TEDActive 2015: A Record

I am very late, I know. I was at TEDActive 2015 in mid March and it’s only now that I’m publishing a note of that experience! Still, I also mixed up a video of the trip and conference that I’d like to share. It was a terrific experience. Here is why.

So I found myself in Whistler (Canada), attending TEDActive, the minor version -or that with the most fun- of the famed TED. At 10:30 pm in the night of my arrival, after the first session (the Opening Gambit) and a welcome party with oysters from both coasts of Canada, I am still to decompress from air fatigue. Three flights plus a three-hour bus drive are not easy, even though the scenery is unrivaled: a coastal route with the mountains approaching, no snow.

Then, the opening, a feast of talks and performances which take fully the brain. A diary book to take notes makes me all the more attentive to all was being said or played.

The excitation of TEDsters -the TED people are varied and come from almost 60 different countries, but all are excited and anxious and the most are repeat participants- is palpable.

There’s a festival atmosphere, the kermesse of interdisciplinary, edge talks is about to begin. How -I wonder- did all this people manage to pay the fee plus travel expenses? They seem pretty young, an age where usually you don’t get sent to expensive conferences at the antipodes.

Some host talks about revolution. Which revolution?

Then, on the Triumph March of Aida starts the kermesse. Live from Vancouver starts Chris Anderson, the chief “curator” –whatever that means, he says– and his mannerism introduces ideas and people pushing ideas.

Because the central tenet of TED is that ideas change people and consequently the world. Ideas. So, we are brought to believe that we play a special role into that equation. We can start with ideas and change the world. Why the world needs changing is explained in the talks themselves.

The setting is fantastic. The food and attention of the many hostesses is superlative, awesome. You sense female hormones in the air. The talks are the best illusion one can have that yes, we can still change the world with some pragmatic work. A self-referential system, it seems –some have compared it to a secular church.

Yet, the magic happens, and you feel through the pulse of the many TEDActive repeat participants. Every session is so well curated and so well presented there is little left to do except get submerged by its waves. This is the most lively part, the sessions. They say here in Whistler it is more fun than in Vancouver, the ambiance more liberal and young. But, the people invited here are all among the best humankind has to offer in so many disciplines, apparently distanced but all connected. Yes, this is the equivalent of Liberal Arts education. Or, of a liberal magazine: many diverse themes, subjects, with but one thing in common, namely human ingenuity and a benevolent, positive belief in the good nature of humankind. Naif? This is what I asked as we got started in day two, the first day with a full program. What will happen next? I asked myself. Will there be a consequence to all this good-will thought?

Who knows. Perhaps, exactly like with a Liberal Arts education, as convinced as we are that its wide broad approach will enlighten the mind, people will return home thinking they are starting a revolution -while in their pajamas.

But perhaps, beyond the naivete, there is something profoundly true (and rhetorical as well) in all this, like it happened to me while listening to a deep resounding talk on consciousness, or another talk about a champion woman, born man, who not only changed gender but founded Sirius XM satellite radio and saved the life of her daughter by acquiring the rights to produce the only medicine available –and earning millions in the process. She talks also about the quest for immortality.

“I love my dad and she loves me!” — she quotes her daughter as saying. “I will always be my daughter’s father, she continues. Mind-blowing, I was moved.

In all, the festival feels like a grand tour of Europe’s big cities in ten days. In the end you are overwhelmed and do not distinguish nor recollect anything substantial. Since, remember, you are not educated in the subjects presented, so you experience a overindulgence of information absorption, and you end the day with some confusion. But you end the day with a couple of ideas to bring back home. And that’s very valuable.

All this in a rich environment, sensory as well as cognitive. You get fed great food, great gifts and a general sense of luxury, of no limits posed by material means. Even if you do not bring home any special idea to implement, your mind was still exposed to a few ideas that will stay with you, and that perhaps will trigger something.

Thus, with great ceremony, I end my second day with a splendid jazz rendition of a tune by an Indonesian adolescent gifted pianist, Joey Alexander. The title is “Over the Rainbow”. So I go to sleep without being able to forget that we are in a splendid, bourgeois bubble within which we suspend incredulity and we end believing the tale of being able to change the world, or, in any case, to do something about it. Which in a way is exactly what one should do –remember Galeano’s idea of utopia? Utopia is what makes us walk forward.

And I go to sleep without forgetting that many TEDsters are out skating or lip-synching or partying in the night, while, admittedly, I am completely wiped out mentally and physically.

The days go by quickly; the atmosphere is very open, dialogues sprout easily. Neri Oxman from MIT talks about dresses that grow organically, and leaves one wondering if this is pure madness; Elora Hardy, an architect working out of Bali shows her buildings made exclusively out of bamboo –but stumbles when admits noises and smells creep out of bathrooms with bamboo walls and she hasn’t been able yet to solve the problem.

I’d say, putting the bathroom out of the middle of the living room may help. A short video shows 50’s-style dancing made current –it’s an addictive video to me!


Great people follow greater people in the madly endless sequence devised by the curators. Dave Isay wins the TED Prize for his long-standing StoryCorps project, a fantastic initiative to preserve the “important stories of our life” by recording interviews with people that matter for each. At some point I ask myself whether I can withstand such a cognitive overload. Monika Lewinski makes a grand return when she talks about cyber-bullying and the big mistake she made when she fell in love with her boss. And so on, there’s a book with some 70 bios for the major speakers only. I fill it with notes.

I end up my five-day retreat in this festival of ideas and people going back to Vancouver and to my three-flight-plus-bus way back home, with a lot in my mind. It has been a retreat, because, in the Whistler bubble, I have been able to think almost only about ideas –those presented, those unsaid, and also those which lurk in the shadow. It was a festival because of the feast of ideas and the show of ideas. Also, it was a party of ideas and the people who think and act upon them. I have now the chance to organize my next TEDx for more than one hundred souls, and yes, I understand the concept and the people behind it much, much better. And I already am thinking of coming back.



About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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