Monday, March 31, 2014

Early Indications March 2014: TED at 30

On the occasion of its 30th birthday, TED is the subject of a number of both critiques and analyses. It’s a tempting target: the brand is both powerful and global, and the sheer numbers are just plain big. 1,700 talks are said to be online, viewed more than a billion times. More than 9,000 mini-TEDs (TEDx events) have been held all over the world. And TED’s successful formula is prone to the perils of any formula: sameness, self-parody, insularity.

But to go so far as to say, as sociologist Benjamin Bratton does, that TED is a recipe for “civilizational disaster,” is attention-getting hyperbole. Does Bratton not watch TV, a much more likely candidate for his accusation? (Also: he made the charge in a TED talk, of all places.) Other critiques hit the mark. There can be heavy does of techno-utopianism, especially in a certain strand of the talks, which is hardly surprising given a heavy Silicon Valley bias among the advisory crew. Politics is often either a) ignored or b) addressed as a quasi-technical problem to be fixed. The stagecraft, coaching, and earnestness of the talks can lend an evangelical cast to the enterprise. Humanity is fallen, in this trope, from a state of “better” that can be reclaimed by more education, more technology, more self-actualization.

At the same time, that narrative contains more than a grain of realism. Civic debate works less wastefully when citizens have richer fact bases from which to reason, and Hans Rosling’s series of talks on international health and economics is an important contribution to that debate. (The same can be said for Ken Robinson and Sal Khan on education.) Medicine and technology can make some of us “better than well,” to quote Carl Elliott, or replace human capacity with machines. The state of prosthetics (not only limbs, but also exoskeletons and tools for cognitive abilities and other functions) is in a state of extreme dynamism right now, and 99% of us will never see the labs and rehab clinics where the revolution is gaining momentum. Finally, education is being enhanced and disrupted by digital media at a time when skills imbalances, economic inequality, and political corruption are crucial topics for much of the globe. The TED agenda includes many worthy elements.

Rather than go with the evangelical line of comparison (as illustrated at The Economist), I tend to look at TED in terms of its reach. Much like the Book of the Month Club that brought middlebrow literature to audiences far from metropolitan booksellers, TED serves as an introduction to ideas one would not encounter otherwise. The conferences and videos illustrate the power of “curation,” a buzzword that fits here, vis a vis mass populations utilizing search, popular-scientific journals, mass media, or classroom lectures. This curation, coupled with the huge scale of the freely distributed videos and the social networks that propel them, helps explain the TED phenomenon. And if it's "middlebrow," I'm not sure that's such a bad thing: this isn't babbitry, after all.

In TED-meister Chris Anderson’s own talk, he makes a compelling case for online video as a Gutenberg-scale revolution. In the beginning, says Anderson (the son of missionaries), was the word, and words were spread by humans with gestures, intonation, eye contact, and physical responses of either acknowledgement or confusion. After the inventions of ink, type, paper, and so on, words could be manufactured beyond human scale, but the accompanying nuances were lost: print scaled in a way talking could not. Now, in a brief historical moment (YouTube is not yet 10 years old), we have global scale for words to reach masses of niche audiences, complete with body language, show-and-tell visual explanations, and other attributes that restore the richness of the spoken word.

Bratton’s solution — “More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins” — has much to commend it, yet realistically, how many Copernican giants can any era of human history produce? And of these few, how many could communicate on whiteboards, in articles, or to students, the true breadth and depth of their insights and discoveries? The self-help strain of TED-dom is worrisome to me and to many others, but equally unhelpful is science and technology unmoored from human context. If there had been TED talks in 1910, when Fritz Haber fixed atmospheric nitrogen in fertilizers that now feed a third of the world’s population, would anyone have known what he should have said? Or what if Robert Oppenheimer had a TED-like forum for his concerns regarding atomic weapons in the 1950s? Historically, humanity has frequently misunderstood the geniuses in its midst, so I’m unsure if TED could actually find, coach, and memorialize on video many of today’s Copernican equivalents. At the same time, I should be on record as wishing for both less of Tony Robbins and fewer media Kardashians of any variety.

For me, these are both academic questions and personal ones: I gave my first TEDx talk in early March, and crafting it was a stiff challenge. I saw pitfalls everywhere: sounding like everyone else, overshooting the audience’s patience and current knowledge, and not giving people anything to _do_ about this urgent issue at the end of the talk. Thus I will leave it to the audience to judge after the edited talk is posted next month, but I must admit I measure great TED talks with a new yardstick after having tried to give even a pedestrian one.