Andrea Goldsmith is looking forward to hearing “new ideas” and “interesting stories” at this year’s installment of a conference that’s moved to Vancouver from Long Beach, California. However, the massage practitioner, who lives in the West End, isn’t going to the city’s first TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference.
Goldsmith told the Georgia Straight that she plans to attend the BIL conference, a participant-driven event that has taken place a few blocks away from TED every year since 2008. She imagines the experience will be similar to a storytelling workshop that she organized as part of the Occupy Vancouver movement in 2012.
“What was amazing was the most random 10 or 15 people showed up, and everyone had the most interesting story to tell,” Goldsmith said in an interview at English Bay Beach. “You’d be just blown away by what some random, average-looking person or even down-and-out person had to share. So, I think BIL’s going to be like that, where you have no idea what you’re going to hear, what’s going to happen.”
On March 22 and 23, BIL 2014 will host a series of 20-minute presentations—much like TED’s famous 18-minute talks—at Five Sixty (560 Seymour Street) in downtown Vancouver. Admission is by donation, and there are no scheduled speakers. Attendees will sign up to give talks after they arrive at the “unconference”.
Meanwhile, the invitation-only TED2014 will draw 1,200 attendees, each paying US$7,500, to the Vancouver Convention Centre from March 17 to 21. A parallel event, TEDActive 2014, costing attendees US$3,750 each, will take place simultaneously at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.
The TED2014 speakers list features, among others, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, astronaut Chris Hadfield, and documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen. Michel Laberge, chief scientist of Burnaby-based General Fusion, is slated to give a talk about magnetized target fusion, an approach to nuclear power that has the potential to solve the energy crisis, lower pollution, and stave off further climate change.
Ron Burnett, president of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, has attended past TED conferences in Long Beach and Monterey, and he’ll be at this year’s event. Emily Carr is one of the local schools, libraries, community centres, and nonprofits that have applied for a free live stream of TED2014. Burnett told the Straight that the conference is an “amazing investment in the city” and the value of TED talks—many of which are posted online—“should not be underestimated”.
“The millions of people who are viewing these videos are learning a lot of very interesting things about so many different topics,” Burnett said by phone from Granville Island. “The value is extraordinary, and I don’t know of any organization that makes so much of this knowledge base available freely to everyone.”
According to BIL cofounder Cody Marx Bailey, about 350 attendees are expected at Vancouver’s first edition of the conference, which in previous years has cost anywhere between $1,500 and $15,000 to put on. The technology consultant told the Straight that past events have featured talks about “wildly different topics”, including sex, private space travel, and transhumanism.
Bailey helped start BIL—which is kept going by a “loose-knit group of people”—six years ago due to being “locked out” of TED. The conference’s name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
“TED created a great ecosystem that a lot of people on the outside wanted to be a part of, and at the time there wasn’t any way for fans of TED to really participate,” Bailey said by phone from Dallas, Texas.
TED, which is owned by the New York–based Sapling Foundation, has received its share of criticism over the years. Indeed, the TED website has a page devoted to answering the question: “Is TED elitist?” The site states: “In a nutshell, no.”
In December, Benjamin Bratton, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California at San Diego, asserted TED stands for “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”. During his talk at TEDxSanDiego 2013—one of many community-organized events licensed by TED—Bratton noted that TED talks tend to combine “epiphany and personal testimony”.
“What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?” Bratton asked.
“I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time—and the audience’s time—dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.”
The price of attendance for TED2015, scheduled for March 16 to 20 of next year in Vancouver, is US$8,500.
Goldsmith is excited about attending the “more accessible” BIL conference.
“Again, you never really know what’s going to happen,” Goldsmith said. “But it’s always interesting to see who shows up at these kinds of things and what kinds of talks they’re going to give. Who knows? Maybe at the last minute I’ll decide I feel like getting up there and sharing something.”