Given an event associated with the name TED, a renowned brand amongst the student community, the excitement following the announcement of a TEDx talk (the tiny x following it meaning that it was planned and coordinated independently) being organized by ECell at IIT Bombay was to be expected. Also to be expected was the disappointment in the student community when it was announced that the event would be open only to professors due to a limit of 100 audience members, imposed by TED. So, when I got an entry pass for the event to cover it for InsIghT, I was naturally excited to be a part of the select audience of 100 and witness the whole thing live.
After showing two TED Talk videos of about 20 minutes each (one of them being the Pranav Mistry one), the actual program began at about 6:45. By this time, the hall, which has a capacity of about 400 people, had only about 50-60 people, about 15-20 of them professors. The first talk by was by Ms Sujaya Banerjee. It was fairly interesting, with the speaker first discussing what innovation meant for companies and individuals, and then stressing on the importance of looking at failures as stepping stones. Ms Bannerjee said that success is often given paramount importance in our everyday life and failure viewed with a lot of contempt. This attitude, she felt, is often counterproductive and inhibits innovation, where one has to keep trying new things at the risk of them not succeeding at first go.
Up next at the podium was Mr Karamveer aka ‘Jim Karter’, India’s first blogger to live completely off his blogs. Karamveer’s talk revolved mostly around the Internet and its growth, and he discussed how a lot of Indians still didn’t trust the Internet much when it came to financial transactions. He talked about how the trend was slowly changing with youngsters being more comfortable doing transactions online and was quite positive about the power of the internet.
Soon following this and a 20 minute High Tea break was Prof Arnab Bhattacharya’s talk on ‘Chai and Why’, a Popular Science discussion session conducted every Sunday by TIFR scientists for the general public. Using the platform of Chai and Why, Prof Bhattacharya and his colleagues have brought a wide range of Science topics within reach of those who are curious about everyday things but probably do not have the educational background to fully understand them. Chai and Why apparently already has loads of devout fans, as was evinced by the story of a guy who couldn’t think of missing a C&W session even on his wedding day!
All in all, the talk by Ms Bannerjee was more or less well received, the one by Mr Karamveer, while full of facts and figures, seemed to be light on direction, leaving the audience a bit disappointed. Prof Bhattacharya, with Chai and Why, gave what we expect in a typical TED talk, and was interesting and informative, apart from being inspiring.
At least in IITB, TED Talks have begun to garner a lot of respect and appreciation, and it was natural that audience members that day would evaluate the event with the same high standards that TED has upheld over the years. In that sense, there was some lingering disappointment, probably because only two of the four speakers seemed to have followed the usual TED talk format, wherein a speaker comes and talks about a particular thing—whether it be something interesting he has done, or whether it be new technology, or a new way of looking at things. The power of the 20-minute format is in the structure and the focus, and these seemed to be lacking.
But what rubbed most students the wrong way wasn’t the content or style of the talks, but rather the policy of inviting only professors to the event. The reason given was that TED had allowed only 100 audience members, and so students couldn’t be invited. This policy was at best dubious, considering a) ECell as a body works so that there is value addition for students, b) talks about innovation, and inspiring talks in general, will probably do more good if directed towards young minds about to step into the world rather than been-there-done-that professors, and c) the TED brand is probably more well known and respected amongst students than among the faculty. The last point was clearly demonstrated by the demographics of the audience that day, where the professor count didn’t go above 30, which angered students even more.
The logistics could have been sorted out, of course. There are more than 100 professors in the institute, so obviously some kind of decision making was involved to decide who to invite, and something similar could have been done for students too; maybe reserve some passes out of the 100 for students and then use either SOPs or a ‘First Come First Serve’ to decide.
While we can’t blame the organizers for what the speakers chose to talk about that day, or how they chose to present it, the student community feels it can certainly question the decision to not allow students to attend the event, especially given that the announcement of the talk was followed by tremendous enthusiasm in the student community. Bipin Kumar, the Overall Coordinator of ECell explained the rationale behind the decisions—apparently, a previous attempt at organizing a TEDx event at IITB had to be cancelled because of lack of consensus over the exact rules of the event, and ECell didn’t want to take any chances, now that the attempt had been revived. Successful execution of a TEDx event at IITB under the current constraints, explained Bipin, was essential for getting licenses to hold it at a much larger scale without any constraints with respect to audience size. Likewise, a botched execution would jeopardize IITB’s chances of getting a license again. “It’s not that we thought that professors were the best possible audience for the show. It’s just that we wanted to pull off this TEDx as smoothly as possible so that we could get the permission to organize much bigger ones in the near future.” As for the choice of venue, they had planned to have it in a smaller auditorium earlier, but since the whole event had to be webcast live, they were asked by CDEEP to shift the venue to the main auditorium based on logistic issues.
All said and done, we look forward to the bigger and better avatar of TEDxIITB and hope that anyone and everyone who is interested in attending it gets to be there and gets to profit from it!
– Antariksh Bothale