Has TED become a place for useless technobabble and ‘meme laundering’?

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TED (the Technology Entertainment and Design conference) has expanded its brand across the globe over the past two years, with hundreds of local TEDx conferences, and more recently, with its own books imprint, TED Books. TED organisers always choose their speakers well and there is rarely a dud among them. It is excellent curation under the aegis of “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

But choosing which authors to publish under the TED Books brand appears to be more challenging than booking a speaker for a 17 minute talk.

Evgeny Morozov, writing in The New Republic, tears TED Books a new binding with his demolition review of Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna.

After taking apart the dreary technobabble and recycled ideas in Hybrid Reality, he attacks TED for agreeing to publish such “useless piffle about technology.

He exposes the Khannas’ endorsement of “noxious political ideas” related to China, Singapore, and their anti-democratic positions related to Hungary, Thailand, and Argentinia.

He writes:

TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

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.

Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

He points to two TED books that along with Hybrid Reality are “literary rubbish“: The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It  by Philip Zimbardo and Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act by Ron Gutman.

I’ve been to a lot of local TEDx conferences and I spoke at one in San Francisco on the topic of activist media. I like many of the talks I’ve seen, even though the quality of some TEDx events can be uneven. I very much like the people that volunteer to create the local TEDx events.

However, I’ve been critical of the “Golden Arches of TED” approach that governs the licensing of the brand, best observed in the typical 17 minute TED presentation — a formula and format that at times seems to have become a parody of itself through common repetition.

TEDx should be experimental…

TEDx should be allowed to experiment, and that experimentation should represent the “x” in TEDx, rather than the “x” of an X Factor — endless auditions in identical styles, all trending towards a monotonic mediocrity because there’s nowhere else to go; there’s no room to experiment, or to innovate.

Surely there’s more than one format for sharing ideas? Shouldn’t TED be more than just a well designed Powerpoint presentation?

Where are the TED conversations?

Another one of my peeves is that there’s no engagement between speakers and audience, or audience with audience, offline and online.

There’s no debate about the ideas presented. Each talk is a performance on a stage, usually in a large theater.

As the audience, we recieve the ideas in silence, from unquestionable experts; we’re in the dark and largely invisible to the presenters, lit by powerful spotlights.

Sometimes the audience applauds, titters, often the audience gives a standing ovation — but that’s the extent of engagement between the podium and the seated.

It seems a wasted opportunity for moving good ideas forward, that there is only a theatrical performance, while hundreds of people sit so close to the action.

They attendees were willing to sacrifice much of their day to come to the TED events, they are motivated and interested in TED ideas, but they aren’t allowed to contribute anything except their money, for a silent seat in a dark room. Unseen and unheard is not a good place to be.

I’m very hopeful that these wasted opportunities will become opportunities, to create a new TED, a better TED. I’m especially encouraged to see some of the local TEDx organizations shifting to smaller, salon-like events, where conversations are accorded as much space as the presentations, and where new ideas can be incubated.

McDonalds and TED…

As it expands its events, and moves into other areas such as books, podcasts, and prizes, TED risks damaging the high quality of its brand if any of those ventures fail to meet the high standards associated with the TED brand. As many Fortune 1 000 companies have discovered, it’s not easy to maintain consistency at scale. TED has no choice but to impose the same high standards of curation that it is known for to TED Books, and in every single one of its ventures.

Protecting the TED brand from mediocrity is what comes with the territory, with the decision to grow global, and to franchise its organization. It’s a big job for McDonalds to ensure that its french fries taste the same everywhere. TED needs to do the same.

Tech, tech, tech, the singularity countdown

TED Books can be fixed but I don’t think that the TED culture of apolitical, techno-optimist geek-philosophers, will ever change. Evgeny Morozov rightly criticises TED’s decision to stay away from politics as a mistaken trust that technology alone, can solve big problems, without engaging any political process:

Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer.

This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers.

In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets.

And the gadgets do drop from the sky — Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say “no” to MIT’s (and TED’s) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=610575354 Neville Elder

    Yes – this theme is coming up a lot. TED has such a specific shape to it’s talks now. The presenter has revolutionary idea colored with a personal struggle and revelation lends it’s self most readily to science and techy talks- because the results are so black and white.. Creative and arts based talks don’t get a look in because their process doesn’t have the TED arc.

    Excellent piece in the New Yorker LAST WEEK: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/07/09/120709fa_fact_heller

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