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What We Talk About When We Talk About TED Talks

What we talk about when we talk about TED Talks.

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Forget The Transcendental Moment

Over the lull of the winter holidays and then during the subsequent polar vortex city lockdown, I spent a good amount of time listening to NPR podcasts and being holed up at home under three wool blankets. Maybe it was that I listened to too many episodes, but the TED Radio Hour Podcast, which was once my guilty pleasure akin to binge-watching bad reality television or reading supermarket pop-lit, now fails to conjure the “inspiration” that it once did.

TED’s fall from grace for me started with a Radio Hour episode entitled “What Is Beauty?” a simple enough, maybe even yawn-inducing exploration of why humans crave beautiful things, how the brain is hardwired for beauty, and so on. But, once it came to model/artist/activist Cameron Russell’s talk entitled “Does Being Beautiful Make You Happy?” I had to turn it off. Yes, it is important and necessary to address the privilege that beautiful people have in the world, but when a talk involves changing onstage from a mini dress to a more conservative getup with the mere donning of a floor-length skirt to make a point about assumptions of intelligence, it’s pretty much a non-subject at that point. Flashback to high school sociology class. I realize now that my impatience here was not only for the tepid topic of “beauty,” but with a snap realization that the TED empire has become so watered down with booking speakers who, as I like to call it, “try to find solutions for problems that don’t exist.” These programs fail to pack the proverbial punch they once did.

I’ve written here before on the high cost of the pursuit of inspiration; namely, that an emphasis on seeking out inspiring experiences is damaging if gone unchecked. There is a fine line between “inspiration” and “appropriation” of ideas, and TED is the epitome of our culture’s obsession with seeking inspiration as a way to avoid talking about the hard stuff. When everyone is so busy being built up waiting for that inspiring glimpse into the future, the rest of the time is pretty disappointing. With the sheer amount of information coming at us, we’ve gotten very, very good at being our own editors; we seek and live in sound bites and GIFs. There is no more time for critical thinking and reviewing has given way to sharing in blips: “oh shit you guys check this out.”

The problem with TED’s format of the philosophical elevator pitch talk-of-your-life is that if your audience isn’t “inspired,” you’re not doing something right. There is something terribly wrong with this. When reality inherently involves much more complex solutions and hard work to address problems with answers rooted in places that are yet to be explored, let alone discovered, that transcendental moment or optimistic high that TED speakers always build up for their audiences is just hollow. Forget the “technology” and “design” because “entertainment” is all TED really is anymore.

I was delighted to discover that Benjamin Bratton, a theorist and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego whose work incorporates the intersections of technology, philosophy, art and design, beautifully and critically takes this up in a talk he presented entitled “We Need to Talk About TED” at TEDx San Diego this past December. The text of his speech was subsequently picked up and published as an op-ed in The Guardian on December 30, where it has been making the rounds as a kind of anti-TED TED Talk. Bratton questions the viability of the TED model, which, as he outlines, takes the bulk of an idea and hollows it out into sound bytes of optimism, avoiding any forward movement into actually solving problems. If an idea doesn’t “feel” good, it gets shut down:

“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.”

There is, delightfully, no transcendental moment or catch-all solution that Bratton presents, but a serious critique of the dog-and-pony show format:

“Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration,” it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of de-mystification and re-conceptualization: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.”

The greatest takeaway from Bratton’s talk is that he echoes that journalistic manta, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” but reformatted for the cult of inspiration:

“You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be skeptical.”

If you’re not asking questions about these, or any, ideas, TED or not, you’re not paying attention.

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