An insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering
August 4, 2012 11:11 PM   Subscribe

TED Fellow Evgeny Morozov (previously, previously) calls bullshit on the "increasingly" "simplistic" "anxiety-peddling futurology" surrounding the TED conference in generally and especially the new TED book Hybrid Reality by Ayesha & Parag Khanna.

Morozov, from the book review:
In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”
Felix Salmon piles on, noting that TED talks usually have very little to do with actual science or journalism.
posted by bbuda (54 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
Excellent smackdown. TED quality has been declining and this publishing emprire seems like another slide into irrelevance.
posted by tatiana131 at 11:35 PM on August 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I enjoyed Mr. Morozov's well-written snidefest, and kinda agree that TED is starting to morph into [OMNI magazine without the airbrush + Mondo 2000 without the dreadlocks + Silicon Valley and nice Keynote presentations], but what's his solution? Don't do that? Don't encourage the Prius Hippies? Read moar harder science books?

If TED sucks so hard, what's the alternative? Where is the accessible science and technology rah-rah stuff that's good enough for readers of The New Republic?
posted by dammitjim at 11:38 PM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. Only took two comments before "Well, why aren't YOU doing it better?" I'm not an engineer, but I can tell when a bridge falls down. (Trust me, I'm from Minneapolis.)
posted by cthuljew at 11:42 PM on August 4, 2012 [18 favorites]


Nice, but I liked Reggie Watts' verison even better.
posted by edheil at 11:45 PM on August 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


MetaFilter: It helps to travel and be imaginative, but it is even more useful to observe children.
posted by phaedon at 11:50 PM on August 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wasn't going for "go make your own TED then", just reacting to his dismissive tone. It seemed a little too Jonah Goldberg to me. I'm sure the book he's describing is just as fluffy as he's making it out to be, but that doesn't invalidate all of what TED does.
posted by dammitjim at 11:54 PM on August 4, 2012


dammitjim: "If TED sucks so hard, what's the alternative? Where is the accessible science and technology rah-rah stuff that's good enough for readers of The New Republic?"

I can't speak for TNR readers, but I think SF writers have been doing a better job of this strain of prediction for generations. Much of this stuff is basically speculative SF minus the imagination and effort to make it entertaining.
posted by vanar sena at 11:56 PM on August 4, 2012


In an article And here’s the thing: for all that Jonah Lehrer ultimately wound up blogging for the New Yorker, he has always been a creature of TED much more than he has been a creature of journalism.*
...
the way that Lehrer remixed facts in service of narrative is very TED
...
*Update: Clay Shirky informs me that Jonah Lehrer has never actually given a TED talk.


Lol.
posted by andoatnp at 12:17 AM on August 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


A+++, would snark again.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:22 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the less-remarked aspects of TED is that although it popularizes science, it features very few of the people whose job it is to popularize science: science journalists.

Gosh, yes. What we need from TED is an endless number of speeches about how some knew medical technique will cure cancer.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:48 AM on August 5, 2012


new, rather.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:48 AM on August 5, 2012


That was an increasingly good read.
posted by phaedon at 12:53 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is the line from the piece that says it all for me......

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books.

Everybody and their mother is TEDing about something and while there are many thought provoking speeches, there are also a plethora of self-serving advertisements for the obscure services a person is selling trying to get funding for. It is not that much different than the model of the NYT to have authors pen articles that support their current book they have on the bookshelves at B&N in their tunnel vision quest for the not-all-that-exclusive-moniker of "NYT Bestselling Author". (btw, Teresa Guidice of the Real Housewives is a NYT Best Seller as a comparison.)

TED was nice while it lasted. However, the point when I watched the 200th "visionary entrepreneur" babble on about how their experience climbing Mt Everest contributed to inspiring their newly-minted-must-have-app, that it began the platform’s slide of into irrelevance for me. At this point I would be more interested in whether they were responsible in disposing of their poop than whether the $50k they spent to climb a big rock inspired them to design an colorful icon.

