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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