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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.