This Is What the TED Conference Is Actually Like

Stand-up comedian Negin Farsad reflects on her week learning about lava tubes, 3D printing, and quinoa-based cranberry discs.

You might know of TED — TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design. You’ve probably seen the online talks. But those talks don’t do the actual conference justice. At first glance, it looks like a summer camp for learning junkies. On second glance, it looks like a mind-melding spa for venture capitalists. On third glance, it looks like a training center for standing ovations. Allow me to expand on those glances.

That’s me at TED2015, where I recounted an unfortunate incident involving an American-style, husband-repelling toilet in Iran to a rather astonished audience of millionaire tech entrepreneurs and heads of state. Photo: Ryan Lash

TED is a wondrous thing, owing mainly to the people who attend the conference. I would call the majority demographic “the 1 percent of the 1 percent” or “Oh my god, that dude owns a boat with rooms on it.” These people are SMART — and despite their enormous gift for accruing cash, companies, and patents, they still sometimes wear socks under their Tevas.

Mixed in with those folks are artists, innovators, celebrities, and, quite notably, the TED Fellows. The TED Fellows are a group of brainy, mostly underfinanced astronomers, kinetic sculptors, computational biologists, space archeologists, astrophysicists, neuroscientists — and, naturally, me, a social justice comedian.

Can you spot me, the social justice comedian, among other TED Fellows? Naturally, I’m sandwiched between a bioengineer creating a DIY cancer test and an investigative journalist covering ag-gag laws. Photo: Ryan Lash.

You can spot a TED Fellow by counting how many free organic fruit roll-ups they’re surreptitiously stuffing into their tote bags. To be clear, there are many, many free organic fruit roll-ups available at TED. It is the choice snack of millionaires and kindergarteners alike.

My TED Fellows gift bag, stuffed with free organic fruit roll-ups.

This year’s theme was Truth and Dare — a clever homage to Madonna and tween party games — and, like most high-minded intellectual salons, the festivities started with the striking of an over-sized gong made of (I’m just guessing here) recycled iPads.

TED2015 kicks off with… a gong, obviously. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED.

TED knows that any self-respecting conference of its kind has to include at least one Australian prime minister. Otherwise, you’ll get mocked by Davos. Luckily, there was an APM on hand who talked about China as a potential threat or potential ally — totally unclear which. Mostly he talked about how well he spoke Chinese. He wasn’t the only speaker sounding the international warning gongs. Folks like David Rothkopf gave us a healthy reminder that our entire 14-year response to 9/11 has basically made everything worse, created more terrorists, and killed more people. On the bright side…. Oh wait, no, there’s no bright side.

But just as we were feeling depressed about the state of international affairs, we were presented with innovations! Nay, INNOVATIONS! For example, 3D printing! You remember how a couple of years ago everything was gonna be 3D printed — until we realized that 3D printers were slow as molasses and it was faster to order from Amazon?

Super-speed 3D printing out of molten plastic with the CLIP machine — onstage. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

Well, there’s a new machine out there that can summon a design out of molten plastic through a process technically referred to as “magic.” This is some Skynet shit but instead of evil, the machine will summon ping-pong balls and stuff. I know you’re asking: will all these machines get smarter than us, become self-aware, wage war, and become our Cylon overlords? In a word, probably. But there was also a futurist philosopher on hand — isn’t there always? — to tell us that human level machine intelligence won’t be achieved until 2070. In the meantime, have you tried rebooting?

There is a silent and invisible A in TED and it stands for “adventurers.” They were in full force this year. There was the Google guy, Alan Eustace, who traveled into the stratosphere! To do this, he used a sophisticated technology called “a balloon took him up there and then dropped him.” His big discovery: the stratosphere smells like bacon.

Alan Eustace , who discovered that the stratosphere smells like … bacon. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED.

Then there was Dame Ellen MacArthur, the woman who sailed around the globe solo. Like in a boat, alone. I would like to challenge her to stream all of Netflix, solo. Sure, she handled turbulent waves and menacing icebergs, but can she handle seasons 1–5 of Gilmore Girls? There’s adventure and then there’s dedication.

Not only were we given food for the mind, but we were also given actual food. Food trucks from around Vancouver provided tasty exotic delights like umami hot dogs and pulled pork sticky buns. The schedule was also fueled with mid-talk snacks, mostly in the form of quinoa-based cranberry discs that I ate while pretending I didn’t wish they were chocolate-based fat discs.

Of course, everyone was jazzed up for Monica Lewinsky’s talk. She delivered one of the most moving talks of the entire week. If I had to go through what she went through, I would have dissolved into a puddle, joined a witness protection program, and/or eaten nonstop chocolate-based fat discs. But she’s got thicker skin than most. A scientist in the audience is probably trying to genetically copy that skin and then 3D print it.

On the third day there was a talk on big data. My understanding of big data is that it’s prettier than regular-sized data, as you can see in the bespoke graphs below.

My other big takeaway from TED? Exoplanets are the hottest cosmological accessory of the season. They’re like regular planets, but they have the word “exo” in front of them. I also learned from technology forecaster Stephen Petranek — citing Elon Musk no fewer than 35 times — that we’re actually going to colonize Mars. Never mind that the air is unbreathable and that it’s -81˚ F every night. Spending billions on moving to Mars to live in lava tubes just makes more sense than fixing Earth. I have a hunch that a lava tube is probably an upgrade from my New York City apartment. And hopefully, it’s a rent-stabilized lava tube.

As for medical breakthroughs, according to Maryn McKenna we’re totally boned when it comes to bacteria-resistant antibiotics. I’m not sure how this will end because I thought about Doritos for like five seconds and then I couldn’t follow the rest of the science, but I’m confident that McKenna will figure out a way for us all not to die.

When I wasn’t thinking of Doritos, my fellow TEDsters and I spent most of our time crying at talks. And then standing ovating. And then crying some more. Followed by more snacks.

TED attendees standing ovating. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED.

The conference was masterfully concluded with an oxygen bar. Being assaulted with knowledge for a full workweek requires reoxygenation with nasal tubes pumping chamomile and/or candy cane-flavored O2 directly into your nostrils, obviously. The experience forever confirmed that there is a mouth that tastes things inside your nose.

Huffing the flavored oxygen with TED Fellow Gabriel Barcia-Colombo. Photo: Shivani Siroya.

UGH, of course I had to learn something at the very end! DAMNIT. Can’t a woman just suck flavored oxygen through her nostrils without getting some kind of physiological lesson?

No, a woman cannot. Because this is TED, and at TED, you always gotta be learning.


Want to know more about Negin Farsad? Read “The Muslims Are Coming!” on the TED Blog.

The TED Fellows program hand-picks young innovators from around the world to raise international awareness of their work and maximize their impact.


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