Call it the 18-minute dash. That's the time allotted for a speaker at a TED-style talk, on stage, in front of an audience. Often, it's just the right amount.
I know from my pre-TED days at CBC's Morningside with Peter Gzowski that we used to schedule 18-minute interviews for many guests.
Eighteen minutes was just satisfying enough to make you feel you've learned or experienced something, without it necessarily going in one ear and out the other (as, for some reason, 20 minutes might).
Eighteen minutes is also now pretty much the norm, which I experienced last week at this year's ideacity 2012 conference in Toronto — three days of a succession of 18-minute talks, pitches, rants, summaries, arguments and personal stories (which we plan to fashion into a series of Ideas broadcasts in September.)
Ideacity is the brainchild of Moses Znaimer, of City TV and Zoomer Magazine/ZoomerMedia fame, and is based on the TED format (TED standing for Technology, Entertainment, Design), which was started by the architect, author and designer Richard Saul Wurman in 1984.
Today there are TEDs everywhere, in California, the home base, and in authorized satellite centres. And we in the media are "partnering" up almost everywhere you look as well. Why not? There is something for everyone.
The 18-minute TED talk is a hybrid of forms and styles, from stand-up comedy to the personal confessional, the soap-box speech and the advertising pitch. It is intellectual vaudeville and it is clearly finding an audience.
Occasionally these talks have come under attack for being insufficiently complicated, deep or sober, and a sign of this culture's short attention span.
The most recent attack was just a few weeks ago, in a short article that once again bemoaned our culture's profound lack of seriousness and blamed the TED phenomenon for being the Twitter generation's version of grad school.
Of course the writer was given only the briefest of op-ed space to make his case. It could be read in less than 18 minutes. And I took his point in a much shorter time than that.
(Even criticism of short formats, it seems, has to be accommodated in the shortest time available; or we'd all get too bored.)
Still, ordinary citizens are not necessarily information gobblers like those of us in the media, even if folks today are busy texting and emailing constantly, as they were at the ideacity conference.
During those talks I would sometimes turn and ask whoever was seated by me whether they had discovered anything new or enlightening in the presentations. The answer was invariably yes.
It was easiest when there was something tangibly new in front of us, like a new product or technology, such as the 3-D copier that can duplicate and spit out real stuff like metal or meat in a specified shape.
But in the realm of ideas — when discussing our degraded environment, the decline of religion in the West or our dysfunctional politics — it's tougher to really excite an audience because they've heard so much of this doom and dread talk before.
Nonetheless, my fellow conference-goers seemed to enjoy this bath of bad news.
Doom can still be made compelling, it seems, when it is spiced with an energetic presentation or a poignant animal, vegetable or human story as in the death of our marine life, northern forests or the most vulnerable among us.
The end of nigh?
If you're cynical, you might call these TED-style talks intellectual consumerism. If you're more generous, they can be seen as simply an open-mindedness that takes in bad news as readily as emails.
As well, the pleasant surroundings, attractive people and excellent nibblies help dispel the gloom about humankind's trials and tribulations.
The theme of this year's ideacity was "The end of nigh!" and asked the question: Should you be optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
The proceedings began with a mournful song by a Grade 5 student, Ta'kaiya Blaney, a First Nations' singer-songwriter from North Vancouver.
It was about pollution and all the bad stuff we have been doing to the environment. (We listened sitting in a gorgeous spare-no-expense setting, Koerner Hall, with carved wood sweeping over the ceiling.)
We also heard economist Jeff Rubin talk about the end of "peak oil," about which he has now written two books and numerous articles.
Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto told us how our financial sector has been turned into a casino. And Gretta Vosper, a United Church minister, recounted how the mainstream churches were in trouble and should examine their empty pews and stagnant thinking.
All of the really bad news was stuck at the beginning. This is smart programming.
For much of the rest of the time we heard about people fighting the good fight, such as Andrew Sharpless, who heads one of the world's largest conservation authorities and is dedicated to saving the world's water; and Pico Iyer, the British-born author who told us to "unplug" and find some solitude; and the science writer Mara Hvistendahl, campaigning against aborting female fetuses the world over; and Preston Manning, arguing that our parliamentarians need specialized training, just like plumbers or doctors.
Interspersed, there was terrific music, a charming magician, a boisterous Quebec comic named Derek Seguin and a talk about sex-crazed insects.
Bad news isn't so bad when it's wrapped in a cloth of entertainment or humour, and people doing good works and coming up with new stuff.
How bad can the world be, you are invited to ask yourself, when bugs are constantly procreating ingeniously and 3D copiers can (theoretically at least) reproduce a meatloaf for dinner, as well as a pair of jeans to wear in the morning.
At the beginning of ideacity 80 per cent of us said we were optimistic, 20 per cent were pessimistic. At the end of the conference, the 80/20 split still held.
TED-style talks, it appears, don't change minds. But they enliven.
The genius of our information culture is that it can turn even distressing thoughts — and certainly hope — into a product, a service, an entertainment, a commodity.
If, in the process, it lets a little light in, well, that's not a bad way to spend 18 minutes at a stretch, even multiplied over three days.