The four-day TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference is on for Vancouver this March. If you don’t have tickets yet for this high-level gabfest, too bad. They went months ago to those willing to pony up $7,500 US each.
The nonprofit organization’s Brother-Can-You-Paradigm revenue model may sound elitist, but someone has to cover this moveable feast of Fabergé eggheads. On the plus side, paying registrants have subsidized the 1,500-plus TED talks that are free for viewing online. A great many are superb, from Sir Ken Robinson’s take on How Schools Kill Creativity, to Kevin Slavin’s meditation on How Algorithms Shape Our World.
It was probably only a matter of time before TED’s gleaming, futuristic image became tarnished by controversy. Every once in a while a guest does a presentation at TED or its independently organized TEDx spinoff, but the video is spurned by head office.
In March 2013, the Oxford-educated scientist Rupert Sheldrake delivered a TEDx talk at Whitechapel on his theory of morphogenetic fields. Former Economist correspondent Graham Hancock lectured at the same event on the connection between the drug war and social control of consciousness. Both talks were deleted from TED’s YouTube channel after complaints from skeptics, but blowback resulted in reposting them in a special blog post on TED.com (and on the channels of other YouTube subscribers).
Previously in March 2012, Nick Hanauer, a billionaire venture capitalist from Seattle, gave a presentation at the TED University conference on why “rich people don’t create jobs.”
Hanauer argued that last thing a firm wants is to hire more people, which negatively affects the profit margin. Only higher demand for a given product or service compels a firm to do so, and only if automation or an increased employee work load are not options.
Consumers are actually the ones who create jobs through demand, the venture capitalist insisted.
TED deemed Hanauer’s talk too politically sensitive to post on their channel or main site. Was this what constituted intellectual kryptonite for TED – the bleeding obvious from a counterintuitive source? The organization — which sometimes resembles a three-way collision of venture capitalists, techno-evangelists and Ayn Rand fans — was now facing backlash from the wider Internet community. In deep-sixing Hanauer’s talk, they were seen as acting more like policers of thoughtcrime than curators of “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED honcho Chris Anderson responded that the organization has a “backlog of amazing talks from all over the world,” and not all of them make primetime.
Enter Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts at UC San Diego. His December 2013 TEDx presentation was cheerily titled, “Why TED Is a Recipe for Civilizational Disaster.” You can imagine how well this went over.
Describing TED as “middlebrow megachurch infotainment,” Bratton asked why all the brilliant ideas trotted out for 30 years by a conga line of invited geniuses aren’t translating into a transformed world free from poverty, inequality, and ecological breakdown. He then told a story of an astrophysicist friend who gave a presentation to a potential donor. Bratton found the presentation “lucid and compelling, but claimed the donor told his friend he “didn’t feel inspired,” and advised him that he should be “more like Malcolm Gladwell.”
“Think about it,” observed the discreetly fuming arts prof. “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.”
For TED’s flock, this went beyond farting in church — it was like crapping on the altar while pounding the communion wine. Not surprisingly, the presentation didn’t make it to TED’s archive of talks, but a transcript from the Guardian and the talk itself were linked by contributors to TED Conversations.
Echoing Bratton, statistician and scholar Nassim Taleb has described TED as a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.” Given such withering estimates from the global cognoscenti, it’s not hard to imagine the launch of Salon des Refusés across the world, showcasing edgier thinkers who question what writer Gore Vidal once called “the agreed-upon-facts.”
How about talks for the UnTED?
The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 14