Are TED Talks Doing More Harm than Good?

As you well know, I love TED Talks. I appreciate how they introduce me to new ideas and persons, and I value how they inspire me to think differently and to aspire to change…my ideas, my world, myself.

All of this helps explain why I was so intrigued by this searing critique of TED Talks in a, well, TED Talk given by Benjamin Bratton, Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. The core of his many concerns about TED Talks is their profound over-simplication of complex problems and potential solutions to those problems. He’s not against popularization, per se, but rather creating a false sense of achievement via popularization. TED Talks, he charges, offer placebo political solutions rather than real ones and function like “middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” In other words, they make us feel good and pump up our confidence in technology and design, but don’t actually change anything. And the feel-good illusion of change makes it a lot harder to take on the less interesting and seriously challenging work of actually changing the world for the better.

He begins his Talk with an anecdote from his experience. He attended a presentation given by a friend, an astrophysicist, to a potential donor. But while Prof. Bratton, who admits he knows next to nothing about astrophysics, found the presentation “lucid and compelling,” the donor declined to sponsor the project because it didn’t inspire him. The donor suggested the scientist be more like Malcolm Gladwell. To which Bratton responds:

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.

So does TED lead to the over-simplification of complex ideas? Of that I have no doubt. But I wonder if Bratton has perhaps misunderstood the nature and function of TED. I don’t look to it, quite frankly, for solutions, or even systematic and in-depth overviews of problems. In fact, I enjoy it precisely for the reasons Bratton critiques it: it inspires me, it stokes my curiosity, it gets me thinking. And while I regret that Bratton’s friend didn’t get the funding he’d hoped from this donor, perhaps he will find another donor who does find his work inspiring, or perhaps he will be encouraged to think differently about how he presents his work so that it is indeed more inspiring.

Almost every creative and accomplished person I know will gladly concede that the greatest breakthroughs and achievements are 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration (that is, dogged and determined hard work). But here’s the thing: that 1% of inspiration can be so damned hard to find in a world of pessimistic news cycles, recycled ideas, and tired models of authority and expertise. So when you find a reliable source of the 1% that creates some energy and excitement about slogging through with the 99%, I think it’s worth valuing.

This talk was given just this past December, so as far as I can tell it’s not yet up at the TED site. But I hope they put it up soon and in this way further the conversation about the promise and peril of the popularization of ideas and information. In the meantime, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Notes: 1) If you are receiving this post by email, you may need to click here to watch the video.
2) Thanks to Open Culture for highlighting this Talk.