There was, in the foggy yesteryear of 2007, when TED talks were just starting to become known, and the ones that made it out to the wider internet were phenomenal. There was Jill Bolte Taylor’s firsthand account of having a stroke, Ken Robinson’s declaration that schools stifle creativity, and Paul Stamets blowing your mind with the power of mycelium. They introduced new ideas, but also challenged us to think differently about what we already knew.
Taylor’s stroke account is not horrific, rather it gets her in touch with the part of herself that feels that all things are connected at all times. She suggests that we do what we can to find that part of ourselves to live a more fulfilling life. Stamets suggests that some of the most powerful agents for environmental health and fruitful directions of research are under our feet. Robinson challenges the models of education encouraged by our tech-driven times and championed by Presidents Bush and Obama.
As TED became a big deal, it multiplied and spread, and slowly it turned into a sort of daytime television. TED got more vapid, more status quo, less meaningful.
Which brings me, finally, to the TEDx talk above by one Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual art at U.C. San Diego. Bratton takes TED to task in scathing language:
“TED, of course, stands for Technology Entertainment Design. TED to me, stands for Middlebrow, Megachurch Infotainment.”
“I'm sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time –and the audience’s time— dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.”
TED should be “more Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.”
Here's the full transcript, which you can read as you listen along, because spoiler, Bratton just paces back and forth and uses no visuals.
Watch Bratton’s entire talk, it’s articulate and worthwhile, but I’ll summarize a key thrust: we don’t need new devices and designs to make life better within the system, we need new systems. Our innovations create both good and bad, wealth and poverty, connection and separation, life and death, and we need new ideas about how to structure our economy and society.
TED is an interesting target here, because TED isn’t a total failure at the challenge Bratton puts forth, but it claims to be a huge success, and that’s what is worth making an issue out of.
That said, TED has been a forum where status quo challengers have gotten their ideas out. Perhaps the real message should be to the viewers: spread the ideas that actually matter, and sweep away the endless clouds of fluff emanating from TED and a lot of the rest of the media.