Maybe it is just a high altitude thing that I will never get. Whatever. I am just happy the TEDFPPmania here on MF has subsided. Ted jumped the shark a long time ago.
posted by lampshade at 12:53 AM on August 5, 2012 [12 favorites]


TED is also diluting its brand with too many small events. There is a finite number of interesting/qualified speakers available, compounding the problems that Morozov mentions.
posted by quidividi at 12:57 AM on August 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Meme laundering is a wonderful term, and this was a fantastic essay. Morozov can be brutal to read but he doesn’t leave his claims undefended. As far as an alternative to sucky-TED, I don’t really see the need for “rah-rah science” at all. Turning technology into entertainment is a way of othering it, putting it up on a stage/pedestal to be marveled at rather than participated in or built upon. TED’s very structure makes most ideas into a spectator sport.

Joe Smith on paper towels from TEDx Portland changed my life, though.
posted by migurski at 1:07 AM on August 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


They need to do the toilet paper followup.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:09 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is probing stuff.
Oh man. This is a hilarious evisceration. Technik!
posted by joost de vries at 1:22 AM on August 5, 2012


Metafilter’s got you covered there; I switched as a result of that thread.
posted by migurski at 1:32 AM on August 5, 2012


When I look at the 21st century, I reverse the numbers around and I see the 12th century.

When I look at the 19th century, I reverse the numbers around and I see... the 91st century. It's futuristic, man.
posted by problemspace at 1:32 AM on August 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't understand Felix Salmon's argument that the way to popularize science is to restrict it to dry journalism, data and stats. Has he not stood in line at a supermarket and noticed which publications get the prime real estate?
posted by mannequito at 2:21 AM on August 5, 2012


Imho Nathan Jurgenson did it better, earlier:

Against TED - The New Enquiry

What began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself. What was exceptional and emergent in the realm of ideas has been bottled, packaged, and sold back to us over and over again. The whole TED vibe has come to resemble a sales pitch.


From previously, mentioning Morozov as well.
posted by infini at 2:28 AM on August 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


[OMNI magazine without the airbrush + Mondo 2000 without the dreadlocks + Silicon Valley and nice Keynote presentations]

This isn't necessarily a *bad* thing; I miss OMNI.

posted by mrbill at 3:35 AM on August 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also: just finished the article. I won bullshit buzzword bingo before I was a third of the way through, JUST from the quote snippets out of the book.
posted by mrbill at 3:41 AM on August 5, 2012


There used to be one TED conference a year. There are now three, plus TEDx events -- there were 87 of these last month alone, and there are 9 different classes of TEDx events. When TED began posting videos online, they had a 16 year backlog of conferences, that have now been mined for everything worth posting, and are being remined, like garbage dump scavengers in a developing country. And those old presentations weren't made with the self-awareness that they could become web video sensations and that you could sell books with a good talk. Popular TED speakers would present their life's work in one presentation, and they've now been asked back again, two years later; the same sophomore curse as in the music business. And if your second album is shitty enough, it tarnishes the first; just ask the Spin Doctors. Or view the Improv Everywhere TED talk. Or read Superfreakonomics.

Once the serpent devours its own tail, it must digest it, until eventually you have an ouroboros that is made entirely of a single turd, forever eating itself and shitting itself out.

And if you want, I can make a 18 minute presentation on that theme.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:49 AM on August 5, 2012 [34 favorites]


migurski: Shake -- Fold
posted by nostrada at 3:52 AM on August 5, 2012


>Turning technology into entertainment is a way of othering it, putting it up on a stage/pedestal to be marveled at rather than participated in or built upon. TED’s very structure makes most ideas into a spectator sport.

When you turn something into a stage, it becomes occupied by actors. To overextend the metaphor, that's why there's so much masquerading going on with TED.

