A perfect breeze wafts through the outdoor plaza of the four-star Riviera Resort in Palm Springs, Calif., site of this year's TEDActive conference, the slightly less expensive, and less exclusive, overflow conference of the annual TED conference, held in Long Beach. Friend and colleague Andy Bichlbaum and I are sitting with a crowd in an outdoor Jacuzzi, reveling in the balmy weather after having just barely escaped the blizzard on the East Coast. This being a conference devoted to "Ideas worth spreading," we've been invited to give a talk here about the work of the mischief-making, left-leaning activist collective known as the Yes Men, best known for constructing elaborate pranks, impersonations and hacks of major corporations and powerful government bodies. Andy is one of the co-founders, and I've been working with the group on and off in various capacities for a year and change.
While the Yes Men have been plying their weird trade for years, a few recent interventions may have caught your attention -- like when the group spoke out on behalf of Canada during the recent U.N. climate summit, or when it lent a helpful "rebrand" to the reactionary U.S. Chamber of Commerce in October, moving its position on climate change in a more enlightened direction. An award-winning documentary was also released this year covering their work, which aired on HBO and at theaters nationwide.
A young man sitting next to us, who has the word TED shaved into the side of his head, asks us how many TEDs we've been to, or if we are in fact "TED virgins." He's a producer who lives in Los Angeles, and like the other 500-plus people here, has paid almost $4,000 to spend four days listening to a slate of thematically organized 18-minute "TED talks" by various luminaries in the worlds of technology, entertainment and design (from which the conference's initials spring) as well as various experts, often unacknowledged, in the fields of science, politics, philanthropy, business and art.
When our new friend finds out that we're actually here as invited speakers, the keynote of the TEDActive "TED You" program here in Palm Springs, our estimation in his eyes immediately skyrockets, and naturally he asks us about the topic of our talk. With tongue loosely in cheek, we tell him that our talk is going to detail our plan to recruit more people to engage in Yes Men style guerrilla antics to help smash free market capitalism. We are met with a blank stare.
"But … what else is there?" he asks, his bemused expression slowly morphing into one of confusion and dread. We point to Sweden and Scandinavia as another way of doing things, and explain that free market capitalism doesn't really exist here anyway since the big banks have been de facto nationalized, even as all the profits have been privatized, but by then our erstwhile friend has already started talking to somebody else, presumably of a slightly saner persuasion. If this were a film, by now he'd have probably pushed the red alert button, and TED Agents would have swiftly moved in to eject the few radicals that had managed to breach the perimeter.
That discussion abruptly over, Andy and I get back to deconstructing some of what we've seen so far, and return to brainstorming about our upcoming talk -- and the challenge of selling a provocative brand of anti-corporate activism at a conference heavily sponsored by a laundry list of major corporations (Dow Chemical, GE, Walmart, Shell, etc). The challenge also being how to pitch our idea (the creation of a "Yes Laboratory for Creative Activism," which will, we hope, train subsequent cadres of aspiring provocateurs and culture jammers) to an audience that, from what we had seen so far, seemed dedicated to a utopian, fairly apolitical form of magical thinking in which change is synonymous with invention, or sometimes just better branding, and where politics is nowhere to be found.
"What the world needs now is -- mind shift," conference emcee and TED curator Chris Anderson says to wild applause, as he kicked off the conference. At TED, mind shift is best delivered in a huge luxurious ballroom, with crystal chandeliers, and rows of red beanbag chairs and comfy lounge chairs. Here in Palm Springs the experience is totally mediated, mind you, 500 "TEDsters" who paid almost $4,000 a pop are here to watch the thematically grouped talks and presentations beamed in on massive TV screens all over the room. One man lies horizontally on a bed setup that resembles a sort of Bedouin encampment in the desert. Only instead of gazing up at the stars, he's looking up at an LCD monitor above him broadcasting the talks from the main venue in Long Beach, which is invitation-only and costs $6,000.
In the world according to TED, where high-powered über-networking between very smart people and their very big ideas is the best way to address the various social, political and economic crises facing the world, would our entreaties for more organizing, more rebellion, more creative activism to change the rules of the game fall on deaf ears? Mind shift sounded nice, whatever it meant, but could we get anybody here interested in policy shift, in economic shift, in power shift? We knew this was a conference of designers, inventors, venture capitalists and management consultants -- not a hotbed of radicals -- but we also figured, given the much vaunted influence of the "TED community," if we could interest even a few of these people in our scheme, we'd be in good shape.
Because the truth is that the TED vision is a persuasive one, and one validated by the millions who have watched the various "TED talks" archived at TED.com, a fantastic repository of inspiring, encouraging and brilliant talks given by a diverse group of thinkers and doers. Volunteers around the world have translated the talks into dozens of languages, and independently organized TED events have sprung up in cities around the world in the last year. And this year's conference featured a huge range of speakers -- from a MacArthur "genius grant" winner whose innovative research focuses on poverty reduction in the developing world, to an architect and his work on a new "Imagination Playground" and a game developer who says we'd solve more real-world problems if we all played more video games. There was even a talk by a guy who unveiled his new tool for the fight against malaria in Africa -- an elaborate mosquito-zapping laser.
