AT THE PARLIAMENT OF THE BIRDS
In the anime version of this story, a mole receives an invitation to speak at the Parliament of the Birds. Only vaguely aware of flamboyant chatter overhead, the mole has been going about its subterranean business without much concern for flight or plumage, but now it learns it will be given a first-class ticket to Monterey and whisked into the company of many a rara avis overhead. All it has to do in exchange is speak for 18 minutes on the subject of “Imagined Futures.”
Here the animation gets a bit tricky, so perhaps I’d do better to be more specific about my invitation to speak at the 2007 TED Conference this past week. By what I can only suppose to be some sort of mix-up (I note on the internet that there’s a rock ‘n’ roll musician by the same name as mine in Atlanta), I was included among “50 Remarkable People” asked to speak at the Conference. Styled “Icons, Geniuses and Mavericks,” the list included former President Bill Clinton, Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, and novelist Isabel Allende. Also singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman and a funky klezmer/rapper band called They Might Be Giants. As the president of a small, southern liberal arts college, I was as anomalous as a mole among toucans and macaws. But it would prove to be a heady, not to say dazzling experience.
TED was begun in 1984 and, until fairly recently, remained a family secret among the high-tech cognoscenti, a sort of Davos-West: four days of unbelievably intense, concentrated intellectual and aesthetic stimulation ostensibly focused on technology, entertainment, and design (hence the acronym), but actually ranging over the entire frontier of science, art, and speculation. Presumably, one of the assumptions behind the conference is that brilliant young entrepreneurs, presented with an array of possibilities, will be able cherry-pick among them, putting combinations together that may be worth billions and will certainly be worth a brief movie treatment or two. Did I mention that Forrest Whittaker and Goldie Hawn and Cameron Diaz were there?
Imagine an Academy Awards ceremony dedicated, not to glitz but to true invention, a festival at which creative ideas are the only currency, and a gathering of superstars in which the icons most frequently invoked from the past are Leonardo da Vinci and Mahatma Gandhi. One thing that quickly became apparent was that, although the 50 speakers had been carefully culled from among somebody’s list of “remarkable people,” the self-selected assemblage of attendees was at least as impressive. Mere celebrity or reputation counted for little in themselves. What mattered was one’s contribution to the four-day conversation, and what had sounded like mere cacophony from a mole’s point of view, was music of an extraordinary sort when heard among the treetops.
Also, I should note in keeping with that analogy, birds are clearly better situated than moles for an overview of the jungle. Social justice and environmental sanity are major themes at the conference, along with verbal pyrotechnics (a comedic cross between Robin Williams and James Joyce named Rives) and self-replicating robots (ferried, like me, via first-class tickets, from the MIT Robotics Lab). Al Gore spoke at the Conference last year, and this year venture capitalist John Doerr was so moved that, after announcing in his opening remarks that he’s scared about the ecology of our planet, he nearly wept at the end. It was not a phony emotion. TED is nothing if not sincere, and what was perhaps the most astonishing revelation for one unaccustomed to these stratospheric regions was how responsibly committed to imaging the future its attendees are.
I was the closer, the last speaker before the house comedian swept up behind the parade. In mole-like fashion, I had no props or high-tech support, only words. In such a situation, there is nothing to do but speak from the heart. So, billed as a “master storyteller,” I talked about the indomitability of the freely-inquiring mind. My central tale was that of a Holocaust survivor who, after almost single-handedly integrating the textile industry in the South, had become the presiding spirit of a little Methodist college in upstate South Carolina. His name was Sandor Teszler, and he was the noblest spirit I have known.
The first thing I saw when I finished my remarks was Daryl Hannah leaping to her feet like the mermaid in “Splash,” initiating a standing ovation. It was an experience no mole is ever likely to forget.