Monica Lewinsky, sadistic robots and secret billionaires: what I learned at TED 2015
Photo shows Monica Lewinsky as she sits in the back of a car in Washington (AFP)

What can you learn from talks about slavery, justice, space travel and 3D-printed robots? Lindy West joins the activists, dreamers and mysterious billionaires at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver

The first thing I scribbled in my notebook, as I stood in the lobby of the leviathan Vancouver Convention Center (leviathan not just in mass – the building itself evokes a breaching, algae-crusted humpback) and watched the sea of innovators and billionaires and idea-spreaders part and flow around me, was, “Pretty sure I’m the only fat person at the TED conference.” My hunch would later be disproved, but barely. For all its populist posturing, this upper echelon of the TED community has as distinctive a physical culture as it does an intellectual one — this is a crowd that can afford to invest in “wellness”, for whom image holds great import.

Or, to put it another way, for a gathering purportedly aiming to tackle all the world’s problems, TED’s demographic landscape resembles a very narrow slice of it.

For the uninitiated, TED is a nonprofit (or, in the words of its mission, a “global community”) that hopes to “make great ideas accessible and spark conversation”, via a network of conferences that are broadcast for free online to millions of viewers. Conference presenters have a maximum of 18 minutes to hold forth on their various areas of expertise: at this year’s conference, I watched presentations on topics as disparate as space colonisation, municipal flag design, human trafficking, self-driving cars and the hidden benefits of marital infidelity. TED also runs an educational initiative called TED-Ed, which “aims to amplify the voices and ideas of teachers and students around the world”.

I came to the TED conference clad dutifully in my Toms (truly the TED talk of shoes) and vaguely suspicious. The organisation’s reputation, while not monstrous, isn’t particularly flattering – critics charge that TED is shallow, self-congratulatory, myopic, a cult of dilettantes, a shangri-la of unexamined privilege. TED fans counter that it’s a chance to share ideas, broaden horizons and foment positive change. “TED really gets you thinking about stuff you’re not normally interested in,” I overheard someone gush. “Like, we’d never say, ‘Why don’t you come over tonight? We’re going to talk about incarceration!’

It’s a turn of phrase that handily sums up both sides, I think.

Founded in 1984 and established in its current form in 1990, TED began, fundamentally, as a tech conference – the acronym stands for technology, entertainment, design – and, though it’s gradually broadened its scope to tackle political and social issues as well, you can feel Silicon Valley in its DNA. At the opening night banquet, one tech journalist and 10-time TED attendee told me over saffron creme brulee (yo, by the way, quit innovating my desserts – this biz tastes like bisque) that TED is the tech crowd’s big annual field trip outside their bubble, to check in with the rest of the world, and maybe to show off a little bit.

It’s also a chance, to paraphrase Pride and Prejudice, for not-so-rich men to throw themselves into the paths of other, richer men. Though it’s never openly articulated this way, much of the conference feels like an enormous pitch meeting: scientists and tech up-and-comers parading their gadgetry in front of a truly staggering pantheon of millionaires and billionaires (I’m not allowed to tell you who, per TED’s house rules, but whichever ones you’re picturing, you are correct). You can feel the future being packaged, prioritised and funded in front of your eyes, making TED’s small programming board a generally overlooked and faintly alarming knot of power. Some people come to TED just to have meetings, a frequent attendee told me. TED might be run by a nonprofit, but there’s money to be made here, no question.

Affluence permeates every molecule of the conference, which TED devotees pay between $7,500 and $15,000 to attend, despite the fact that all the content is available for free online (as one of my friends joked: “Wait, who has $8,000 but doesn’t have YouTube!?”). What you’re paying for, of course, isn’t the content so much as the experience — the opportunity to stand next to [redacted world leader] in the buffet line and, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to pretend you’re not impressed.

Meanwhile, relegated largely to Thursday morning (unless you count former Australia PM Kevin Rudd’s opening address, in which he offered this hilariously Pollyanna-ish prescription for global harmony: “Next time you meet someone from China, sit down and have a conversation!”), the politics and social justice portions of this year’s programme felt, subtly, like a secondary priority. I admittedly wasn’t able to attend every single presentation, but anecdotally, I’m pretty sure I sat through approximately 12,873 variations on “what if we 3D-printed a robot that had feelings but then it was mean to us” or “what if an iPhone could drive a car ... ON MARS” before I heard anyone say the word “Ferguson” into a microphone.

That’s a hierarchy of priorities to which I cannot relate at all (my own bubble peeking through, I guess).

But maybe I’m not being fair. Are tech people supposed to not be excited about tech at a tech conference? My scientist friends always tell me not to despair too completely over war and disease and climate change and dwindling water supplies, because human innovation has saved us so far and it likely always will, in some capacity. Does it matter whether the nerd who saves the world is thinking about people or money or pure maths when he does it? Not particularly, I suppose. And anyway, caring about artificial intelligence and caring about police brutality aren’t mutually exclusive. I just hope – considering the inconceivable amount of money, power and energy in that convention centre this week – that the tangible concerns of currently living (and dying) human beings receive the same level of attention and funding as the hypothetical concerns of hypothetical future people.

