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.

The necessity of divergence

It’s easy to converge on things, we feel a need to become specialists, to get good at something, to feel like experts. And I agree, it is important. However, there’s an equally important process, that’s so easy to forget, and that is the process of divergence. When we explore new things, see something different, tread outside of what is familiar, something happens in our heads, new ideas can be born, new thinking emerge.

It might not always be easy to see the point of the divergence – the relevance of it might not be clear, and we don’t see how it relates to what our real job is. However I’d argue that it has all the impact in the world on our real job, because it gives us new ideas, perspectives and a way to solve problems better or even at all. I think my lack of blogging the past few months has been a clear sign of too little thinking outside of what my main focus has been – which is to lead and manage AIESEC in Sweden (not that I ever stop exploring completely – it’s one of my favorite hobbies!). When in such a mode of convergence it’s easy to properly make time for thinking outside, for seeing new perspectives or trying something completely different.

Overall, I think my ambition for my life is to live in varying periods of divergence and convergence. However, that requires that I make room for it in my lifestyle – and it’s a part that I’m still figuring out! Somebody who seems to have got it (I guess he had some more years to think about it than I) is Stefan Sagmeister, check it out:


Making every day a divergent day


This weekend was a busy one, but yet quite relaxing. Me and Alsu took some time for shopping, we watched two interesting movies (I am from Titov Velves, Slovenia/Macedonia and Nirvana, Russia), saw fireworks celebrating the launch of square Flagey (a lot of fuss about a square), visited the Brussels’ bazaar (it’s huge!), worked on the plan for our English education project and also had some time for just relaxing in bed.

The varying activities this weekend got me thinking about creativity, or with a fancier word, divergent thought. Last year I read a lot about creativity and the thing that struck me as most important was that it is born out of being exposed to new and varying things. These create new, unique associations in your brain and will allow you to be creative.

The innovation conference TED relies on this – the mix of different disciplines and schools of thoughts, exposure to new things in order to create new insights. It has been

Three things I think can stimulate creativity every day:

  1. Go someplace you haven’t been, preferrably where you feel slight discomfort (the bazaar for me)
  2. Meet someone who is very different from yourself (try different religion, background, job)
  3. Do something you’re afraid of doing or can’t understand (say, watch football, go skydiving or go to a ballet)

The only catch is – you need to keep finding new things, because new activities, people and places are all like the fruits I bought at the bazaar – only fresh and exciting for a short time.