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Against TED

George Bluth sells the Cornballer, Arrested Development

When did TED lose its edge? When did TED stop trying to collect smart people and instead collect people trying to be smart?

Started as a one-off conference nearly 30 years ago, the TED (“Technology, Entertainment and Design”) phenomenon has grown to two large annual events and many smaller regional TEDx events, focusing mostly but not exclusively on technology. TED has posted more than 1,100 videos of the talks online. By my count, 89 of them have achieved more than one million views. Indeed, TED has gained an almost cultish following, where the topics addressed become the water-cooler topics for knowledge workers and the creative class. Remember how the Steve Jobs talk about how to live was topic of conversation the day after he died.

What began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself. What was exceptional and emergent in the realm of ideas has been bottled, packaged, and sold back to us over and over again. The whole TED vibe has come to resemble a sales pitch.

It’s tempting to dismiss the “Web 3.0!” “Wave of the future!” atmosphere around TED as simply a humorous, contrived grasp at trying too hard to sound like the next big thing. But it’s not so easy to laugh it away when we remember that the words chosen, the manner of discourse, and even the design of the events all have political implications. TED’s popularity means that it plays an important role in how we understand the link between technology and society, and the corporate, evangelical, noninclusive, and ultimately out-of-touch vision it promotes needs to be replaced.

The underlying idea behind TED sounds great: Get smart people to articulate good ideas in a way that is concise and entertaining. The talks are short, usually around 16 minutes, allowing for the basic idea to be conveyed without requiring much of an investment from the audience. To be fair, there continue to be some enjoyable talks. Eli Pariser’s 2011 “filter bubbles” talk is important, and I especially enjoy playwright Eve Ensler’s 2005 and 2009 talks.

TED has already faced some criticism over the outrageously high cost of attending its events or the exclusion of voices from outside Silicon Valley, but to its credit, the conference has made the talks free to stream online and easy to share through apps, and the multitude of smaller events means access has become less of an issue. Some have also criticized TED for being “style over substance,” as if these could easily be separated. Style is substance; that design influences knowledge and meaning is obvious. And the format of simplifying ideas so they fit into a 16-minute presentation is not inherently problematic: I think we should appreciate ideas across a multitude of modes, be they tweet, blog or book; short talk or long film; street art or graphic design.

Instead, my critique has to do with TED’s epistemic style — that is, what counts as knowledge and how that knowledge is disseminated. TED is not simply “engaging” and “entertaining” but a specific type of entertainment that is increasingly out of touch and exclusionary.

I admit I’ve never been motivated or wealthy enough to endure a TED event in person, but I do pay attention to the videos posted online and how they come to be shared through the social Web. And it appears that the whole TED brand induces laughter from many of those skeptical of corporate speak and techno-jargon. At first, I thought I was laughing alone; however, it turns out that lots of other people are equally unimpressed by the current state of TED. From the feedback I’ve received, I’m not the only one who does not take TED very seriously or worse, views the whole project as suspect. I asked on Twitter if others felt this way, and the response was overwhelming, especially considering my modest number of followers. Here is a Storify of just 50 responses I received in the few hours after posing the question.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I heard was that TED smells of corporatism. With the Facebook IPO around the corner, we are all well aware of the big venture-capital sums floating around Silicon Valley (the new Wall Street?). What’s infuriating is how Silicon Valley capitalism consistently attempts to sell itself as outside or even above corporatism. In announcing Facebook’s IPO, Mark Zuckerberg, whose company has consistently violated user privacy in the name of profit, stated that “we don’t build services to make money.” He actually said that.

Fey & Braunig Drug Salesman, circa 1900, DeGolyer Library

Fewer and fewer people are falling for this. And they have begun to realize TED events raise similar corporate-speak red flags as well. Yes, people want new and entertaining ideas but feel alienated by the branding and packaging reminiscent of the corporate Silicon Valley establishment. “Consumers” are savvy, and they know when they are being sold to. So many of the TED talks take on the form of those famous patent medicine tonic cure-all pitches of previous centuries, as though they must convince you not through the content of what’s being said but through the hyper-engaging style of the delivery. Each new “big idea” to “inspire the world” and “change everything” pitched from the TED stage reminds me of the swamp root and snake oil liniment being sold from a wagon a hundred years past. As Mike Bulajewski pointed out in a Tweet, “TED’s ‘revolutionary ideas’ mask capitalism as usual, giving it a narrative of progress and change.”

TED attempts to present itself as fresh, cutting edge, and outside the box but often fails to deliver. It’s become the Urban Outfitters of the ideas world, finding “cool” concepts suitable for being packaged and sold to the masses, thereby extinguishing the “cool” in the process. Cutting-edge ideas not carrying the Apple-esque branding are difficult to find.

At TED, “everyone is Steve Jobs” and every idea is treated like an iPad. The conferences have come to resemble religious meetings and the TED talks techno-spiritual sermons, pushing an evangelical, cultish attitude toward “the new ideas that will change the world.” Everything becomes “magical” and “inspirational.” In just the top-ten most-viewed TED talks, we get the messages of “inspiration,” “astonishment,” “insight,” “mathmagic” and the “thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”! The ideas most popular are those that pander to a metaphysical, magical portrayal of the role of technology in the world.

The way TED talks fuse sales-pitch slickness with evangelical intensity leads to perhaps the most damming argument against the TED epistemology: It necessarily leaves out other groups and other ways of knowing and presenting ideas. As Paul Currion tweeted, TED seems “unaware of its own ideological bias.” Let’s take one example. Take a wild guess which gender is massively over-represented as TED speakers (answer, via Tom Slee @whimsley). And TEDxWomen stinks of tokenism. Hint: It is better to be more inclusive through and through than to segregate marginalized groups into their own token corners. But the TED style aligns much more easily to articulating ideas that sell than ideas that concern power, domination, and social inequalities. Real cutting-edge ideas also come from the margins. TED’s corporate-establishment voice and style aren’t without their uses, but they are certainly not innovative or cutting edge.

As problematic as TED is in itself, its popularity is more troublesome, coming to dominate the social conversation about what new technologies mean. Not that TED should be barred a role in the conversation. Because of the conference, some complex ideas get wider exposure than they otherwise would (as Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal pointed out in a Tweet). But TED and the larger TED-like world of Silicon Valley corporatism have far too much importance, as Evgeny Morozov points out when criticizing the “Internet guru.”

There are consequences to having this style of discourse dominate how technology’s role in society is understood. Where are the voices critical of corporatism? Where is there space to reach larger publics without having to take on the role of a salesperson, preacher, or self-help guru? Academics, for instance, have largely surrendered the ground of mainstream conversations about technology to business folks in the TED atmosphere.

Can a new wave of technology thinkers produce a fresh outlet for smart ideas not (yet) co-opted as badly as TED? If so, it won’t come from the well-financed centers of Silicon Valley but from the margins, the actual cutting edge.

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