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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In independent Kosovo, families still search for their missing children

A decade after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence, questions remain unanswered. 

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1999, Albion Kumnova was rounded up with five other men by policemen and put in the back of a van. From the four policemen kicking in the door to the vehicle speeding away, everything happened so quickly that Albion didn’t have time to put his shoes on.

Albion’s portrait sits above the television in his parents’ sitting room in Gjakova, Kosovo. He has thick, dark hair and a handsome face. Whenever she gets a message or phonecall, his mother’s phone lights up with a picture of him on holiday by the sea in Montenegro. Nesrete Kumanova has waged an intense war to find out what happened to her son, who was 21 when he was disappeared.

This weekend marks 10 years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A decade before that, brutal fighting erupted between Serbs and Albanians. The subsequent war claimed thousands of lives and further entrenched the split between the two ethnic groups. Between 1998 and 2000, 13,535 people were killed or went missing.

Gjakova was particularly badly affected by fighting. Now, Albanian flags are displayed prominently throughout the town, and there’s a strong anti-Serb sentiment. As Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s, Serbia was determined that the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo should remain just that - a province, not a country. From late February 1998, Serbs and Albanians were at war for control over the country, which today has a population of just 1.8 million, and is a mixture of Albanians and Serbs, although the latter in the minority.  

“Every family has at least one person who went missing,” Nesrete says. Some families have as many as 10 missing. They feel unable to mourn them as dead, just in case something miraculous happens.

In 2002, after the war had ended, Nesrete got together with other parents to lobby for information about what happened to their loved ones. They staged hunger strikes, one lasting as long as 16 days, and protested in Gjakova and Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The experience of hunger was overwhelming. “Being sad and when you have your pain with you, it’s very hard to handle it. But it’s the only choice I had,” says Nesrete. Their action had some impact, as some captives held in Niš, Serbia, were liberated. But her son was not in that group. She founded an organisation, Mothers’ Appeal, which is still going today. How many captives there were, and what has happened to them, remains unclear and a source of intense pain. 

“Without doing what we’ve done, nothing would move,” she says. “We thought we should be more active. Unfortunately, dead bodies are brought back to Kosovo – or their remains at least – and there are 1,600 others still missing from Gjakova.” 

Pristina city centre is decorated with banners and swags in preparation for the 10 year anniversary of independence. In Nesrete’s home, though, there’s nothing to celebrate.

“The independence of Kosovo has no meaning to families missing their loved ones,” she says. “The most important part of our life is still missing.”

The Kosovo government set up a commission for missing persons and gives monthly pensions to families of missing people. However, Nesrete criticises the government for inactivity and giving her false hope. “Everyone says: ‘this is going to happen’ but the result is almost nil. Every time there’s a knock on our doors, there’s another lie. I still don’t know what happened to my son.”

Many Serbs also lost family members in the fighting, but dialogue is impossible for Albanians, says Nesrete. “Serbs are all the same, they have always been like that,” she says. “Almost all of them are criminals. We have no faith in them. Even in the past in our grandparents’ time, they hung out together. They would keep an axe under their pillow and think about how to murder an Albanian. When they are born, they’re born criminals.”

The interpreter who has been sitting on a sofa adjacent to hers pauses, and exhales. “I’m sorry for translating this, but this is exactly what she said.”

To puncture partisan sentiment and show the catastrophe on both sides, Bekim Blakaj, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a long-established human rights organisation, has been helping to compile a book of every single missing or murdered person across Kosovo from 1998-2000. The project, undertaken by the centre, has been gruelling but necessary. “Our aim is to have a narrative for each and every person and a factual history. It is to stop the manipulation of numbers of victims and denial,” he says. “Albanians use some incredible numbers, that Serbian forces have killed more than 20,000 Albanians, which is not entirely true.”

The NGO goes into schools to do workshops, and Bekim says the children routinely cannot believe that Serbs were killed by Albanian fighters. Ten years after independence, Serb and Albanian children who were born after the war are still often picking up biased narratives from friends and relatives.

Each person listed in HLC's book has an average of eight sources to verify what happened. The work has been emotional and exhausting and several researchers were so burned out that they had to resign.

“It’s very hard because you have to be clear to the families that you can’t help them and you are just documenting what happened,” says Bekim. “But despite that they keep phoning you and you feel very bad when you can’t really do anything, especially when it comes to the missing persons. That’s the worst. But they keep calling you back.” Bringing victims together has helped some of them soften slightly. "At first they looked at each other as though they were enemies," says Bekim. "But then they realised that both sides were suffering and that they were victims with the same needs. Nowadays the situation is different – they are trying to cooperate."

Likewise, Nesrete has compiled a book with Mothers’ Appeal – it’s a list of people in Gjakova who went missing, with exactly what happened to them. It won’t bring Albion back, or give a gravestone or a funeral or any real closure, but it’s something. It’s all she may ever have.