It would be fairly difficult to peer-review ideas for their quality, but there needs to be some objective person(s) or mechanism to say "that's stupid" or "that's baseless" when there isn't sufficient data, theory, logic, reason, or direction. The increasingly Netwürkt nature of TED means the success of an idea depends on more than its quality, kind of like Kickstarter.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 4:15 AM on August 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: It helps to travel and be imaginative, but it is even more useful to observe children.

Though obviously, if you're a bloke and their mothers catch you, be prepared to spend a large chunk of your life in prison, eating food that smells of pee.
posted by Grangousier at 4:53 AM on August 5, 2012


MetaFilter: an ouroboros that is made entirely of a single turd, forever eating itself and shitting itself out.
posted by acb at 5:25 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Turning technology into entertainment is a way of othering it, putting it up on a stage/pedestal to be marveled at rather than participated in or built upon.

This just seems false. Ask the millions of scientists and engineers whose lives were altered by science fiction.
posted by O Blitiri at 6:13 AM on August 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


TED:Science and the actual future::Kirk/Spock slash fiction:Star Trek
posted by mariokrat at 6:14 AM on August 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm glad to see the Tofflers get their well-deserved snark after all these years.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:29 AM on August 5, 2012


I greatly enjoyed this merciless beat-down of the rigorless buzzword marketplace that TED has become, but especially because some of my further reading caused me to see this sentence in Ray Kurzeil's Wikipedia entry: "At the same time, he has attracted significant criticism from scientists and thinkers."

I think this gets to the heart of the problem: the technobabble industry provides stuff that it's easy to get people nodding to, but a moment's actual thought is sufficient to dismiss it as meaningless piffle.
posted by nowonmai at 7:07 AM on August 5, 2012


Wow, that's quite the takedown. I actually enjoyed (parts) of Khanna's book from a few years ago called The Second World, but they were the parts the focused on his travels and not on geopolitical buzzwords. This evisceration seems pretty thorough, I wonder how (if?) he will respond.
posted by cell divide at 8:00 AM on August 5, 2012


Friends of mine often send me links to TED talks in my field and then wait for me to email back saying "WOW!" or "AMAZING!". I never do that, because either I know the speaker to be a pompous self-promoter, or else it's someone I've never heard of. I'm happy to see people excited about science, and in theory I support TED, but I wonder if real experts also have my response to TED talks in their field. And if we nominated people in our field who were genuine visionaries, would our conference be an absolute snore-fest?
posted by acrasis at 8:37 AM on August 5, 2012


When discussing TED, it's helpful to know that in 2001 the conference was sold. I mostly know TED from the Richard Saul Wurman era, when it was a relatively modest and unabashedly kooky way for a bunch of smart people to spend a few days together mixing up art, science, and speculation. It was very private, being invited was an honor.

When Chris Anderson took over he made the decision to make TED much bigger, public, a franchise. There's good and bad to that. My impression is that the content of TED is no kookier now than it used to be, but there's a lot more promotion and (of course) visibility. It's naturally emphasized performance over time, not entirely a bad thing, but only if the content doesn't suffer. I like that it gets people excited about technology (and entertainment and design).

TEDx is a whole different thing I frankly don't understand.
posted by Nelson at 8:44 AM on August 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's a pretentious wankfest, sure, but my biggest beef with the TED talks thing is the way it's handled on Netflix. For one thing, it's filed under 'TV series' (which it isn't, right?); worst of all, though, each talk is filed as its own series, so that no matter how many times I click "not interested," still a good 25% of the stuff Netflix pushes at me are these goddamned TED talks.

If not for that, I'd just ignore the whole thing and forget about it. But I can't. Gah.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:37 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought the Prometheus TED campaign was TED loudly and proudly inadvertently proclaiming its looming irrelevance
posted by Bwithh at 9:40 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


This just seems false. Ask the millions of scientists and engineers whose lives were altered by science fiction.

