Benjamin Bratton Explains “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” and Why They’re a “Recipe for Civilizational Disaster”

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

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Comments (16)
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  • Yarnek says:

    In my mind, this guy is the demon spawn of Benjamin Bratt and Benjamin Button.

  • Michael Fletcher says:

    Well crock. Any idea needs to be sold to it’s audience no matter how good the science behind it may be. Plenty of good projects never get support because of inadequate exposure and a poor sales job. Who thinks that less exposure would be better? What? Somebody just needs to up his game and improve the pitch.

  • Benjamin H Bratton says:

    I’m a admirer (and frequent user) of Open Culture and so am pleased to see my minor heresy posted here.

    Since the talk went up, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, which likely means that there was a nerve waiting to be struck.

    I would be happy to engage further on this, because Open Culture is an excellent forum.

    In short, yes, I do believe that TED *epitomizes* (not causes) a cultural framework in which any kind of serious work must be framed as a tidy, feel-good “solution,” and that this does impact what work is done and how it is done.

    See also, Randy Schekman’s boycotting of Nature, Cell, etc. as their editorial policy turns in favor of the Universal Tabloid.

    See also, Slajov Zizek’s remarks on Davos Man (or on diet cola for that matter)

    “Innovation” has become a content genre Publics are drawn into a spectacle of Solutions which provides an image of a world under our designable control, but which also serves as an alibi for never really engaging with root causes.

    See also so many Design/ Business School discourses, all saying the exact same familiar safe things under the banner of ‘disruption’

    At TED itself, the theology is thick. Means and ends are inverted as innovation content serves the end goal of an inspirational personal experience

    Moreover, within the genre, the wrong questions are asked over and again without answer. It’s not just that the popularization of difficult ideas flattens them (so what if it does?) rather than the demands of the content genre force the wrong things to the fore.

  • jkop says:

    Perhaps he’s in for the “anti-marketing dollar” (as in Bill Hicks’ satire): marketing by criticising marketing.

  • Jesse van Os says:

    Michael Fletcher… He’s not talking about less exposure.

  • Denise Buelteman says:

    Bratton says that If we held individuals accountable for problems in the world, many people would be in prison. So looking for real solutions is not even on the table. Instead we infotain ourselves into imagining that technology will fix things and after a hard days work congratulate ourselves for being so smart and raise our beer glasses in hopes that the Chargers win the next playoff game.

  • Ananda says:

    Brilliant, insightful and forward-thinking, an excellent wake-up call for the mass audiences who like to be lulled into a semblance of action and understanding. Indeed, it only confirms the status quo and imminent problems are not addressed, only spoken about, leaving us permanently not in proactive but in a reactive stage.

  • pam rose says:

    Mr Bratton might want to research the actual descriptions of viewers of TED. (I thought “E”
    stood for Education)
    As a member of the tv audience who will never attend, let me speak for others of my ilk: retired, female in a non-university small town in the No Plains w/o any real options for continuing ed or culture and w/o a peer group of other intellectuals to discuss science/tech/new-fangled stuff. TED talks are an important means of maintaining contact w/ possibilities, of cognitive stimulation, of opportunity to comment and discuss for me and others like me I’m sure.
    I’m distressed by knowing that nothing will get realized unless the DoD can use it to make war or it can be sold to a bored ruling class, but for some ppl, just following along adds wonder to an otherwise constricted life.

  • Rajalakshmi says:

    In his talk, he is doing the exact same thing. Giving insights based on his experience! Noted contents Ben.And getting on with my work. Please do not assume that the viewers are swallowing everything they see and hear without discernment.
    The attitude in this talk is elitist and contrary to the broad minded, inclusive approach of TED

  • Christopher Palermo says:

    Finally someone with balls! Mr. Bratton gets it right without even dwelling on the inflated egos, unquoted/regurgitations, vanity, and corporate sponsored careerist angst of most TED presenters. Go get’em, brother!

  • sgtoox says:

    Finally. I know he is guilty of doing precisely what he is condemning, but I am still glad the lunacy of self-gratifying pseudo-intellect that is TED talks is finally being addressed. Yes, there is certainly plenty of good content to be had in those videos, but not near enough to justify the existence of such a colossal monument to sophomoric circle-jerks.

  • sgtoox says:

    Basically, TED talks are the modern-day equivalent to the Sophists which Socrates and Plato railed against. An analogy Wes from over at Partially Examined Life noticed.

  • trey gilbert says:

    How many presenters have written books? Its marketing for a speakers book. Smart business idea: win/win for ted admin and speakers. Although I am curious about book sales bump from ted talk.

  • william reichert says:

    A lot of impressive words: “settler impressionism”, “genomic communism”
    “flatulent heroism” Stuff like that. When you use neologisms to impress you are
    obviously unable to communicate because you are using a new language known only to you. Why not just speak Chinese& speak about cooking rice and leave.
    I do agree that TED talks are complete bullshit, however. Simplistic .unbalanced, naive ideas shorn of any knowledge of science, history, economics
    or politics. Only an audience of dupes would attend . You would do better to go to your local library and read a book.But that goes without saying.Or take a course fromYale Open Courseware or some such the internet.
    Any idea that can be explained in 15 minutes is obviously either common knowledge or baseless.

  • william reichert says:

    There are plenty of free college level courses on the internet. Not 15 minutes but maybe 12 hours plus reading assignments. You might learn something.
    Ted talks are advertisements for ideas not explanations.

  • Solange says:

    Interesting points, and thank you for your participation in the comments! I am glad you clarified “epitomizes”. It also reminds me that TED talks and similar content could be called “innovation porn”. Perhaps they have already been labeled as such.

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