the cellphone rule. Of course they wanted a compromise so I kept the phone on silent and non-vibrate, which had be checking my phone at the end of every speech. And when I had three VMs and five missed calls, I knew something was wrong. I took care of it in the Space Between Doors, and of course a buck-toothed, haggard hoity-toity woman tried to tap me on the shoulder—I saw her wizened hand approaching and I evaded—and just ignored her as I listened to my voice mails. I spent the rest of the first session standing up beside the staff along the aisles. It was still early for me, so it turned out for the better.
The matter of the hoity-totty
Hoity-toity would be the only charge I would level against the whole event. Some of the communicated rules in the emails is dripping with it. I assume no malice or authoritarian desires. Rather, I infer that the organizers—who by the way have done phenomal jobs—put in a massive effort to have a “perfect” event. In fact, I agree with the no-cellphones, no-laptops no-walking-into-the-middle-of-the-speech rules. What I found lacking was the expectations management around members of the media who showed up and were given the privelege of live-blogging the event. NPR Washington’s Andy Carvin and Inside Charm City‘s Jeff Quinton got “bitched out” by someone in the audience sitting behind them for using their latops. I personally saw the exchange, which was done in hushed tones, and when Carvin told them that they were members of the media, the hoity-toity woman with the hoity-toity short hair and excessive, hoity-toity make-up for this kind of weather threw her hand up in exasperation and rolled her eyes through the rest of the second session.
Rules and mores: a sociological digression
Every structured event has mores, and then there are rules. You go to WordCamp, and you find out it follows Barcamp-style rules: you vote with your feet and leave if you don’t like what’s going on and go to another talk. The onus is on the speaker to entrance an audience and present something important. The mos at WordCamp is that of course, you don’t want to have a loud, ringing cellphone during a talk. In fact, that’s pretty much the mos at any conference. Rules are meant to be inflexible, meant to be followed and enforced. Mores are not as easy to enforce, even when you call them rules.
The problem with TEDx MidAtlantic’s rules is that the exceptions were not communicated to the audience. The exception to that sacrosanct rule was that there were actual members of the media (and don’t you dare argue with me over a local blogger without a J-School degree not being one) who were covering the event live for people who’d rather read about it, or couldn’t watch the videos. Andy Carvin was tweeting at a breakneck pace. I sat beside him and I saw how he did. Yesterday, with expectations set high by both the organizers and the attendees themselves, you are bound to have a high-strung, hoity-toity woman like the one yesterday just lose her patience and play enforcer. One sentence from Dave Troy could have avoided that confrontation.
I can’t tell you why the hoity-toity woman chose to play enforcer. I can tell you: she had no idea who those people she’s rebuking were. I speculate that the hoity-toity woman was empowered by a rule and chose to be the hand of enforcement. This is a phenomenon on a sociological level. There was probably someone close to me in the audience who would have appreciated it had I sat still and fidgeted less, but “sitting still” is an unspoken mos but not a rule. If there were a rule about sitting still, I submit that someone else would have done exactly what the woman did.
(Note, though, that I have no sympathy for everyone else who was bitched out on Twitter for live-tweeting from their phones during sessions. They should have gotten a press pass.)
And, back to the event
Attendees felt like guests at MICA, and the staff placed us at ease. There was room for mingling during the breaks, and there was plenty of food and drink to be had. Funny, though, how the premium on coffee led to anarchic lines and crowds towards the free coffee stations. The Starbucks in the cafeteria had a longer line than for the free coffee. Being small of bladder, I limited myself to two ounces of fluid every two hours and skipped the devil’s diuretic.
The speakers had much to share, and they were all able to keep within the time they were given. I’m sure the LCDs at the foot of the stage had something to do with that. Except for the first speaker, the slideshows and videos were executed properly. As I had expected, a number of their ideas were informed by Progressive schools of thought, but I was impressed by their restraint at keeping it fairly non political in the context of current events. (Some speakers did go the gratuitous route. I will savage them during my individual recap-and-review posts.)
There was something that all the speakers but the last did, though, and that they all practically ran off the stage after speaking. While it’s clear that there are no questions to be asked after each talk, that moment where a speaker pauses in clear appreciation of the acknowledgement being given is itself an unspoken conversation. When Ana Vidovic stood on stage and took in the thunderous applause she was given, we saw her smile, we saw her blush, we saw her accept the accolade humbly, we saw in her body language the thanks she gave to us. None of the speakers gave us that courtesy, or were told not to.
We were well fed, and lunch at the MICA cafeteria was impressive. Having gone to lunch at UMD, I was impressed with what they offered. The reception after all the talks was also lively. I had plenty of interesting conversations with people who disagreed with me, and none of my interactions became acrimonious.
“Ideas worth spreading.”
That’s the cornerstone message of a TED event. This Conservative submits that most of the ideas shared that day transcend politics. With the exception of one speech, there was not an idea there worth fighting. There are disagreements grounded on a rejection of principle, and others over the rejection of methods. I submit that this experience fosters the latter and not so much the former. It was a positive experience for me, and I know I’ll be attending next year.