What’s wrong with TED…?

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.

So yes, TED. It has an almost mythical role in the AIESEC community where I was long involved. And yes, I used to enjoy the talks a lot. Lately however, they seem to have lost their edge, becoming less challenging and diverse and more like sales pitches and focused on self-development ‘gurus’ – I ask, where are the new Ramachandrans?

The blog from The New Inquiry (http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/against-ted/) quoted above takes up a lot of the problems that the TED culture has created. I think in large parts it is valid. However, as far as I see it, it boils down to how people relate to TED. Do you think that you’ve got your dosage of ‘engaging with the new of the world’ through watching a couple of TED talks? Do you believe that you’ve grasped complex ideas by watching a 16 min talk (to the level that you’d argue against true experts in the field based on your ‘knowledge’ gained)? Do you use TED as your only source of ideas, academic material or discourse?

Arguably, I have been on the ‘bad’ side of all those questions above. However, I try (with some help from smart people like M) to ensure I use TED in ways that I think makes puts it at its most powerful:

1) As a complement to A LOT of other material which such as articles I read, discussions I have, documentaries/movies I watch

2) As a source of divergent perspectives, to let myself get disconnected from the everyday ‘focus’ that I have in my work and connect with things that are outside of my normal pathways of thinking

3) As the start of deeper inquiries & action, where a TED talk leads to a Google search, leads to a literature search which leads to a home experiment, which leads to fruitful conversations

Like anything you read, watch or experience TED can be entertaining and also lead you to come up with new ideas or develop new interests. However, as with everything, it’s when we tend to push it to it’s extreme and dogmatise one way of learning or ingesting ideas that we fuck up. TED as an idea is becoming a victim of it’s success when what was once an alternative way of disseminating information becomes one of the incumbent ones leading to just the type of convergent thinking that TED was built to avoid.

The sheer number of poorly designed, highly convergent (where the main stream thinkers are presenting main stream ideas) TEDx events which are cropping up everywhere are a key evidence of this.

Disclaimer, this is all based on my experience of TED as a non-participant in the conference itself (and merely a consumer of TED Talks online and TEDx events). I’m sure the conference has a role to play, and likewise do some (but surely not all) of the TEDx events. The question is more how we can find ways to relate to this phenomenon that allows it to serve an important, useful role rather than a harmful one.

5 thoughts on “What’s wrong with TED…?

  1. Really good post!!
    A few remarks:
    a) “The sheer number of poorly designed, highly convergent (where the main stream thinkers are presenting main stream ideas) TEDx events which are cropping up everywhere are a key evidence of this.”
    YES! It’s probably the doom of its own success..Of course in the beginning you had excellent, inspiring speakers, not only did their ideas transform but also with a clear potential for change. The more inspiring speeches, the merrier..but until when? Let’s be honest, do we really have that many truly disruptive ideas (backed with experience with some form of social change)?
    My view is that we all want to discover the next new TED speaker, be amazed (for at least 15 mins.) and proud to organize such event..and that’s great, but how many Gandhi’s can you find within the same time period? (and even more so, within the same geographic location).
    In other words, isn’t the quest for organizing the next yearly TEDx forcing to “lower the quality” of the speeches?
    It resembles, what I see in many professionals (advertising, marketing, etc.) quest to be innovative-creative by following Steve Job’s experience…That’s perfectly fine to be inspired, but are we being disruptive if we all read the same book (and try the same thinking)? Where is the line between mainstream and disruptive?

    b) To me, TED is central to debates on learning and the use of technologies/social media. We are constantly multi-tasking, without necesarily being present or absorbing the information. How many of us have 3-4 windows open while we read a newspaper article, and how many finish reading before Tweeting it? No doubt, online idea/information sites struggle to keep us focused, get our attention.. TED is that, short, concise, really interesting..but sometimes, complex ideas (read: processes, arguments, work..) need more than 15 mins., whether we like it (tolerate it) or not…

    My view is: TED as a spark, a conversation starter, or even better a learning starter. Our own personal curiosity (as you point out in pt. 3) is essential. TED is for facts, but true insights come later!

  2. Hey,

    I agree. Somehow the idea of TEDx as being events where people come together and listen to talks by others seems misdirected. Only a few events would actually be able to source truly radical ideas from great speakers (there might be great ideas from poor speakers and not so radical ideas from great speakers but I guess that’s not really the goal)…

    Rather if TEDx had been structured around discussions where the ideas, the knowledge of people who don’t normally come together to share is brought forward and new knowledge is created (through interactions of participants) then that would make sense. Yes, one or two speakers can be there, but no TEDx will ever have the drawing power to truly bring together the cutting edge of ideas from multiple sectors which the ‘real’ TED could – which is exactly I guess the type of divergence that TED once upon a time allowed…

    In the end, TED as a democratization effort of knowledge could be a platform for bringing the concept of knowledge forward. To include knowledges that otherwise wouldn’t be heard, to create spaces for exploring indigenous knowledge or practices that have been lost between generations, as well as bring forward and co-create new ideas.

    Alas, that’s not the way it’s moving – rather it’s about creating relatively flashy, showy, talky exclusive events for the world’s elite, lacking that crucial element of co-creation.


  3. It is an interesting discussion, particularly since TED has been for a white the epitome of new ideas online.

    Interestingly TED has a long history before it started posting talks online, the conference itself has existed for many years.

    From reading your post Linus, it would seem that TED is going through a change which would beset any organisation that rapidly expands. As it opens up to more and more people, it starts to lose control over its central tenants, as they are interpreted and adapted by more and more people.

    While this does often cause a lot of heartache for “those who were there first”, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. It just always difficult for someone to see something which they love begin to change while they have less and less control over that change.

    I think it is perhaps most important to recognise what is happening. TED isn’t “selling out” it is evolving. This is an evolution which can only happen because it has become available to so many more people.

    The important question to ask now is “what is the role of TED, considering how it is changing, within it’s ‘industry’?”.

    You might just find that the original role that TED played, is being filled in other ways, as people would obviously still see the need to bring truly revolutionary thinkers together. While TED evolves to fill a new space which is perhaps, as of yet, unexplored.

    As was mentioned, the important thing to keep in mind is that one platform can’t (and shouldn’t) ever be the sole provider of ideas and forums for discussion. As soon as you limit your sources, you compromise your ability to think and to expand your thoughts.

    I hope that give you my perspective, but I did enjoy hearing the “other” opinion on TED.

  4. I think anything as extremely open as TEDx would have the risk of getting blander versions, but I am sure there must be some fantastic ones. In the end I think TED, as it is today, was conceived to “spread ideas worth spreading”, firstly curated (as in the “pure” TED) and then close to crowdsourced as TEDx. I think it is an interesting way to empower marginalized groups (and when I say “marginalized” I refer not only about poor people or outcasts, but societies away from the mainstream and the center, such as the big cities of the world).

    In the end, everything is curated and biased somehow, the danger lies in thinking we are not.

Leave a Reply