Before I arrived in San Diego for the TED Med Conference people told me that I was coming to a meeting that would “rock my world” with a series of brilliant insights. Now that I am here, I must confess to being underwhelmed. I am already longing for home. What went wrong?
I’ve slept on it and feel ready to report on my experience so far (For detailed coverage of the speakers, check out The WSJ Health Blog):
1) This “conference” is slick and professional but it feels like a vanity project. It’s an offspring of the better-known TED conference created by architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman. Both cater to elite clientele (about 600 people paid $4000 apiece, months in advance to attend) and the speakers and topics are clearly keeping owners, Wurman and entrepreneur Mark Hodosh, very amused and entertained. For those of us who are actually engaged in changing how health care is delivered, however, the program seems scattered and superficial. This is, ultimately, a variety show for techno minded intellectuals. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
2) The meeting appears to be largely underwritten by a collection of corporate sponsors who have been rewarded with speaking slots. The level of corporate self promotion in these presentations and the lack of transparency regarding these company’s relationship with TED Med is not cool. Major TED MED sponsors such as Mars Inc., Life Technologies, CVS Caremark, Intel and General Electric all have speaking slots. I admit I thoroughly enjoyed presentations by Intel product developer Eric Dishman and brilliantly thoughtful Priceline founder Jay Walker, a major TED patron. Walker was a highlight.
3) At first i could not identify the feeling that hovers around the meeting. Gradually, I came to understand that many of the sessions carry a heavy pall of nostalgia. This is a tribal gathering designed for those who still believe that COMPUTERS! THE INTERNET! SOFTWARE! Have the power to defeat all of our most serious problems. The level of techno-utopian thinking here makes the hippies devotion to “peace, love and beauty” look tame by comparison. These are the techno-boom’s last true believers.
In addition to the corporate sponsors, this conference offers us a generous dollop of 1990’s retreads.
The world I move in, the people I know and work with have left the 90’s behind. We don’t care about Ozzy Osbourne and we don’t care about his genome. Few of these 90’s retreads have any connection to or actual interest in medicine or patients or health care. I don’t know why they were included in the program.
4) The word most frequently spoken from the stage seems to be “brilliant.” Almost everything is lauded as being “brilliant.” The problem is, of course, that if you have to tell people that something is “brililiant” then it is, by definition, not brilliant. This is where the nostalgia shows itself most clearly. The specific forms of “brilliance” that are being celebrated here really were powerful, fresh and innovative — when they were new. The intellectual meat here is past it’s “sell by” date.
5) Want to taste a TEDMed insight? Oprah’s TV doctor told us (via video link) that “family is good.” One of the founders of Microsoft told us that he is “fascinated by cooking.” Watching the twitter stream for these events makes me wonder if there is some kind of mass hypnosis going on. A large group of very smart people are sitting passively and repeating speakers bon mots without doubt or criticism. What do we learn when everyone Tweets “Dr. Oz says honesty is good!!”. This is an especially mundane truism and it should be treated as such.
6) The TED phenomenon is based on youtube videos of wonderful and insightful talks going viral thanks to the power of social media. This event is sadly dominated by the chaff — the shallow, the corporate, the blatantly self-interested offerings of people who have not been on the leading edge for a long time. Perhaps one of these talks (I loved the talk by Barton Kamen on new strategies for treating childhood cancer) will catch fire and go viral. For those of us trapped in the audience we are hardly more than props for a performance that, in the end, has nothing to do with us.
The weather is nice.
The people are nice.
I have caught up with a few old friends.
Just trying to hang on until the end. I’ll report back if the finale “rocks my world.”