TED Talks — they give your “discovery-seeking brain a little hit of dopamine;” make you “feel part of a curious, engaged, enlightened, and tech-savvy tribe;” almost giving you the sensation that you’re attending a “new Harvard.” That was the hype around TED Talks a few years ago. Since then, the buzz around TED has mercifully died down, and the organization has gone on, staging its conferences around the globe. It’s been a while since we’ve featured a TED Talk whose ideas seem worth spreading. But today we have one for you. Intriguingly, it’s called “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” It was presented by Benjamin Bratton, Associate Professor of Visual Arts at UCSD, at none other than TEDxSanDiego 2013. Bratton makes his case (above) in 11 minutes — well within the 18 allotted minutes — by arguing that TED doesn’t just help popularize ideas. Instead, it changes and cheapens the agenda for science, philosophy and technology in America. He begins to frame the problem by telling a story:
I was at a presentation that a friend, an astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling…. After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired …you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”
Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems – rather this is one of our most frightening problems.
Bratton then concludes, “astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilizational disaster.” If “our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts,” the cost will be too high, and our most difficult problems won’t get solved.
In watching Bratton’s talk, I found myself agreeing with many things. Sure, TED Talks are often “a combination of epiphany and personal testimony … through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realization, its triumphs and tribulations.” Yes, the talks offer viewers a predictably “vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all.” Maybe TED Talks sometimes provide nothing more than “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” But is TED really changing the agenda for scientists, technologists and philosophers? Are scholars actually choosing their intellectual projects based on anything having to do with TED (or TED-inspired ways of thinking)? Is someone at the NIH doling out money based on whether a project will eventually yield 15 good minutes of diversion and entertainment? Short of empirical evidence that actually applies to TED (the anecdote above doesn’t), it feels like Bratton is giving TED way too much credit. Maybe TED matters on YouTube. But let’s get real, its pull largely starts and ends there. You can read a complete transcript of Bratton’s talk here.
via The Guardian