To be more specific, TED talks aren’t just about technology in the way of science fiction books, they’re about technology in the way of Ron Popiel segments on home shopping network. My expectation of TED talks these days is most of book tie-ins and thinly veiled fundraising pitches, not interesting news from the frontiers of research.
posted by migurski at 10:11 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics" - I can read Morozov all day long.
posted by doctornemo at 10:55 AM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's healthy to see rear guard professions like journalists and academics railing against something like TED. These guys have grown soft and rotten and all too comfortable for years and years and now, at the very last, they are showing minor signs of life, very dim glimmers of critical awareness. Of course it's only to rail against how "fact free" and "shallow" these new modes of knowledge creation are and how the new knowledge creators aren't real journalists or real scientists -- but still, one gets the sense that these conservatives will at least have the dignity to go down fighting.

As for TED it's really a transitional mechanism. I've watched a few of the videos and found them a bit too much like commercials and I'm certainly not going to sit around and watch an 18 minute commercial. But someday soon I suspect we'll see something a lot less commerce-oriented; this could be another space for Wikipedia to step in and disrupt or, who knows, something very new will come along. There's a clear, strong demand for novel ideas and deeper insight into the world presented visually and this certainly isn't going to come from rear guard whiners like Morozov who just want to play at being serious.
posted by nixerman at 12:29 PM on August 5, 2012


What's needed is some kind of "filter".
posted by telstar at 3:01 PM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's a "sizzling Stakhanovite"?
posted by Nomyte at 3:41 PM on August 5, 2012


Or view the Improv Everywhere TED talk.

I love that video, and it's one i go back to when I need a smile. Rainbows! Everywhere! It's like the "every TED talk this year in one" talk; people having a lot of fun in public.

I'm a social scientist, though, so even the nature of the people doing the talks becomes interesting to me (like that talk a couple did where the father couldn't identify his own child in a picture).
posted by Deoridhe at 3:41 PM on August 5, 2012


but what's his solution? Don't do that? Don't encourage the Prius Hippies? Read moar harder science books?


Well, my solution is more, harder science books. I don't get why we're trying to turn everything into entertainment.
posted by samofidelis at 5:13 PM on August 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"international meme laundering" is also felicitous
posted by thelonius at 5:50 PM on August 5, 2012


I don't get why we're trying to turn everything into entertainment.
because things are unpleasant and when things are unpleasant people prefer to be entertained
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:09 PM on August 5, 2012


And things thus become more unpleasant. I could post a spreadsheet with my weight vs my four-mile time, with indexed photographs of me looking ever puffier, but I won't.
posted by samofidelis at 7:17 PM on August 5, 2012


no one ever said that all problems had solutions
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:23 PM on August 5, 2012


What's a "sizzling Stakhanovite"?

Twenty bucks, same as in town.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:12 PM on August 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


That Reggie Watts talk was pitch-perfect. Complete bullshit, but wrapped up in a way that makes you think "hmm. this guy is saying something that sounds like I should be getting it, but I missed the point by this much. He must be really smart."
posted by nushustu at 12:03 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's a "sizzling Stakhanovite"?

A delicious hot sandwich made of sausage and potatoes, marinated in vodka, then lit on fire.

But seriously.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:12 PM on August 6, 2012


WIRED: Oracles, Big Answers, & Pop Sci’s Neglect of Mystery
I’m not here to either pile onto or defend Jonah. But Coates here nails a huge problem in much writing about science that stands aside from any question of shortcuts or fabrication*: a pressure from writers, readers, editors, and the entire bookselling and meme-making and talk-fest machine to have the answers. And not just answers, but Big New Answers To Vexing Eternal Questions.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:40 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


> When I look at the 21st century, I reverse the numbers around and I see the 12th century.

This problem will solve itself next century.
posted by Sutekh at 4:09 PM on August 10, 2012


Metafilter’s got you covered there; I switched as a result of that thread.

My God! While standing! how in the
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:31 PM on August 10, 2012


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