The week after Washington had its first TEDx conference, a local spinoff of the popular short-lecture series, TED announced that its programs would be coming back to the capital in December for a special two-day session focusing on women. TED's arrival in Washington is good for the local conference scene. It'll spotlight an exciting new piece of local architecture. And it also has the potential to be good for the discussion of women's issues.
First, the location. It's fitting that a conference focused on technology, entertainment and design would pick Moshe Safdie's striking new headquarters for the United States Institute of Peace as the venue for an expansion of its conference series. The glass canopy at the edge of the National Mall is a dramatic sight for drivers coming off the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge, and an airy counterpoint to the heavy, squat architecture that dominates Foggy Bottom. Christening it with a premiere conference is a great way to make the venue seem like a Washington hot spot in spite of some of the disadvantages of its location.
Second, having TED in town, in any form, is a good way to put pressure on Washington conference organizers to provide more useful content and to be more creative with formatting. TED's short-format lectures (the longest are 18 minutes long, give or take) force speakers to focus sharply on the idea they want to explore. And they're a marked contrast to long sessions conducted behind tablecloth-draped folding tables in frigid rooms surrounded by a labyrinth of sponsor tables. Encouraging audiences to have shorter attention spans isn't necessarily a good thing, but it would be progress for Washington conference organizers to assign sessions based on how much time topics and ideas actually deserve.
And finally, in a town where gender issues often get treated as if they're soft, or the sole provenance of a small, committed core of advocates, bloggers, and lawmakers, there's something radical about TEDWomen's commitment to "focus on how women think and work, communicate and collaborate, learn and lead—what this means and why it matters to all of us." Telling TED fans that women's issues, broadly defined, are important enough to break out from TED's eclectic roster and to consider in greater detail is a significant statement. In the end, the conference may not be a useful political organizing tool. But its simple existence may act as a useful nudge to the way Washingtonians and beyond fit women's issues into the landscape of their political thinking.
(H/T: Amanda Hess, The Sexist)