Inside the TEDxDirigo conference

Big ideas for Maine
By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 14, 2011

TED_Jason-Esposito1_main

I arrived at TEDxDirigo on September 10 feeling rather less than confident about the state of world. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 — and the awful decade that unspooled from that sky-blue morning — was on my mind.

I was thinking about the 9.1 percent unemployment rate, too, and about President Obama's stirring but ultimately probably impotent speech on the matter earlier that week. I was thinking about Republican obstructionism and science-denying wingnuts and the suddenly all-too-real chance that Rick Perry could be elected president in barely more than a year.

Still, I was hopeful. Maybe a day full of positive and forward-thinking "ideas worth spreading" would be just the tonic to buoy my mood.

The event, held at Portland Stage Company last Saturday, is an independently organized offshoot of the well-known TED conferences — it stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design — which for more than a quarter-century have curated provocative slates of smart and innovative speakers (Bill Clinton, Ray Kurzweil, John Hodgman, Bono) who deliver tightly edited talks for selectively chosen attendees. The TED website proclaims its commitment to the "power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world."

It was easy to have doubts, however. Could a roomful of well-meaning and more-or-less well-heeled liberals, most of whom had plunked down $100 a pop for the privilege of being there, really make a difference in times such as these?

Invoking the 9/11 anniversary, TEDxDirigo organizer Adam Burk said the day's hopeful and thought-provoking exchanges of ideas were meant to be a "counterbalance to fear." But how, exactly?

The speakers on Saturday did little to disabuse us of the notion that we live in a broken world facing existential challenges. We were shown a documentary in which a Sierra Leone civil war survivor describes being forced at gunpoint to kill his best friend's father. We were told of the looming food crisis, with more nourishment needing to be grown for exploding global populations in the next 50 years than was over the past 10,000 years combined — all with less oil, less water, less arable land, and less climate stability. We were reminded of the countless hives of honeybees, balefully and inexplicably dying off.

But TEDxDirigo doesn't promise to change the world. It bills itself as an event that's "fundamentally about making new connections" — among ideas and fields of study and people. Its promise, really, is simply this: "Let's talk and see where this leads us."

In a world where cable-TV shouting and comment-thread trolling have become the dominant modes of discourse, that's something.

We live in a beautiful state. One that affords distance from and perspective on an often-crazy country, one that values independence and quiet reflection. It's a place, according to TEDxDirigo's introductory video, where jobs are hard to find, but where natives "work very hard to stay" and to which from-awayers work "very hard to come."

For nine hours, a sold-out crowd of 300 people, chosen from a pool of applicants, took part in a free and fermenting exchange of ideas meant to explore, as Burk put it, "what Maine is, and what it could be."

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