TEDGlobal: Worshipping at the church of TED

Dancing robot, copyright TED/James Duncan Davidson
Image caption A dancing robot took centre stage at TEDGlobal this year

There aren't many places where you get to see a dancing robot and a woman dressed in a black suit threaded with mushroom spores on the same stage, but that is just a normal day at TEDGlobal.

Beyond the eclectic nature of its speakers, the conference is unusual in many ways and has become something of a cult for its followers - appropriately known as TEDsters.

There is both a big and little TED. The first is held in the glamorous location of Long Beach, California. The second has been taking place in Edinburgh this week, after several years in Oxford.

Image caption Delegates can watch the show in chill-out pods

Delegates love the coolness of the event; to borrow from a well-known beer commercial - if Apple did conferences it would probably be something very like TED.

It is something of an elitist club - attendees pay £5000 for the privilege of watching speakers talk about technology, entertainment and design.

Those three subjects make up the acronym TED but these days the talks are much wider.

Politics, history, economics and ecology were all on agenda in Edinburgh, with China's meteoric rise to power proving a major talking point.

Image caption Opera singer Danielle de Niese moved the audience

Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, gave a moving speech about her desire for a democratic Yemen.

Philip Blond, architect of the Big Society idea talked about how society was broken, although there was little insight into how his big idea was going to fix it.

Meanwhile philosopher Alain de Botton talked about the need for religion 2.0 - with one particularly enthusiastic Tedster suggesting later that TED itself could be the new church.

Intermingled with the speakers was dance, opera and music performances.

Social experiment

This mix of intellect and emotion seems to be a defining feature of TED, which also offers its high-powered, wealthy audience a range of social and cultural distractions, including this year a launch party at Edinburgh Castle.

Image caption Delegates are invited to pick a badge based on their mood

There is also a sense of being part of a huge social experiment. They are encouraged to network furiously in case "the person that can change your life is sitting next to you".

Where other conferences offer delegates a feedback form, TED invites the audience to select a badge that most reflects their mood. Options include 'My ideas were challenged', "I was inspired and acted on it" and "What am I doing here?".

The badges are housed in plastic tubes and at the end of the week TED will assess which was the most popular. Current winner at the time of writing - "I said what I believe".

TED began life as an elitist club for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs until it was bought by British publisher Chris Anderson in 2001 and turned into a non-profit organisation dedicated to ideas worth spreading.

He angered some TED purists by agreeing to post videos of all the speakers online for free after the conference. It has opened the event out to a much wider audience and has spawned TEDx, localised independent conferences set up by volunteers around the world.

This summer TED is also pondering how it can spread its ideas in schools and an announcement on TED ED is due in the autumn.

Despite the changing nature of the organisation, the conference remains a curiously closed experience. Tweeting is discouraged in the auditorium and there are no question-and-answer sessions to let the audience challenge speakers.

But TEDsters, as befits members of a cult, hold little truck with criticism. They embrace the week-long event as an oasis of intellectual and emotionally stimulation.

Mushroom death

Image caption Artist Jae Rhim Lee wants people to take a more ecological approach to death

Cutting-edge tech remains at the heart of TED.

The dancing robot did more than just prove that it could move with great elegance. Rezero, as it is known, is part of a family of ballbot robots whose design offers a range of real world applications, from guides around museums to intelligent trolleys in hospitals.

Net activist Rebecca MacKinnon gave a call to arms speech about preserving the internet from censorship, including the self-imposed censorship of corporates operating in China. Meanwhile security expert Mikko Hypponen spoke of the need to embrace rather than arrest hackers.

On the final day, pilot Anna Mracek Dietrich unveiled her flying car - or roadable aircraft as she prefers to call it. The craft, complete with folding wings, could be on the road by the end of this year.

And the mushroom suit? Artist Jae Rhim Lee wants to spread the idea of decompiculture - which encourages people to allow their dead bodies to be eaten by mushrooms as an altogether more organic way of dying.

She has, apparently, already got some volunteers although whether the TEDsters will be putting their bodies forward is doubtful. They seem too keen to embrace life and all it has to offer.

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