The trouble with TED talks

In the cult of TED, everything is awesome and inspirational, and ideas aren’t supposed to be challenged, says Martin Robbins.

I’ve long been amused by the slogan of TED, makers of the ubiquitous TED talks. TED’s slogan is this: ‘Ideas worth spreading.’ Apparently TED has some ideas, and we should spread them. What ideas? Ideas that TED in its infinite wisdom has picked out for us, ideas which are therefore implied to be true and good and right. What should we do with these ideas? We should build a message around them - slick presentations by charismatic faces captured in high definition - and we should spread that message far and wide. If this doesn’t yet sound familiar, try replacing ‘TED’ with ‘GOD’. ‘Ideas worth spreading’ sounds more like the slogan of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It’s nearing midnight, and I’m sitting in my pants in front of the computer holding a tumbler of scotch, the curtains closed, the lights off, doing something I don’t do enough of these days – just watching. This is not how TED Talks are supposed to be consumed. The genius of the format is that nobody really watches them: we play them on iPods or we run them in our browsers while working on other things, but it’s rare that people put one on the television and sit down and really focus on them. They come at us from the side of our vision, sneaking past our preoccupied neural circuitry and planting little seeds in the nooks and crevices of our minds, like mould spores on a damp window frame. In the darkest hours of countless nights I’ve woken convinced that a solar-powered cup holder will end third world debt, but not really knowing why.

I start with a talk by Rob Legato, and sixteen minutes later I’m aware of only three things: the talk was awesome, I can’t remember anything of substance from the talk, and I’m now watching a weirdly artificial standing ovation - by sheer coincidence a camera happens to be pointed at some of the first audience members to rise to their feet; then the rest of the audience follows, compelled by social instinct to follow their peers. Of course standing ovations occur more frequently in homogenous audiences, and what better crowd could there be than social elites who’ve invested thousands of dollars for the opportunity to bask in the warm glow someone else’s intellectual aura.

I choose a talk by Ben Goldacre next, a man whose work I know and enjoy. Ben’s high-speed presentation style was once described by a fan as like being ‘skull-fucked with his data-cock’, and his appearance at TED did little to restrain his exuberance, but I found myself switching off after a while; I’d seen his talk before, at The Royal Institution. In fact, virtually none of the talks I watched were particularly new or original – presentations that are that well-polished rarely are.

One of the common charges against TED is that it’s elitist, and yet many of the speakers were the sort of people you might find at your local ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event. The genius of TED is that it takes capable-but-ordinary speakers, doing old talks they’ve performed many times elsewhere, and dresses them up in a production that makes you feel like you’re watching Kennedy announce the race to the moon.

The videos aren’t given star ratings; instead you have to rate them by checking words from a list: ‘jaw-dropping’, ‘persuasive’, ‘courageous’, ‘fascinating’, ‘beautiful’ and an array of similarly vapid adjectives. Cameras lurk below the eye-line of the speakers looking up at their sharply defined forms, picked out by spotlights against dark backgrounds like a Greek god’s statue in a museum display case. The crowd acts as a single helpful entity; laughing when it should laugh, whooping when it should whoop, awwing when it should aww. Quotes are picked out and highlighted as if they carry some profound truth: “There's no such thing as a dumb user,” says Timothy Prestero, a designer who has clearly never read the user comments on Comment is Free. Or indeed the articles. There are no questions here: in the cult of TED, everything is awesome and inspirational, and ideas aren’t supposed to be challenged.

The problem with this evangelical approach, discarding the voice of scepticism and mindlessly parroting ‘fascinating’ ideas instead of challenging them, is that you risk spreading some utter codswallop. A couple of weeks ago, TED posted a list of the 20 most-watched TED talks to date. Occupying third and fifth place is pair of talks viewed more than sixteen million times, dedicated to a “paradigm-shifting” technology with “thrilling potential” from 2009. It was called ‘SixthSense’.

Nope, nor me. And yet its inventor, Pranav Mistry, is described by the on-stage TEDster as a ‘genius’ and “truly one of the two or three best inventors in the world right now,” the latter assertion based, amusingly, on “the people we’ve seen at TED.” That Mistry is talented and clever I wouldn’t dispute for a second, but words are cheap, and they get cheaper when overused. The presentation looks to my tired eyes like a slightly ropey sales pitch, except the ruthless interrogators of Dragons’ Den have been replaced by a whooping, clapping audience displaying the world-weary cynicism of an arena-full of Beliebers. Anyone who posed a meaningful question in this environment would be treated like they’d thrown a shit in someone’s face.

With the world’s easiest audience, many inaccuracies and errors go unchallenged. A talk by Terry Moore on algebra was littered with unsourced claims about Spanish language and history. Their coverage of science topics is at best superficial, and sometimes downright misleading. Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s infamous claim that bacteria could incorporate arsenic into their DNA led to a huge backlash from the scientific community, during which she refused to engage with critics and said that: “Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated.” Not long afterwards, she signed up to do a distinctly un-peer-reviewed TED talk. ‘Ideas worth spreading’ . . . except in this instance the ideas didn’t survive peer-review.

