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The Big Think

Providence designer Seth Goldenberg convenes the best and brightest to tackle the "Epic Challenges" of our time. But who appointed them?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 1, 2011


TED, PopTech, and other 21st-century innovation conferences — nerds giving speeches to rich guys — have done something rather remarkable: they've turned the public intellectual into popular entertainer.

If you're one of the millions who have watched TED lectures on the web, you get the appeal: neuroscientists, Internet entrepreneurs, and assorted do-gooders delivering new ideas, in under 18 minutes, with wit, color, and multimedia brio.

But if there is something irresistible about this triumph — online "TED Talks" and PopTech's "popcasts" are crack for the overeducated — the salons are not without their critics.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of bestselling The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, recently declared TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) "a monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers."

Perhaps. But that seems a rather sour take.

The more intriguing critique comes from a local guy: Providence-based designer and big thinker Seth Goldenberg, who says the "sage on stage" model — smart person talks, we listen — is, at its core, old-fashioned and ineffectual. One-way talk and no action.

Thus, the central premise of his own big-brain confab, IDEAS Salon, which staged its inaugural gathering of Google and Cisco executives, academics, and peace activists in Watch Hill a few weeks back: take the sages off the stage, put them together in intense conversation, and demand big things.

Really big things.

Goldenberg, a goateed 30-year-old of considerable urgency, is asking his charges to identify the "essential questions" of our time, come up with world-beating answers, and change the course of history.

After a single weekend, the IDEAS (Innovation, Discourse, Entrepreneurship, Action and Synthesis) community hasn't yet solved our most pressing problems, but they're developing some intriguing questions:

How do we nurture a love of learning in a nation of dropouts? In the Information Age, where human creativity is king, how to put people rather than products at the center? What are the new mythologies we should create in an era of massive change?

Modest queries, these are not.

But IDEAS, which will convene again in Silicon Valley this fall, raises a couple of big questions of its own: can Goldenberg's Watch Hill clutch — however impressive — chew off what he's bitten?

And who appointed them to save the world anyway?


Journalist Chrystia Freeland, in a story in the January/February edition of the Atlantic magazine, wrote of a new ruling caste: a globe-hopping collection of technologists and investors with an utterly different outlook than the hereditary elite who preceded them.

This is not a leisure class, but an entrepreneurial one — deeply in thrall of innovation. And nowhere is that more evident than in the choice of social engagement. No balls or regattas, here. Instead, trips to exclusive, big-idea symposiums — the World Economic Forum's annual meeting at Davos, the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival, Google's Zeitgeist, and, of course, TED and PopTech.

These forums are many things: status builders, networking Valhallas, exercise for the superior mind. But they are also a new model for social change that is, in some ways, discomfiting.

There is something cringe-worthy, after all, about a roomful of millionaires glancing up from their iPhones to nod earnestly at the African anti-malaria activist on stage.

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Related: At a downtown bar: Fluffernutters and pickle juice, Not-so-United States, Review: 'Networks 2009-2010' at the Newport Art Museum, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Rhode Island School of Design, Nobel Peace Prize, Davos,  More more >
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