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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Lost in translation: what we lose when we leave the EU

From learning Irish to studying in Switzerland, my richest memories are all in Europe. What will happen to our creative culture after Brexit?

I’m rubbish at languages. Worse than rubbish, actually; hopeless. (You can ask my old German teacher, if you like. Sorry Frau Sarcher.) I don’t have the ear for inflection or the memory for grammar. I don’t have the patience for diligent vocab lists. I can barely spell in English, let alone in French.

So it was with some trepidation that I headed to West Donegal a few weeks ago to do an immersion course in Irish. I know: Irish, of all things, a language which is famed for sounding entirely unlike how it looks on the page and is spoken only by a small number of people, almost all of them in places I don’t live.

Well, I had to do it: I’m working on a novelist for my PhD who wrote in the language. But alright, fine, I also wanted to – wanted to at least grasp at the bones of the thing, even if I’d never be fluent.

I moved around a lot as a child, although always within the UK, and like a lot of people I know I never really had a proper and precise sense of origin. (Irish classes, replete with diaspora, handled this one fast: I am from here; now I live here.) I’m happy in most places, yet no geography has the ring of home. Yes, I’m undeniably English, but I always felt like I was looking at my own Englishness through glass.

I’m aware this might be the most English thing of all.

After my BA, I was awarded a grant to do research in Switzerland, and after that given a grant to do an MA, and everything changed. Suddenly, I was travelling across the continent, able to afford solo trips on the Eurostar to Paris and long months in a sticky Swiss summer, sending photos of the suspiciously clear rivers and cuckoo clocks back to England. In my early 20s, this became my home: always feeling slightly out of place, as ever, but willingly and joyfully so, stumbling through language after language. A whole world of pleasant unfamiliarity opened up on the continent.

A Swiss professor I met said that the very impossibility of translation is its greatest gift, because it reveals native quirks. I’m not sure I fully became a person until I started translating myself in those European summers – until I had to give an account of myself, as an English woman and as a person, out there in the world. Which is why, this morning, I found myself close to tears on the Tube.

I’m no more informed than you are as to why exactly Leave had such a good result. It might have been the headlines, or the promises of NHS funding, or simply long, dulled anger finding an outlet, however counter-intuitive.

But it was undoubtedly something else, too: an opportunity to wield power.

Feeling part of a movement is a seductive thing. This was a campaign entirely run in the negative, by both sides. I mean that in the most literal sense: not that there was no “positive” option, but that there was no option that offered a yes in relation to Europe – only a no more, thanks or a continuation of the same. Remain had no chance of promising us more. Leave, at least, could try, and even if it didn’t quite all ring true, it still offered action over inaction.

Getting ready for work this morning, I couldn’t get the words of sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor out of my head. A few years ago, I went to a lecture he gave on popular culture, and saw him tell an audience of academics what he knew from growing up in Liverpool, and from watching the Dockers’ Strike: that turkeys will vote for Christmas if there’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the middle class while they do it.

That’s trite, perhaps, but less trite than pretending voters necessarily bought every promise from Leave. True, not everyone knew the ins and outs of trade negotiations, but most people were able to twig that Boris Johnson isn’t exactly a working class hero. As tends to be the case, there’s very little to be gained from calling the electorate stupid.

If the same communities that voted Leave are also those likely to be hit the hardest by a Brexit-induced economic downturn, they are also those who might reasonably have wondered: what have we got to lose?

Well, who knows. I’ll speak responsibly and say that I’m worried about EU funding to Cornwall (whose council is already scrabbling to secure a promise for alternative funds, after the population there voted Leave); about the medium-term prospects for the UK markets; about how we will handle cross-border security initiatives both in these isles and across the continent. I’m worried because I know where the money came from to regenerate Northern cities, and it wasn’t a Conservative government.

But I’ll also speak with feeling and say that something less tangible has been eroded. British culture is watchful and insecure, sarcastic and subtle; it has a class system awkwardly incomprehensible to outsiders and a sense of humour loved for being the same.

And the thing that makes it all beautiful, the Midas touch that takes the British bundle of neuroses and double-edged banter and endless, endless griping about the weather and turns it to gold, is openness – however grudgingly given. I won’t pretend we ever enjoyed a Halcyon age where we welcomed immigrants whole-heartedly. It would be an insult to history and those who fought to come here. But we are a mongrel country, in spite of our intentions, and most people, most of the time, cope. It is at the moments where we shrug and decide we’re not too fussed about difference, actually, that we shine most strongly.

Over and above the economy, even over the personal fear I have for European friends and lovers of friends and parents of friends, I worry about the loss of culture we may have triggered by choosing this course; what a Keynesian might call the “negative output gap” of creativity. We won’t ever be able to know precisely how much talent and creative joy we’ve effectively just told to fuck off, because you can’t measure pop songs or novels or new dishes like you can expenditure.

But that doesn’t mean that right now, across the country, hundreds of small stories forged from difference aren’t being foreclosed. A hundred little acts of friendship, or love; a hundred chances to look at Britishness through someone else’s eyes. The essential richness of being forced to translate ourselves, and receive others’ translations in turn, is being lost from our future. And our culture will undoubtedly be a little the worse for it.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland