See: Power of the Informal Economy, Robert Neuwirth x TED
TED started off as a promising forum for sharing interdisciplinary content with the world. But its dilution into independent arms and branches, and the gimmicky shallow repertoire of some speakers have landed the organization relentless waves of criticisms.
It is telling how on its official site there is a page titled “Is TED elitist?” to help address the most common criticism the organization receives. But there is no doubt that membership to the conferences remains to be pricey, and the invite-list notoriously exclusive. Exclusive after-after-parties that only celebrities or business-types are invited also smells cliquish. The elitism is quite illogical while it claims to promote ideas to shift to a more egalitarian world.
Among some of its partners (read: sponsors) are Shell, AT&T, Coca-Cola, GE, Gucci, Rolex, Tiffany & Co. On grounds of practicality, corporate sponsorships are necessary to sustain the growth of the organization and maintenance of TED’s strong web presence. But in their own words: they can help you “Grow a Brand Image”, or “Unveil a Product or a Service”. Tiffany & Co., really?
The Cult of TED
There is something bizarrely cultish in how TED evangelists talk - very defensively - about being part of the conference. And the TED vocabulary does not help matters: People who visit the conference for the first time are called “TED virgins”. And TED organizers send upcoming speakers a stone tablet, engraved with the “TED Commandments”.
Ideas worth spreading or Pseudo-Intellectualism?
There are countless thinkers and scientists who lend credibility to the TED conferences. But an increasingly worrying trend is when speakers are merely emulating The Gladwell Effect: mine statistics from research based loosely on an actual scientific research, make minimalist visuals to go with content, tell a seemingly counter-intuitive story and wait for the audience to clap at the 18-minute mark. There is nothing wrong with science popularizers like Gladwell. But marketing gurus and their generalizations are just disingenuous. Tim Ferriss, really?
A MetaFilter commenter summarizes the TED “intellectual experience” succinctly on this thread:
TED talks are kind of like a form of intellectual pornography - pornography in the sense that the result is a superficial sort of titillation. But that titillation doesn’t carry over into the rest of life, any more than the sexual form of titillation from pornography makes viewers better at romance or sex.
It’s “Eureka porn.” All the dopaminergic rush of discovery, of iconoclasm, of feeling smart, with none of the slog, boredom and loneliness of doing real hard work. It further cheapens real intellectualism because it turns the most valued currency of one’s work into whether it can produce sound-bite aphorisms that make laypeople feel clever for 10 minutes.
I’m not trying to say that cool stuff isn’t cool or that amazing stuff isn’t amazing. But I think TED talks encourage a consumerist attitude when it comes to knowledge and discovery. The type of knowledge which becomes “consumable” also becomes disposable. “I saw that one, show me the next one.”
Our take? The TED conferences do invite speakers with ideas worth spreading, but the platform has evolved into an empty vehicle of networking for its wealthy attendees. Perhaps, TED’s original creator’s new concept might just work - in bringing TED back on the ground.
“Smart talk has never been such a valuable commodity. It’s spawned conferences like TED, Davos, and now a slew of upstart competitors. It has made the eighteen‑minute TED lecture a viral online phenomenon. But are we running out of things to say?” - New York Magazine, Those Fabulous Confabs
“When did TED lose its edge? When did TED stop trying to collect smart people and instead collect people trying to be smart? What began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself. What was exceptional and emergent in the realm of ideas has been bottled, packaged, and sold back to us over and over again. The whole TED vibe has come to resemble a sales pitch.” - The New Inquiry, Against TED
“A TED talk, at this point, is the cultural equivalent of a patent: a private claim to a public concept. With the speaker, himself, becoming the manifestation of the idea. And so: In the name of spreading a concept, the talk ends up narrowing it.” - The Atlantic, How TED Makes Ideas Smaller