That said, I saw and heard some astonishing things at TED2015, across all fields. Computer scientist Abe Davis described his “visual microphone”, an algorithm that can extrapolate sound from the minute vibrations of objects in silent video footage. Human rights activist Gary Haugen dropped the stunning statistic that, among poor, rural women worldwide, aged 15-45, “domestic abuse and sexual violence account for more death and disability than malaria, car accidents and war combined.” Marina Abramovic’s presentation was, by necessity, a flyover of Feminist Art History 101, but she still managed to squeeze an uncomfortable moment of humanity in at the end – forcing audience members to turn to their neighbour and stare into each other’s eyes for two uninterrupted minutes. Clint Smith ’s account of how racism circumscribed his childhood was gutting.

Sociologist Alice Goffman delivered perhaps the biggest mic-drop of the week, in her unequivocal, scathing rebuke of police who disproportionately target black teenagers, and the white people who enable them: “Maybe you’re saying, ‘They’re committing crimes! Don’t they deserve to be in prison?’ And my answer is NO, THEY DON’T.” Goffman called for “a criminal justice system that believes in black young people, rather than treating black young people as the enemy to be rounded up”.

Noy Thrupkaew ’s sharp, vulnerable talk on human trafficking dismantled our culture’s erroneous (and borderline creepy) insistence that “trafficking” only concerns underage sex workers – “a bad man doing a bad thing to an innocent girl”. Instead, she reminds us, “human trafficking is embedded in our everyday lives” – 68% of trafficked workers are forced into agricultural, domestic and construction labour. In other words, slaves provide our food, clothing and shelter, in every country on earth.

And then, of course, there was Monica Lewinsky. I was a teenager when the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, and I remember even then – even without any concept of slut-shaming, any feminist counternarrative to guide me – having no understanding whatsoever of what this woman supposedly did wrong. (Not to mention how unfathomable it is that anyone could construe a “relationship” between the president of the United States and his 22-year-old employee as anything approaching equal and free of coercion.)

In the intervening 17 years, Lewinsky’s personhood was flattened beyond recognition: she became nothing but a whore, a punchline, a ghost, even the downfall of the Democratic party.

Lewinsky has stayed out of sight for the past decade, earning a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and is just now re-entering the public sphere – “[taking] back my narrative”, she called it – as an anti-bullying activist. She is, after all, “patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously”. Lewinsky’s talk was masterfully constructed, drawing audiences in with just enough tabloid detail (“at the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss”), then feeding them her strong, clear call to arms. “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of expression,” Lewinsky cautioned, “but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of expression.” Amen. Up top.

Moments of brilliance aside, though (and there were many more over the course of the week), TED is woefully undermined by its format. While easily digestible as a YouTube clip, 18 minutes isn’t enough time to mine a topic to anything approaching a rigorous depth, and TED provides no mechanism for pushback. The overall thrust of Haugen’s presentation, for instance, was that, in order to make the war on global poverty effective, we need to prioritise the installation of law enforcement and criminal justice systems in poor, rural communities to keep impoverished people safe from everyday violence. Not long after he left the stage, Goffman delivered her talk, detailing the myriad ways in which the US law enforcement system abuses and exploits its poorest and most vulnerable charges. “Broken law enforcement can be fixed,” Haugen had declared. Oh, really? Would Goffman agree? And the communities in which she works? What about Smith and his parents, who equipped their son with “an armour of advice” to protect him not from crime, but from cops? And Thrupkaew, who just a few hours later would say: “The criminal justice system is too often part of the problem rather than part of the solution”?

I’m sure Haugen is well aware of the shortcomings of the US justice system, and that police themselves can be a menace to the communities they’re supposed to protect. The trouble with TED is that 18 minutes affords him no time in which to address such vital nuances, and the conference provides no way for Haugen, Goffman, Smith and Thrupkaew to publicly debate with one another and hammer out some of these inconsistencies. What’s the point of “spreading ideas” if those ideas fundamentally contradict one another, the audience has no expertise in the field at hand and the “experts” aren’t given enough time to explain?

I guess I’m just wary of slapping tidy, feel-good bows on massive, messy, global injustices.

Because it’s easy – particularly at an event as doggedly committed to optimism as the TED conference, attended by people with such unfettered access to ease – to mistake listening to a presentation about human suffering for actually doing something about it.

Positivity casts a shadow. Yes, hopelessness can breed paralysis, but optimism lets us off the hook too easily. For TED to be the global force for good that it wants to be – for it to be a net gain for the world, and not just for a few tech gurus and venture capitalists – TED’s attendees need to carry all these issues (not just the “fun” ones) back out with them into the world. To not just peek outside the bubble, but live outside the bubble. But this charge to move past reflection and into action applies to me as much as it does to the billionaires. I’m under no illusions that I do anything in the fight against global poverty that compares to, say, [redacted billionaire]. I just hope that we’re all feeling the same urgency, the same panic, because I’m terrified, and these are the people with the best chance of fixing it.

On the second day of the conference, I was waiting in line for my free, TED-sponsored kale salad, when I noticed, with a start, that it wasn’t raining. This wouldn’t ordinarily have been of note – I get not-rained on all the time – except that, just beyond the metal barriers delineating TED’s rarefied food truck corral, I could see rain coming down in sheets, bright against the dark business towers. It was raining, hard, just not on us. Someone quipped that [redacted billionaire] must have paid for some sort of forcefield to keep the rain off of the TED attendees. We laughed.

Across the street, people hurried by, soaking wet. © Guardian News and Media 2015