Knoxville's First TEDx Event Attracts Eclectic Speakers

The list of things that have never happened in Knoxville isn't long, but last Wednesday evening's event at the Square Room may have been one: in a nightclub setting, more than four hours of lectures on a liberal variety of subjects. Organized and hosted by tech-centric promoter Alex Lavidge, who's associated with a startup-nurturing company called Knoxville Overground, the city's first TEDx event at 4 Market Square was a sellout—perhaps surprisingly, at $25 a ticket. Ticket sales were limited to 100, a prescribed TEDx limit, but counting guests, the audience appeared to be a good deal larger. A bartender in back kept the crowd from getting thirsty as 12 lecturers spoke, divided by two intermissions.

Lavidge is reluctant to take credit for bringing TEDx to Knoxville. He says the idea has been circulating for years. "It was just another volunteer effort driven by the love for it," he says. All the staff were unpaid volunteers. Lavidge says the $2,500 ticket revenue was chewed up by expenses, especially $1,600 to rent the Square Room, and another chunk to Knox ivi to record it; the whole evening should be online by mid-December.

TED—it originally stood for Technology Entertainment Design—started in California over 20 years ago as an unconventional "conference" whose only purpose was to disseminate "ideas worth spreading," TED's motto. One of the conference's few rules is to keep each talk short—18 minutes, maximum—a restriction that tends to encourage speed and careful timing. Some TED lectures have the effect of an intellectual comedy routine., which features handily available streaming lectures, has emerged as one of the Internet's most earnest oddities in the last six years or so, and developed something more than a cult following. With topics ranging from the obscure origins of General Tso's chicken to the prospect of extraterrestrial life, several lectures have been viewed more than a million times. TED speakers have included Al Gore and iconoclastic author Malcolm Gladwell.

TED's roadshow version is TEDx, independently organized but officially sanctioned, and held in various parts of the country. Until last week, the only TEDx event in our region had been one early last year in Asheville, the most memorable part of which was a performance by a remarkable kid from Farragut, 11-year-old Birke Baehr, lecturing on the subject "What's Wrong With Our Food Supply." The astonishing talk earned Baehr international invitations to speak, and generated close to half a million views, reportedly the second most popular of the whole TEDx series.

Now 12, Baehr was last Wednesday evening's established celebrity, and gave a short introductory talk, trying to sound as enthusiastic about TED as he is about organic farming.

Author Dierdre Barrett, a former Oak Ridger now on Harvard's faculty, spoke via video, making a case that dreams can be interpreted to help solve the practical problems of waking life. When that was followed by a young local man from England outlining his own beliefs in extrasensory perception, attendees may have begun to wonder what they were getting into.

The rest were more down to earth. The overall theme was "Exploring the Meaning of Human Potential," which accounts for the fact that close to half the speakers could have passed for corporate-grade motivational speakers. The most effective were those who seemed most fully to believe their messages. Chad Hellwinckel, well-known environmentalist and farm-to-table advocate, and Becky Ashe, the new principal of the STEM academy, were standouts.

Not all who appeared on the TEDx stage were locals; among the more unusual presenters was Chattanoogan Alison Lebovitz, who made the drive up to tell the story of how small-town schoolchildren were motivated to picture the scale of the Holocaust by collecting 6 million paperclips in a freight car.

The best of the TED lectures on the Web—about scientific discoveries, or guerrilla performance art, or the weird pop-cultural resonance of 4 a.m.—pack a powerfully provocative surprise. That sort of astonishment was rare at the Square Room. But it was a first-time effort. University of Tennessee staffer Lindsay Hummel is planning a TEDx event for campus on Feb. 17. Lavidge would like to see the idea catch on; he says he likes "the idea of treating all of downtown like a campus where there are always classes, lectures, workshops and more."

Lavidge has been involved in promotional efforts appealing to young adults, and Wednesday the most blatant appeal to youth was an unusual Twitter projector that shared current Twitter comments from within the room about the event itself. It was distracting, as Twitter is—one message, shown repeatedly, was an apology that due to a low battery one participant wouldn't be able to post—but also novel. Most purported to be impressed with each speaker, but one expressing a note of skepticism was included as if to prove they weren't censored. It could emerge as a new form of heckling.

Indeed there were a good many young hipsters present. But they may have been outnumbered by the middle-aged, with considerably more over-40s than can typically be found out after 9 on a weeknight; the crowd was kind of a mixture of the tony and the tweedy. Only a few were recognizable, but one was Mayor-Elect Madeline Rogero, who said afterward that she was very impressed with the experience.