And in an impressive show of the networking pizzazz of the "TED community" as well. After awarding Jamie Oliver ("The Naked Chef") the annual $100,000 TED prize this year, TEDsters leapt into action after Oliver delivered his wish onstage that every American child be taught to cook healthy foods. One audience member offered to donate trucks to repurpose as mobile cooking labs. Another volunteered to introduce Oliver to his friend Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sits on the Senate's Agriculture Committee.
And yet, and yet … despite all the great intentions and inspiring messages, something about this form of organizing resources and networking power behind ideas vetted by a wealthy creative class seemed dated somehow, almost as if the recent financial collapse and all that it told us about the limits of the free market as the chief organizing principle of our society, and the limits of entrusting our future to a group of "wise men" (think Alan Greenspan) had passed these people by.
The truth is that it probably has. According to a study by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Studies, unemployment for those in the top income bracket was at 3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 -- nearly full employment. This may or may not help explain why after a year in which the economy shed almost 8 million jobs, there were no talks at TED this year that focused on employment, on bailouts or on corporations or politically connected financial institutions as impediments to reform or innovation. Bill Gates gave a thoughtful and informative talk on why we have no time to lose in shifting toward a clean energy economy -- but said nothing about the entrenched oil, coal and gas industries that are doing everything in their power to make sure that doesn't happen anytime soon. To the contrary, corporations and the products they design and sell were almost always framed as the solution. And more than a few of the TED talks were thinly veiled product demos of technologies or innovations that are going to make some corporate TED sponsors very, very rich.
A Google employee, after giving a mouthwatering demonstration of the various remarkable functionalities of the new Google phone, asked the audience, "So maybe what the world needs now is -- more smart phones?" It wasn't a rhetorical question. This year Google donated 2,000 phones to all conference attendees, a huge marketing coup any way you slice it, putting these phones in the hands of the chattering, creative classes. It was also the one occasion when a riot was only narrowly averted among the normally low-key crowd. When at first TEDsters in Palm Springs thought they'd been left out of the giveaway, a massive "boo!" roared through the banquet hall, only assuaged when it was clarified that they too would get the phones (in the process amplifying a bit of an inferiority complex that the offsite TEDsters clearly feel toward their invitation-only brethren in Long Beach).
This was not the only spot of drama, of course. A bizarre Twitter battle erupted between Chris Anderson and Sarah Silverman after Anderson called Silverman's TED performance "god-awful." Presumably Anderson was offended by Silverman's insistence on being characteristically profane and aggressively politically incorrect, i.e., being Sarah Silverman. And after so much earnestness, Sarah Silverman being Sarah Silverman -- spoofing the craze for celebrity adoptions by explaining why she wanted to adopt a "terminally ill retard" so she won't have to continue taking care of it into her old age --was a much-needed respite. And it was hilarious. And the ensuing much-publicized battle of the tweets says something about the expectations of the conference organizers, and a bit of naiveté as well. You invite Sarah Silverman to entertain the crowd, as a badge of edginess, but then when she doesn't "tone it down" enough to fit the TED decorum, she gets trashed.
Which brings me to our talk, which was delivered to the Palm Springs crowd, and telecasted back to the main event in Long Beach. In the preparation we'd been asked to respect the TED guidelines, first and foremost being not to directly shill for money. But since we had no shame about our fundraising goals we did exactly that, but only after taking a poke at some of TED's biggest corporate sponsors beforehand (when explaining the need for more Yes people to battle corporate criminals, we flashed a slide of major TED sponsors, then called them out as such. Here are a few lines from the speech to give you an idea):
"What the World Needs Now is the theme of this conference. ... What the world really needs now is for us all to get off our asses and do something to try changing the rules of the game. The rules that let agribusiness companies shove their crap into our schools and make our kids obese (in a nod to Jamie Oliver), the rules that create global poverty every day, by perpetuating the same old rules of colonialism in glitzy modern garb, the rules that mean that malnutrition vastly outranks any other disease as cause of mortality in the developing world. And there's no vaccine for malnutrition, and mosquito-zappers won't do a thing about it. It's only by changing the rules of the game that any substantial change can possibly occur."
While the first half of the speech was greeted by a relative ocean of silence, once we started explaining the Yes Men's particular M.O. (impersonating corporate scofflaws to give light to "their inner angels"), and flashing slides to illustrate the point, we had the audience roaring with laughter, and received a big applause at the end.
As it turns out, breaking the rules may be the best way to a TEDster's heart. After our talk, all of the secret radicals came out of the woodwork, and we met all kinds of people who wanted to help us raise money, attract press coverage, collaborate or otherwise take advantage of the über-networked TED community to see the project launch off the ground. And maybe this illustrates one of the wonderful things about this conference, elitist as it may be. It's perhaps one of the few places where all of these disciplines and fields and areas of expertise come to bump up against each other, and where molecular geneticists, illustrators, playwrights and designers, not to mention the odd anti-capitalist provocateur, rub shoulders and try to explain their area of expertise in a language that anybody can understand. The disciplining nature of devising a "TED talk" certainly forced us to home in on the core concepts of our "Yes Laboratory" idea, and how to pitch it to what was not necessarily an activist audience. (In a nutshell: Let a thousand Yes Men [and Women!] bloom).
Andy and I pondered this and more, and joked about Google's cynical marketing ploy, even as we stood outside the conference hall with the rest of the TEDsters, in line to pick up our free smart phones.
Joseph Huff-Hannon is a Brooklyn, N.Y., independent writer and producer, a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and a recipient of a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. See more of his work at josephhuffhannon.com.