First things first, TED stands for Technology. Entertainment and Design. Nearly a 30-year-old organization, it could never be accused of having modest aims, but it has fully blossomed since Chris Anderson, a media mogul, attended one of its conferences in 1998 and was so fascinated by the concept of knowledge-by-association that he took the whole thing over in 2001.
Ever since, Anderson's mandate for TED has been nothing short of the mammoth yet beautifully simple goal of disseminating "ideas worth spreading: His personal mantra embraces the notion that a powerful enough idea has sufficient force to alter our lives, our attitudes ... everything.
For Anderson, TED is, at its core, a cerebral warehouse where knowledge and provocative ideas, ambitions and goals are shared by some of the world's greatest achievers. Its content is drawn from an endless variety of disciplines--the arts and philanthropy, science, religion, humanities, nongovernmental organizations, and business.
Structurally, each of its two major annual conferences lasts four days and is built around 18-minute-or-less presentations made by approximately 50 speakers. The talks often weave in video and other visual and audio aids, or they can be entirely built around a musical or performance element.
As TED.com puts things: "It works because all of knowledge is connected. Every so often it makes sense to emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole."
Rather than simply provide a venue and an audience for the discussion of progress, TED has, time and again, mated progress, often in the most unexpected ways. "What I think is really wonderful about TED," says Diana Reiss, a professor at New York's Hunter College who specializes in animal cognition, "is that it becomes this wonderful place to get new ideas from. For instance, at my last TED Talk, as I was describing the latest in dolphin communication through touch-screen technology, I met a whole bunch of different people--from computer engineers and touch-screen technology specialists to philosophers--all of whom were willing to help out."
It was Anderson who gave renewed life to a teenaged TED just after the turn of this century. His biographical passport was already stamped with all manner of exotic ports of call, starting with his birth in 1957 in a faraway stretch of Pakistan. One of three children, he spent much of his early life in that country, Afghanistan and India due to his eye-surgeon father's missionary work. He attended India's prestigious Woodstock School, an academy for expat boarders high up in the Himalayas, and eventually landed at an academy in Bath, England.
Looking back, Anderson has no doubt that growing up in such varied environs contributed mightily to the curiosity and intellectual predilection that would eventually lead him toward TED. "I wouldn't trade the experience and exposure to lots of cultures and people for anything," Anderson says. "It informed my value system. Take my Indian school, where there were at least 30 countries represented. In that environment, you stopped fretting about the usual [social] issues. They became invisible. Instead, you started to appreciate what...