Revived TEDxAsheville conference aims to challenge assumptions

Conference organizer Brett McCall. Photos courtesy of TEDxAsheville

After a two-year hiatus, local volunteers are resurrecting the TEDxAsheville conference for 2015. Featuring a diverse lineup of Asheville speakers, they hope to take the national TED slogan of cultivating “ideas worth spreading” and apply it at the local level.

“I want TEDxAsheville to help us become the city of fresh ideas, a testing ground for technology, social media, new forms of entertainment,” says event organizer Brett McCall.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and the conference promises to explore those themes on Saturday, Jan. 17, with evening presentations at the Altamont Theatre that are meant to challenge assumptions and inspire creative thought, he notes. The speeches will be video-taped and submitted to the national TED nonprofit, which could help share local insights with an international audience of millions.

Organizers like McCall are keeping that potential massive audience in mind and investing in high-quality video production efforts, even as they downscale other aspects of the event from years past. In 2009, TEDxAsheville debuted to an overflow crowd at The Orange Peel downtown. Taking place annually through 2012, it moved to Diana Wortham Theatre before taking the last two years off.

Unlike those events at much larger venues, in-person attendance this year will be limited to about 100 people. “We’re doing that intentionally so we can build an intimacy with the audience that’s there,” says McCall. “We wanted to deepen the connection between speakers and participants, and participants and participants.”

Those lucky enough to get in will be treated to talks by Highland Brewing founder Oscar Wong, the National Climatic Data Center’s principal scientist, Thomas Peterson, Rising Appalachia singer/front-woman Leah Song and several others (see “Details and Speakers”).

When deciding whom to invite, McCall says organizers looked for people who “are successful at something, but are human and accessible.” The event’s local theme is “expose,” meaning speakers have been asked not just to expose their successes but also their vulnerabilities and challenges.

“I think the idea around ‘expose’ is ‘let’s be real, let’s be honest, and let’s show the wizard behind the curtain. Let’s see what the real deal is about how people are making stuff happen,’” says McCall. “If I show you mine and you show me yours, then maybe we’ll realize that I’m not as ugly as I think. We want to remind people that everyone has failed, and everyone started out not knowing what to do.”

Wong, who founded Asheville’s first brewery since Prohibition in 1994, says he’ll highlight a long list of challenges he faced and continues to deal with as local competition increases. The road to Highland Brewing’s success hasn’t been easy, from regulatory burdens to “getting heat from people who thought I was doing the devil’s work,” he says.

Oscar Wong
Oscar Wong

Even as he recently passed most of the responsibility for managing the company to his daughter, Wong says he’s not planning “to sit back and get fat.” Despite growing acclaim, production and distribution, Highland is “going to have to hustle like crazy” as New Belgium and other competitors move into the area. A Jamaican immigrant, Wong actually praises the competition as “the American way.”

“That’s why we as a country continue to survive and thrive despite all of the pressures,” he explains. “I hope that will be true of us. These guys are going to push us to be better.”

Meanwhile, Peterson says he’ll analyze a very different type of challenge. The renowned Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist wants to help “provide people with information and tools to evaluate all the different claims that we get every day.

“We’re being bombarded with so much misinformation. There’s so much pseudoscience, but it’s not science, it’s just opinions,” he says. The talk, he adds, is “my small effort to increase the scientific literacy of the general population.”

An example of misunderstanding with local relevance is the popularity of homeopathic remedies, he notes. “There’s been no scientific test that has ever shown homeopathy to work, and yet you find it in lots and lots of stores in Asheville,” he argues. “So how do we evaluate these remarkable claims?” He also plans to discuss the difference between science and art. “Science really depends on duplication for verification. And if you duplicate art, then you’re a forger,” he says.

Thomas Peterson TEDxAsheville
Thomas Peterson

Calling his presentation a synthesis of ideas from other prominent scientists, Peterson hopes to emphasize that “science is not two people in white lab coats arguing with each other. It’s a way of thinking, testing claims,” he says. “I want people to leave understanding the thinking process that scientists go through and how to apply that to their daily lives when they’re thinking about problems.”

Although TED talks are known for their intellectual stimulation, McCall says that ultimately, he hopes they result in practical applications and revelations that better the community. And more than just listening to others speak, McCall says he hopes attendees will also come prepared with their own ideas and an openness to meeting  collaborators. “I’m hoping that people will show up who contribute and make it an amazing experience that gets carried out of the room,” he says. “The connections that two or three people in that room could make could have a long-term impact on the community going forward.”

Leah Song
Leah Song

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10 thoughts on “Revived TEDxAsheville conference aims to challenge assumptions

  1. A genuine random guy and not just someone who is claiming to be one

    We need more people assuming challenges and fewer people challenging assumptions.

    • shadmarsh

      I find assumptions to be challenging no matter how many people are involved.

  2. A guy similar to the previous random guy who is not him but, again, eerily similar to same

    I find assumptions in my couch cushions sometimes when I am looking for my keys.

  3. For all those comments above: What have any of you done that warrants appreciation from this community? And why, in this day & age, do you find a need to criticize those who wish to move the conversation of how we understand forward? Are you just more whiney Americans?

    • I’ll completely ignore for the moment anything about the notion that any of us has to do something that “warrants appreciation” from the community in order to have an opinion on something in the community. It’s a nonsense argument, really.

      As for criticism, I think you answered your own question. TEDx, its big brother TED, and many of their adherents and fans, are the type of people for whom criticism is absolutely anathema to just being enlightened. And it’s utter nonsense as well.

      In fact, most of the “talks” given at TED and TEDx events are nonsense. There’s lots (and lots) of critical commentary out there about this – but of course, most people who are into TED wouldn’t know that because opening oneself up to critical commentary is akin to being negative – and we certainly don’t want to be viewed as negative, now do we?

      At any rate, feel free to read this piece from The Guardian ( and, if you really get brave, you can read Eugene Morozov’s analysis of TED’s printed materials (

      Now, once you’ve done that, maybe you will have done something to warrant your criticism of our criticism. And that, I’m afraid, is a valid argument to your comment.

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