Sunday, May 27, 2012

why TED is a massive money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism...,

TED 2012 More Slides Final1

alternet | There was a bit of a scandal last week when it was reported that a TED Talk on income equality had been censored. That turned out to be not quite the entire story. Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist with a book out on income inequality, was invited to speak at a TED function. He spoke for a few minutes, making the argument that rich people like himself are not in fact job creators and that they should be taxed at a higher rate.

The talk seemed reasonably well-received by the audience, but TED “curator” Chris Anderson told Hanauer that it would not be featured on TED’s site, in part because the audience response was mixed but also because it was too political and this was an “election year.”

Hanauer had his PR people go to the press immediately and accused TED of censorship, which is obnoxious — TED didn’t have to host his talk, obviously, and his talk was not hugely revelatory for anyone familiar with recent writings on income inequity from a variety of experts — but Anderson’s responses were still a good distillation of TED’s ideology.

In case you’re unfamiliar with TED, it is a series of short lectures on a variety of subjects that stream on the Internet, for free. That’s it, really, or at least that is all that TED is to most of the people who have even heard of it. For an elite few, though, TED is something more: a lifestyle, an ethos, a bunch of overpriced networking events featuring live entertainment from smart and occasionally famous people.

Before streaming video, TED was a conference — it is not named for a person, but stands for “technology, entertainment and design” — organized by celebrated “information architect” (fancy graphic designer) Richard Saul Wurman. Wurman sold the conference, in 2002, to a nonprofit foundation started and run by former publisher and longtime do-gooder Chris Anderson (not the Chris Anderson of Wired). Anderson grew TED from a woolly conference for rich Silicon Valley millionaire nerds to a giant global brand. It has since become a much more exclusive, expensive elite networking experience with a much more prominent public face — the little streaming videos of lectures.

It’s even franchising — “TEDx” events are licensed third-party TED-style conferences largely unaffiliated with TED proper — and while TED is run by a nonprofit, it brings in a tremendous amount of money from its members and corporate sponsorships. At this point TED is a massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism, with multiple events worldwide, awards and grants to TED-certified high achievers, and a list of speakers that would cost a fortune if they didn’t agree to do it for free out of public-spiritedness.

According to a 2010 piece in Fast Company, the trade journal of the breathless bullshit industry, the people behind TED are “creating a new Harvard — the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years.” Well! That’s certainly saying… something. (What it’s mostly saying is “This is a Fast Company story about some overhyped Internet thing.”)

To even attend a TED conference requires not just a donation of between $7,500 and $125,000, but also a complicated admissions process in which the TED people determine whether you’re TED material; so, as Maura Johnston says, maybe it’s got more in common with Harvard than is initially apparent.

Strip away the hype and you’re left with a reasonably good video podcast with delusions of grandeur. For most of the millions of people who watch TED videos at the office, it’s a middlebrow diversion and a source of factoids to use on your friends. Except TED thinks it’s changing the world, like if “This American Life” suddenly mistook itself for Doctors Without Borders.

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

24 comments:

John Kurman said...

ee-yeah, I'm not a big TED fan. Let's put it this way, I've yet to learn anything new from a TED talk. They usually 2-6 months behind me. In any case:

http://www.upworthy.com/breaking-you-know-that-nick-hanauer-ted-talk-you-werent-supposed-to-see-here-it-?c=rb1

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