Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

The Problem(s) With TED

In some ways, TED is great.  When I want to explain Rebecca MacKinnon’s complex book, Consent of the Networked, I need only shoot someone the link to her talk, which enumerates the concept concisely.  When I want to get a quick glimpse at a topic area with which I’m not familiar, I need only seek out a TED talk.  I always learn something, and I’m fascinated and pleased by the way the talks are made available online, and—by the hard work of translators—in many languages.

I spoke at a TEDx event last year (might as well front-load this information), TEDxPoynter.  I give a lot of talks, but what I liked about this one was both the freedom (I got to write a new talk on a fun subject!  Finally!) and the confines (15 minutes, slides required).  I spoke about how social media is enabling us to “talk back to talking heads,” using Tom Friedman and the Egyptian online social sphere as shaping examples.  It was a hit.

But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with everything that TED represents—wealth, vapid Silicon Valley narcissism, capitalism—and its behavior as an organization: it censored a friend’s mainstage TED talk from video, it charges $6K for a ticket, it utilizes volunteer translators despite being a wealthy non-profit.  It’s all become too much.  On top of that, TED is praised by many of those around me: The school I attended last year, THNK (The Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership) talks about TED as if it’s the holy grail of speaker events, the be-all end-all for public figures.  I disagree; I speak at upwards of 20 events a year and I can guarantee you most of them are more enjoyable, and (lo!) at least half pay me for my time.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who’s noticed.  These past few months have offered up a spate of articles that could only be described as anti-TED.  First, there was a TEDx talk about everything that’s wrong with TED.  Starting with, “have you ever wondered why the bright futures of so many TED talks don’t come true?”, Benjamin Bratton rips the concept and organization apart.  The video, below, is absolutely worth a watch:

Key diss: “TED of course stands for ‘Technology, Education, Design.’ To me, TED stands for ‘Middle-brow, Megachurch Infotainment’.”

Back in October, Salon published a scathing piece entitled TED Talks Are Lying To You. Key takeaway:

Those who urge us to “think different,” in other words, almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

Finally, Frank Swain lays it out in a simple piece written for Medium, in which he addresses primarily the economic issues inherent to TED’s model. I’m not sure I agree with him about avoiding TEDx: Tickets to those events are often free, and bring the concept of TED (which, I agree with Bratton, is problematic at its most highbrow) to cities all over the world. And remember: Bratton’s talk itself is a TED talk, and undoubtedly effective. Nevertheless, I have to agree with Swain when he writes:

The defence that TED is a non-profit organisation doesn’t fly with me. I doubt this excuses them from paying the lighting guys, the camera operators, the venue hire, the catering. Why pay those staff but not the speakers? Just because you’re a non-profit organisation, doesn’t mean I have to be.

Would I speak at TED global if I were asked? I still don’t know the answer to that. Chances are I wouldn’t be invited anyway, but if I were, I might be tempted to take a stand. But would it really resonate amongst TED’s followers, who like their politics sanitized? Doubtful.

2 Comments

  1. Found this piece really refreshing and very much agree. Thanks for sharing

  2. I also like the comments about TED made by Nassim Taleb in Black Swan: “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.”

    There are many problems with the TED model but for me it’s the way that education is supposed to become entertainment and nothing is supposed to be challenging.

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