Ultimately, the TED phenomenon only makes sense when you realise that it’s all about the audience. TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place. People join for much the same reason they join societies like Mensa: it gives them a chance to label themselves part of an intellectual elite. That intelligence is optional, and you need to be rich and well-connected to get into the conferences and the exclusive fringe parties and events that accompany them, simply adds to the irresistible allure. TED’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Ideas worth spreading’, it should be: ‘Ego worth paying for’.

A suitably vague but uplifting photo of hot air balloon. Photo: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Welcome to South Africa’s new political landscape

The era of one-party rule is over.

Last night, after a whole day of drama, tedium and tragedy, Johannesburg had a new mayor. 

Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) councillors, dressed in conventional suits, sat quietly throughout the mayoral election, looking very much like businessmen and women. Their sartorial code was completely at odds with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – supporters of the far-left’s Julius Malema. They came dressed in their trade-mark red overalls and matching miner’s helmets. 

Singing and dancing, the EFF held up the voting for hours, demanding that an ANC councillor against whom they had laid charges of corruption should be excluded from the election. Finally an ANC councillor collapsed and died in the chamber, having suffered a heart attack.

The proceedings had dragged on for eleven hours, with South Africans complaining on social media that they wanted to go to bed. But eventually the DA’s Herman Mashaba was sworn in as mayor. The 56-year-old businessman, who made his money in cosmetics, would not have been in post without EFF support.

It is a strange alliance. Malema refused to go into a formal alliance with the much larger DA. It was – as he put it – a question of choosing between the better of “two devils”.

It is difficult to see how the DA, whose policies are clearly free-market and capitalist, will work with the EFF. Malema has repeatedly called for nationalisation of the mines and the land, without compensation. But on one issue the DA, EFF and other opposition parties are united: their loathing for the ANC and the quagmire of corruption and nepotism that it has dragged the country into.

The ANC won the largest share of the 3 August local elections, taking 54.5 per cent of the vote – against the DA’s 27.0 per cent and the EFF’s  8.3 per cent. Yet it has found itself excluded from running most of South Africa’s key metropolitan areas.

The opposition holds Tshwane (which includes the administrative capital, Pretoria) Nelson Mandela Bay (including Port Elizabeth) and now Johannesburg itself, as well as Cape Town, which the ANC lost back in 2006.

The ANC has found itself largely relegated to rural towns and villages, with only the metropolitan area of Durban and cities like Kimberley and Bloemfontein in its control.

Transformation

What the election really marks is the end of one-party rule.

From 1948 the National Party ruled the country, imposing apartheid. After 1994 and the release of Nelson Mandela, the ANC governed, with little the opposition could do to challenge its hold on power.

The local government elections ushered in a new era of multi-party politics. Communities across the country are now run by coalitions.

Take Nelson Mandela Bay, as an example.

In the 3 August 2016 election, the ANC lost their majority. The DA gained 57 seats, 4 seats short of a majority. So the DA negotiated a coalition including the African Christian Democratic Party, the Congress of the People, and the United Democratic Movement.

Athol Trollip – the DA’s Xhosa-speaking mayor – has set about rebuilding the metro's reputation. Outlining his plans for his first 100 days in office with promises of jobs and a clean administrations, Trollip said: “Political instability in this metro has rendered this city moribund and unresponsive… It is time to lock the revolving doors of corruption‚ cadre deployment and cronyism and bring about a new model of administration by this multiparty government, that will eschew the blight of such practices and that ushers in a model of good government…".

Can the opposition deliver?

As the reality of their new responsibilities become apparent, the opposition may discover that winning the election was the easy part. The DA will have to show tact, skill and extraordinary diplomacy if it is to hold together its relationship with difficult parties like the EFF.

They have already faced challenges from trade unions allied to the ANC, with protests from South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). Journalist and commentator Stephen Grootes has warned that the going will get rough.

"Samwu is likely to try to bring administration in DA-led metros to a halt. But it also faces a risk. It has tended to get what it wants through illegal actions and political pressure in the ANC through Cosatu. This time, it could well find that Mashaba, Msimanga and Trollip are tougher nuts to crack."

The ANC and the president

Meanwhile, the ANC and President Jacob Zuma are not without resources.

They still run central government and have at their disposal the finances of the Treasury and the state’s highly politicised security apparatus.

Yet the ANC is struggling to react effectively.

Its first response was to deny that Jacob Zuma had lost the party votes – preferring instead to take collective responsibility for the defeats.

There are suggestions that the ANC is now so divided and ineffectual that they have almost ceased to govern.

Writing in Business Day, the South African equivalent of the Financial Times, columnist Carol Paton today suggested that: "No one runs SA. It is an aircraft in which the pilot has left the cockpit and locked the door behind him."

Paton accuses President Zuma of having: "Centralised power in his office, using his powers of appointment, in a way that is highly effective in achieving his personal goals, but has had chaotic consequences for the process of governing."

It is difficult to see how this can continue. There is a real loss of a sense of direction. Ordinary South Africans can only watch in anger and frustration as they attempt to muddle along.

But one fact seems certain: the era of one-party rule is over. South Africa has become a much more interesting, complex country.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?