Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

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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.



Feel free to use as you see fit. Adapted from Alaa’s own Twitter icon by Hugh D’Andrade.

On Alaa, learning, and the struggle

This is me booking a plane ticket for Alaa and looking exasperated because he doesn't know his passport number.

This is me booking a plane ticket for Alaa and looking exasperated because he doesn’t know his passport number.

I don’t really remember meeting Alaa.  I just remember that, from the first moment I saw him, how obvious his presence was.  We were sitting in a room in Budapest talking to a group of academics about something or other, something about activism, and everything they said was wrong, in Alaa’s view.  He raised his voice across the table, and I was struck by his boldness.

Sometime a couple of years later, in 2010, we became friends.  I know this from the abundance of encrypted chat logs that sit in my email, when we started to talk once or twice a week.  This was before the revolution, when he and Manal were living in South Africa. From the snippets I can piece together from memory and those rare unencrypted logs, I recall him admonishing me for not doing enough on X, chiding me gently for not speaking up on Y.  One of those blanks was crypto itself.  After one of those small but typical annoyances that come from using OTR, he said “OTR is a bit too demanding, but encryption tools typically are.”  I replied, “I need to start getting better about using them.”  ”Yep,” was his response, and he was right.  He would prove that.

When the revolution started, he was still in South Africa and could still reach his family in Cairo, despite the Internet blackout.  I was in freezing Boston, and by virtue of my job at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I began receiving press calls – the New York Times, NPR, Al Jazeera.  I knew how Egyptians had used Facebook and Twitter to organize before, but I couldn’t reach anyone on the ground.  Alaa gave me names, including his sister Mona’s, which I in turn gave to press, connecting them with the rare person who still had a means of connecting out.  He filled me in, I repeated his analysis to press.  He didn’t want to be the center of attention then.  He wasn’t there.

Alaa and Manal with Ahmed Omran and Yazan Badran in Tunis, October 2011.

And then they went back to Cairo, he and Manal.  And a year of requests started pouring in: to speak, to comment on this or that.  ”I’m going to the Empire,” I remember him telling me about his first visit to New York. And then shortly thereafter, his second, where we met amongst friends at PDF and drank a little too much and plotted.  Later that year we saw each other again in Tunis for the second Arabloggers meeting; Manal was quite pregnant and looked beautiful, and at one point I’m pretty sure they both did a session still wearing their swimsuits.  It was a happy, optimistic time.  And at some point, sitting on a couch in the lobby, I convinced Alaa to come to San Francisco for RightsCon.  He would stay on my couch, and they could send anything they wanted to my house.

For nearly a week before he arrived, I would come home each day to find another enormous package from Amazon.  There was a stroller (“all-terrain 4WD” as we later joked), countless books, and a few pretty cool toys that we definitely played with before Khaled did.  The story of what happens next is known: When Alaa arrived, he already knew what would happen when he went home.  He gave an incredible talk, went to the Occupy protests in Oakland, and hung out with my friends.  Then he got on a plane and went straight to prison.  Do not collect, do not pass go.

Alaa holds baby Khaled (January 2012)

I visited Cairo for the first time not long after Khaled was born.  He was tiny, fragile, and I stood helpless while Manal bathed him, already so obviously a mother.  This was the height of autotune in Cairo and at some point after midnight, parents delirious from the beautiful lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn, we recorded Khaled’s cries and ran them through autotune, stifling manic laughter so as not to wake the baby.

The last time I saw Alaa was in Cairo.  He picked me up across town at my hotel, and we sat in crazy Cairene traffic for three hours, the first time I’d ever seen him drive.  I had brought a tricycle for Khaled and a fresh EFF shirt for Alaa at his request, and when we arrived Manal and I caught up while Alaa put the thing together, scrambling for its plastic parts.  Later, the three of us went out with some of their friends.  I listened quietly while they talked politics and revolution.  Manal kept chiding them to speak English, Alaa remarked that by now I should be able to understand.  I did, only a few words getting lost here and there.  We drank tea until it got cold and they drove me back to Heliopolis.

These friendships come in fragments, but they are sometimes the best we have.  And in this case, despite the fact the he is only (and exactly) six months my senior, the friend has also been one of my most important teachers, reminding me to take risks and not being afraid to tell me when I’m not going far enough, not doing enough.  Chatting recently with another friend, who suggested that perhaps surrounding myself with perfectionists and radicals has damaged my own thought processes a little, I relented, but when I think about all that I have learned and all that I have been taught, I have no regrets.

I’ve said it to reporters so many times that it’s almost lost its meaning, but I’ll say it again: Alaa is in prison not because he committed a crime, not because he said too much, but because his very existence poses a threat to the state.  Those who are bold, those who do not relent, will always threaten the terrified and ultimately weak state which must, to survive, squash its opponents like flies.  But Alaa will not allow himself to be crushed like that, I know.

There is little more I can say that hasn’t been or wouldn’t be better said by Egyptians, those who fought these battles on the street while I merely watched, an observer with a few good friends on the ground.  But the one thing I know is that we must not give up.  Alaa hasn’t, and we cannot.

Inspired by Omar Robert Hamilton and Alia Mossallam, Belal Fadl, and Lina Attalah who have written their own beautiful pieces about our shared friend.




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