- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
I realize that as the author of a listicle titled "10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored," I may not be in the best position to tackle this subject, but it seems like the snark and mockery aimed at the annual TED talks — currently being held in Long Beach and Palm Beach California, and their TEDx offshoots around the world, has reached a fever pitch, and there’s something of a pro-TED backlash brewing.
Alternative to casual internet user picking up idea from TED talk is *not* casual internet user being fully educated on a topic.
Like, if Average Joe wasn’t burdened with that glib, simplified TED talk, he’d probably go read the original literature, right?
This got me thinking about why it is that TED irritates so many people. The world "elitist" gets thrown around a lot to describe Chris Anderson’s institution, which charges $6,000 for membership. But that’s a hard label to pin on them given that they put all their talks online for free.
Some are also put off by the gee-whiz Silicon Valley buzzword culture surrounding TED. Take, for example, the names of of this year’s sessions, which include "progress enigma," "beautiful imperfection," and "disrupt!" But let’s be honest, anyone who’s attended an academic or media conference has seen equally vague but more boring versions of these. Best not even to discuss the World Economic Forum, whose theme was "Dynamic Resilience" this year.
Some charge that TED has devolved into a glorified self-help seminar, a kind of Tony Robbins for geeks. (Sometimes featuring the actual Tony Robbins.) Yes, there’s a certain amount of this, but you’re just as likely to hear prominent scholars like Saskia Sassen, Jared Diamond, or Peter Singer sharing their latest work.
The biggest charge critics level at TED is that it glorifies "ideas" for their own sake, and rewards snappy presentation over rigorous thought or intellectual debate.
The New Statesman‘s Martin Robbins writes:
The genius of TED is that it takes capable-but-ordinary speakers, doing old talks they’ve performed many times elsewhere, and dresses them up in a production that makes you feel like you’re watching Kennedy announce the race to the moon.
Evgeny Morozov, who, by the way, once gave a really good TED talk, takes it further:
Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.
It’s certainly fair to say that not every idea presented at TED is "worth spreading," but quite a few are. I could just as easily put together a list of the "10 dumbest magazine articles" of last year — hell, of last week — but I wouldn’t condemn the entire form.
Ultimately, I suspect it’s the style more than the content that annoys critics — and often annoys me. There’s a certain dorm-room "is the blue I see the same as the blue you see?" vibe to many TED talks that can be very grating. (The Onion Talks web series parodies this brilliantly with videos like "What is the biggest rock?" and "A future where all robots have penises.")
But again, the magazine comparison is useful. I wouldn’t avoid reading an interesting-looking article in Vanity Fair because I’m not really interested in the Kennedy family, Marilyn Monroe, or Hamptons garden parties. Similarly, you don’t really have to buy the TED ethos to be grateful for the fact that a slew of fascinating talks are available for free at the click of a mouse.