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More Thoughts on TED

I don't recall if I've written about this or not publically; this may be a restatement.

Sometime back, TED invited someone to one of their conferences, and like many other attendees, he spoke but was not guaranteed a slot on their website. He was a venture capitalist speaking on wealth inequality. The talk was decent, not amazing, and it wasn't posted on TED's website. The speaker asked why it wasn't published, and a handful of reasons were given, among them the claim that it was politically sensitive and TED didn't want to rock the boat (presumably because of their sponsors). The speaker then hired a PR firm to try to spin that into support for the book tied with the talk.

Both sides were off there, but I think TED was more off. The problem fits into a larger problem though; what is TED about?

TED claims to be about big ideas, condensed. I suspect it's actually about big, safe, entertaining ideas, condensed. Is this a problem?

A number of people have written criticising the "condensed" part of that; the idea that anything worth learning can be reduced into a "takeaway" that you can learn in ten minutes, often paired with the (outrageously false and stupid) claim that if you can't explain something to a layperson, you don't really understand it; they both basically say that all knowledge is shallow, meaning that no ideas are hard, no ideas depend on other ideas to seed, and that the years of education that layer on each other that we all experience with are just long paths that nobody has found a shortcut through yet. I think this is a fair criticism, although I don't know if TED would claim otherwise; presenting those ideas where they do have a useful condensed version that can be stowed into our toolbox of life skills doesn't imply that all of life is so easily packaged. It is, through its focus, unfortunately supportive of such a view though, and the draw of TED might cheapen intellectual discourse. What this suggests is not that we must dislike TED, but rather we should take it with considerable salt and build a mental context from which we view TED that reminds us that it's mental candy, not a meal.

I am concerned about the "safe and entertaining" aspect. In my past writings, I considered the role of art in culture from a socialist perspective; I am generally supportive of all cultural production that's not normatively harmful, and when it is legitimately harmful I am still for being reasonably chill. If modern culture is the opiate of the masses, I think we'll need to find ways to build a better society and inspire people without learning to hate art and music and the like, even if these things can distract people from cultural struggles we think are important. If TED is to be safe and entertaining, that's no deep sin; just like a message board that says "we do not talk religion and politics", we might chafe a bit at that, but it can be okay to have zones where we put down our swords on some topics. However, we don't need to consider such zones to be equal to zones of open intellectual inquiry, and when an otherwise worthwhile intellectual zone blocks off discussion of some topics that might need to be addressed in order to tackle some problems, that becomes a problem; it feeds into a cultural problem of making that mistake in general in society, particularly given how TED is branded. Nobody expects politics in popularise science journals, but they don't handle the breadth of topics TED does. Stated more strongly, is TED a platform where comfortable light-intellectual suburbanites entertain themselves with ideas that will wash through them and leave little mark? Is it a means, when it tackles social problems, for those problems to be acknowledged and paired with the impression that easy solutions are around the corner that won't require us to engage on the issues, so our tension over those issues is reduced without any actual motion? My answer is: perhaps. That can be (again) counterbalanced by taking TED with considerable salt.

TED won't save the world. TED can be a decent way to keep up with some ideas, where those ideas are a subset of the topics TED covers, and where we know the ideas are only a subset of the ideas in the field that can be so abbreviated, and where we know that some violence to the ideas happens even then. For some topics, certainly on how to improve society in the tough ways, we shouldn't listen much to TED. It explicitly avoids things we should consider, staying neatly inside many of the same boundaries that are greatly damaging us as a society. TED isn't worthless though; read with the appropriate amount of doubt and skepticism and mistrust, fully cognizant of the severe selection bias in what it chooses to present, someone could get a lot out of TED.


mental candy, not a meal.

i love this image. i think i already thought about ted that way, just hadn't put words to it.