An Open Letter to Cyrus Irani, the TEDx Vancouver organizing team and everyone who has raised concerns about the event,
Welcome to a crash course in the difficulties of shaping and guiding something that belongs to the Public Trust!
That people feel passionately about the TED Lectures is beyond question. The organizing team are passionate enough about it that they’ve dedicated their time and energy to making it happen. The people who have made their thoughts known since the event was announced many months ago – who put their ideas forward to speak at the event, who applied to attend and, perhaps especially, those who have turned up the volume across the social media channels over the past day – are just as passionate about what TED means to them.
It’s been a fascinating conversation to watch, a very public conversation and I’ve tried to bite my tongue on it but I just can’t do it. There’s a few things that I am feeling compelled to say.
But first an admission: I will be attending TEDxVancouver. I will be listening and speaking to people at the event that day with an open mind. It’s about respect. Make no mistake, I am honoured to be a part of the first TED event in Vancouver.
My expectation is that the presenters at TEDxVancouver will deliver an amazing, inspirational and life-affirming day and that optimism and a renewed commitment to action will reign.
But that doesn’t mean that I am exactly enthralled by how the organizers have handled things or that I’m 100% in agreement with what the dissenting voices are saying.
For those of you coming a late to the party, a little background.
TEDx Vancouver was announced some time during the early summer, I believe, and during those early months people could apply to present a lecture. I applied to present but was not chosen.
Then the organizing team opened the registration for attendees. I applied to attend (I know how ridiculous that sounds and I will leave it to others to pick this aspect of the whole thing apart and offer creative solutions) and was accepted.
I printed my evite when it arrived and happily waited for the event.
Then yesterday the TEDx Vancouver organizers announced the line-up of speakers and the shit hit the proverbial fan.
Twitter and Facebook lit up with links, opinions and commentary like your drunk uncle had just found a secret stash of roman candles in the attic.
People were outraged that only 1 of the 11 speakers chosen to present that day is a woman. There were questions about the racial mix of the speakers’ panel and the intellectual pedigree of some of the speakers.
People wanted to know: is Vancouver really best represented by video game designers, television personalities, film makers, web strategists, environmental entrepreneurs and Terry McBride? (Does any Vancouverite really want an honest answer to that question?)
Was the agenda of the organizing team too narrow in its scope? Did the organizing team bother to look any further than the corporate rolodex at the EA headquarters where the event is being held?
Some people weren’t ‘feeling’ the vision. They weren’t sure that venture capitalism, advertising and cinematic special effects were the stuff of ‘inspirational genius.’
The voices that were speaking out wanted something. And they were passionate about it, but what did they want?
They wanted to be heard. They wanted to feel like they were a part of TEDxVancouver even if they weren’t going to attend the actual day.
I’m not sure that their outrage really had too much to do with the speakers on the panel. I think that it’s actually more about how the organizing committee communicated their vision for TEDxVancouver to the public over time, and how they handled the backlash when it happened.
The best expression of how people felt was written by Stephanie Vacher in this post that appeared shortly after the news broke.
A very eloquent and thoughtful letter.
Those are not the terms that I would use to characterize TEDxVancouver’s response posted on their site the next day.
Their letter, in my opinion, sucks. It’s appallingly generic and does little more than gloss over the concerns expressed by Stephanie and others. It reads like a form letter from Telus and I think it exposes the true root of the problem.
The Root of the Problem: a perceived lack of accountability/communication on the part of the organizing committee for 2 things that people feel very strongly about: a very personal vision of what the City of Vancouver represents to them and the founding ideals of the TED brand. Then mix in a sensitivity to how the rest of the world perceives Vancouver and its relationship to the TED brand.
Especially in this city of boundless interconnection and frenetic, highly-caffeinated intellectual and artistic energy you’ve got to meet people on their turf and share the info.
It is better to have transparent processes and more open public communication when handling things that are so connected to people’s aspirations and sense of place.
To me, that is what we have learned over the past 36 hours.
I think that Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD said it best in his response to the letter posted online:
There is one point that I think is far from obvious and that I want to address in print. TED’s success in promoting “ideas worth spreading” hinges on successfully exploiting the scalability properties of information flow in a networked society. In other words, for TED to succeed, the videos and talks need to go viral and have the broadest reach in the shortest amount of time. Best medium to accomplish that? The online world.
And the online world favors transparency and accountability.