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.

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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