restricted access After the burn: TED in Long Beach
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After the burn:
TED in Long Beach

How TED commodifies knowledge and closes down debate

The city of Long Beach is a diverse, if not divided, community in the South Bay area of Los Angles County in Southern California. It entered the twentieth century as a seaside resort, but the expansion of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles brought dredging, a surf-killing breakwater and a far greater urban density, as people moved in for work. The constantly running diesel engines of ships and trains still fill the air with a smoke haze not evident in the County's more glamorous beach cities, further west. Regularly this combines with maritime fog to produce the smog that has disappeared in other parts of the LA basin. By early afternoon this is usually dissipated by 'the burn'. But you can't help wondering what has been left behind in the lungs and the blood of yourself, other people, and the brown pelicans who make vertical dives after fish in the sunset water.

In the early 1960s the oil companies - whose black derricks still bob their heads up and down all over Southern California - built artificial islands just offshore, named them after astronauts, and bedecked them with palm trees and simulated cityscapes. The effect was more uncanny than festive. The Pike, a large amusement park which had drawn visitors from all over Southern California, closed for good in the late 1960s.

In February 2013 Long Beach's waterfront convention centre was obscured for the better part of a week with yards of head-high, white bunting bearing the red logo of TED.1 It was also screened by the police and security personnel who were there to [End Page 39] keep its guests and speakers safe, and uninvited interlopers out. For the three nights of the conference, guests, sometimes still wearing paperback-sized lanyards around their necks, crowded the pavements and night spots of Pine Avenue and Shoreline Drive. Downtown restaurateurs and hoteliers received the usual fleeting uptick in their revenues, then the caravan moved on for good.

But TED's impending relocation to Vancouver has been the subject of some anxiety in the freebie newspapers and Facebook groups in which Long Beach residents talk to one another. From the 1980s onwards the mechanisation of the waterfront, closure of aerospace and military-industrial facilities and general industrial decline had begun to produce the kinds of difficulties that are also familiar to the post-industrial regions of Britain. The departure of jobs and the failure of other equivalent employment to arrive created persistent pockets of severe deprivation in parts of the city. From 2008 inequality increased further, because of the erosion of living-wage employment and the large-scale displacements associated with the global banking crisis. As with other southern parts of the LA conurbation, Long Beach is now in large part a dormitory for low-wage service workers and the many others who are subsisting in even more precarious positions. Gentrification has come to some areas east of downtown that are closer to the water, but to the north and west poverty - of the working and non-working kinds - is immediately visible, and is racially stratified. Abutting Orange County, with all its sprawl and gated wealth, Long Beach faces the sort of identity crisis that tends to view events like TED as a possible deliverance, and their departure as a likely catastrophe.

As Long Beach struggled, TED was on the up. In the five years during which it returned to the city for its annual get-togethers, it entrenched itself as a global brand. This was the period when it began to draw millions more viewers to online videos of its trademark short talks - which promote 'ideas worth spreading' - and to franchise out into dozens more localised 'TEDx' events around the world. TED has established itself as a signature enterprise of the era following the mass uptake of broadband internet services and social media platforms. These have lowered the barriers for publishing and consuming information, and, in combination with the political choices made around them, they have also begun to reorder the institutional life of the networked world...