Discomfort Zone

I don’t like talking about TED. The conversations always start off the same.

Someone asks if I’ve seen the TED Talk by Joshua Foer about memory or Wingham Rowan’s discussion of flexibility in the job market.  My answer is always the same: I avoid TED Talks. Sorry.

Cue disappointment, frustration, anger, condescension and a dismissive “you’re just being ridiculous.”

No, I am not. TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, Design) began as a conference series in the 1980s for, according to the website, “spreading ideas” through bringing together people who had “ideas worth sharing.” TED-sponsored speeches and lectures are posted online and have been viewed by millions of people worldwide, covering topics ranging from biotechnology to good governance. Since the 1990s however, TED has morphed from a benign cadre of speakers to a nebulous Silicon Valley venture in do-gooderism.

Last year, sociologist Nathan Jurgenson noted that TED’s futurism seems less rooted in an academic, inclusive pursuit of knowledge and instead in an interest in becoming what Jurgenson called “the Urban Outfitters of the ideas world.” TED takes ideas that are often accessible, useful and generally considered “worth sharing” and repackages them in Apple-style “cool” technology and the commensurate Silicon Valley jargon. Despite the high production value, sometimes these ideas are pretty silly.

Example: Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s TED talk about the “six killer apps of prosperity.” Professor Ferguson lays out the reasons he believes the West has prospered at a greater rate than the rest of the world. They include assuredly “Western” innovations like the Scientific Revolution, rule of law and representative government and a better work ethic.

He addresses each of the institutions and traits he believes responsible for Western superiority and then quips, “this is a TED audience, and if I keep talking about institutions, you’re going to turn off … Let’s call them the killer apps.”

And there it is. After a bigoted point about Western superiority and a few offhand references to Muslim rejection of secular knowledge, he clothes his argument in the money-colored techspeak that everyone associates with Silicon Valley smugness:  “I’m a millionaire, why aren’t you?”

And lest one think Ferguson is alone in the TED canon of ham-fisted oversimplification, he is joined by the shallow and narcissistic Elizabeth Gilbert whose TED Talk on finding your “elusive creative genius” ranks among the most-watched TED Talks of all time.

Gilbert, author of the unfortunate memoir Eat, Pray, Love, was able to channel her creative genius once she left her husband and home, comfortable job and dipped into her rainy day money to travel around the globe and eat tasty food. Also Julia Roberts played her in a movie! It was adorable and she met a dreamy guy played by Javier Bardem! Dreamy guy and Gilbert recently married! Countless other acts of egoism make it to TED, but Ferguson and Gilbert are among my favorites.

There absolutely are some great and useful TED Talks out there alongside the drek. Evgeny Morozov’s thoughts about how the internet can be a tool of dictatorships is brilliant, as well as Richard Wilkinson’s gloss on how economic inequality harms communities. There is something to be said for trying to spread ideas that are worth discussing.

However, there is also something to be said for watering down your brand with speakers with half-baked theories of civilization or who are restless souls needing genuine Italian gelato to remind themselves of the reasons life is worth living. But neither of these represent TED’s greatest sin.

TED’s biggest problem is that it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Reeking of corporate influence (its partners in the cause of world betterment include Gucci and Sony), TED does not include its larger, online audience at all in its speeches. To be an attendee at a TED conference, you need to pony up many thousands of dollars before travel expenses and endure an application process.

And what does one get for attending a TED conference in person? TED’s website says “attendees have called it ‘the ultimate brain spa’ and ‘a 4-day journey into the future, in the company of those creating it.’” Heady stuff.

Alas, I remain unpersuaded. Maybe I would be more confident in the integrity of these claims were I not so convinced that TED’s interest is less a better future for all humankind, but just one that’s tolerable enough for “the company of those creating it.”

Image source: Erik Charlton via Creative Commons

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected] or on Twitter: @noahkulwin.