Hooked on a Feeling

Posted inID Mag
Thumbnail for Bill Blackbeard's Final Splash Panel

Felix DennisPhoto: George Joblove

Dressed in banana yellow, Felix Dennis looked like a happy man. He was in command of a pile of manuscript pages, a bottle of wine, and us – 800 attendees of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, held February 25-28 in Monterey, California (www.ted.com). Why had the bushy-bearded Pan who founded Maxim magazine taken the stage where cosmologists, code writers, and ape specialists had gone before him? To read from his latest literary creation, an opus loaded with sex and drugs. Not another lads’ rag, but his poetry.

Crossing Kipling’s verbal tics with Hallmark’s sentiment, Dennis isn’t a pretty versifier. But his performance – growls and yells interrupted by swigs from the wineglass – bore unexpected charms. The same can be said of TED 2004, the theme of which was “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Now in its second year under new management, the motley gathering of scientists, designers, performers, and entrepreneurs has shed technical problems and refined the speakers’ roster to produce a steady diet of surprises. Among the treats were Mars photos revealing canyons gouged out by water that might still be lurking somewhere on the planet, and reports of 1,800 new species of microbes discovered in the Sargasso Sea (both findings made headlines shortly after the program ended). Keith Barry, an Irish magician, built the persuasive case that he could drive competently while blindfolded. Sheila Patek, a marine biologist, introduced a species of shrimp that, millimeter for millimeter, packs more power than any other land or sea creature. Steven Levitt, an economist who perused the books of inner-city drug dealers, explained that if you run a gang or a McDonald’s franchise, your org chart is pretty much the same. Sheri Elf, a guitarist who confessed to stage fright (her biggest audience until that moment had fit into her Kansas City living room, she said), donned a paper cone hat and performed a labor song while her boyfriend accompanied her on a sewing machine.

Typical of TED, the happiness theme was a generous peg for presenters to hang hats on – an entire walk-in closet, in fact. Topics ranged, in order of increasing frequency, from psychological studies of what makes people happy, to conditions that make them miserable but are in the process of being redressed, to activities that delight the speakers, namely their own occupations. This last was by far the most popular category. Before presenting his graphic designs, Stefan Sagmeister flashed a timeline of personal blissful moments, including the day in 1983 he rode his brother’s motorcycle through the Austrian Alps while blasting The Police (band, not patrolmen). What did this anecdote have to do with design? The bike was a Yamaha, The Police calypsoed through the headphones of Sagmeister’s first Walkman. Only incidental things, really, but that was okay, because his joy was infectious.

Vik Muniz Photo: Ronnie Antik

Critics charge that the design aspect of TED has lost importance ever since Chris Anderson, a former journalist, took over the conference from Richard Saul Wurman. Aware of that complaint, Anderson said he invited Sagmeister as compensation, but no other designer reached the stage. Did it matter? Only if one cared about job titles. Design was certainly conspicuous in the balletic structures of moving metal parts welded together by the artist Arthur Ganson (one might call them better mousetraps). So, too, in the flying car Paul Moller prototyped, the painless tattoo gun Adam Grosser invented, and the clock Stewart Brand proposed for a remote Nevada mountain site where he intends it to run for 10,000 years. Anderson should forget his whiny critics and look for participants with the dogged, even demented, enthusiasm that marked the best presentations.

Malcolm GladwellPhoto: Kristen Ashburn

Still, he might consider distributing new guidelines to speakers unaccustomed to cramming their life’s work into 20 minutes. Rule one: Offer a single case study or extended anecdote rather than a pile of loosely related facts. The New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell gave a spellbinding example with his biography of Howard Moskowitz, the brand developer responsible for 45 varieties of Prego spaghetti sauce and, ultimately, for the glee-making diversity of packaged foodstuffs. Rule two: Don’t substitute rhetoric for sense. The architecture critic James Howard Kunstler was appropriately scathing on the topic of America’s blighted landscape, but he went too far in calling such degradation “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Might not Stalin’s collectivization program rank a wee bit higher? Rule three: Back up your loopy assertions. After pointing out that people all over the world are more miserable now than ever, the Harvard University psychologist Nancy Etcoff tried to pin some of the blame on Freud, who famously declared that the goal of psychoanalysis was to convert neurotic misery into everyday unhappiness. Such “pessimism” contributes to beliefs that “the pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest,” Etcoff insisted, before going on to attribute half of one’s emotional tenor to one’s genes.

Last year, TED donated more than a million dollars in profit to a trio of organizations involved in good works like distributing clean water and preserving marine life. This year, Anderson announced a new charitable venture – an awards program that will single out three people “who have in common the capability of making a difference in the world,” he said. Each recipient will be granted $100,000 to fulfill three wishes that will be unveiled at the 2005 conference, February 23-28. Dotty and good-hearted, the idea fits TED’s evolving direction. Welcome to fantasy island, where cockamamie enthusiasms just happen to have teeth.

Julie Lasky is editor-in-chief of I.D.