Take me to church, TED
March 15, 2015 6:05 PM   Subscribe

The Church of TED "I never imagined that the Baptists I knew in my youth would come to seem mellow, almost slackers by comparison. Of course they promoted Jesus as a once-and-done, plug-and-play solver of problems — another questionable approach."
posted by Divest_Abstraction (37 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have the same problem with TED that I have with the Moth - they've both built their brands on a tied-up-with-a-bow type of story telling that ends up leaving out too many details.
posted by durandal at 6:29 PM on March 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


A TED talk for people who are addicted to TED talks.
posted by Fizz at 6:30 PM on March 15, 2015


“If you’re going to be an atheist, you should be having a lot more fun.”

That just became the new thing I'm going to yell at the well-meaning-but-overly-earnest hectoring me about any number of things.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:44 PM on March 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


I've always felt that one of the benefits of being an atheist is having the ability to not get worked up about what anyone thinks about your lack of religious faith, and that includes other atheists.
posted by surazal at 7:01 PM on March 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


This seems a little thin for an FPP (I'm sure there are a lot of other articles about the TED phenomenon, both pro and con, that could have been linked), but I share the general uneasiness about the TEDification of complicated topics. (I've never felt that way about the Moth, so far...)
It's hard to know where to come down on TED, because as annoyingly middlebrow as it may be, it might be introducing people to new topics that some of them will be inspired to look into further. And on the other hand, TED talks certainly make it sound as though the pursuit of science, social activism, etc. etc. should be exciting adventures, all the time...which is the wrong message to send.
posted by uosuaq at 7:02 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Amen to TED being a church! We could chat about the talks TED tried to censor, uosuaq. (or the open ask on TED)
posted by jeffburdges at 7:04 PM on March 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


> But the truth is, now is a fun time to be a skeptic among true believers, since there are so many types of true believers to choose from.

That's not skepticism, it's cynicism.
posted by Poldo at 7:10 PM on March 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I envision a future where there is a TED auditorium set up in many cities, the brand so diluted that whomever signs up for a time slot that day is free to speak for 18 minutes on whatever and the audience wanders in and out to get away from the sun. I'm picturing crackpots screaming about their perpetual motion theories while in the dark Ernest Borgnine cackles from the middle row.
posted by sourwookie at 7:11 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


This kind of commentary about TED isn't new or particularly insightful. (Disclosure: several of my clients have given TED Talks.) There is a long history of inspirational intellectual entertainments in the U.S., perhaps most notably the Chautauqua movement, and continuing today with things like the Renaissance Weekend (the Clinton's were famous attenders), Aspen Institute, Intelligence Squared debates, and countless others. Since Chris Anderson bought TED from Richard Wurman he has expanded its reach considerably, both online and with the loosely-affiliated local TEDx events. Yes, there's signature "TED Style" that is easy to mock, and the most popular are those that leave the audience with a bit of inspiration and affirmation. But so what? Why is this a bad thing or something to be condescended to or mocked?
posted by twsf at 7:12 PM on March 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


I envision a future where there is a TED auditorium set up in many cities, the brand so diluted that whomever signs up for a time slot that day is free to speak for 18 minutes on whatever and the audience wanders in and out to get away from the sun

How great it is to live in the future
posted by rhizome at 7:24 PM on March 15, 2015


It's hard to know where to come down on TED, because as annoyingly middlebrow as it may be...

I really appreciate that comment, because it put into words why I both find the TED talks awful and at the same time feel guilty about my dislike. TED is incredibly middlebrow, and while that's honestly mostly a good thing (and certainly underlies why it is so popular), it is also what personally gives me the ughs.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:26 PM on March 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


And... what's wrong with middlebrow? Sincere question. Why do we (yes, we - I unhappily include myself) get "the ughs" at 'middlebrow' culture? Is it just snobbery?
posted by twsf at 7:53 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I envision a future where there is a TED auditorium set up in many cities, the brand so diluted that whomever signs up for a time slot that day is free to speak for 18 minutes on whatever and the audience wanders in and out to get away from the sun

We are not all that far from this, note any "TED" talk you may have seen that actually was branded "TEDx" instead...the "x" stands for "no real vetting of any kind, could be even more wack-a-doodle than you might expect."
posted by trackofalljades at 7:56 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Mostly snobbery perhaps. But also because it's manipulative. All the time it's stroking your brain and making you feel smart you know deep down that things are never that neat and simple.
posted by mono blanco at 7:59 PM on March 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


My very limited response to twsf's comments is that the TED phenomenon is now so widespread that it includes a weekly hour-long show on NPR, at least in my area, and so it's naturally going to attract more attention and concern. It also coincides with the era of "Disrupt everything! Uber ueber alles! Silicon Valley libertarian billionaires will solve everything!" in a way that makes me, at least, a bit uneasy; nor does comparing it to the Chautauqua movement give me much comfort.
Maybe "middlebrow" in the derogatory sense has to do with that "tied-up-with-a-bow" thing durandal mentioned. When I hear Leonard Bernstein explaining classical music in recordings from 40 years ago, I don't get that feeling of "and that's all you need to know about Beethoven! Now go to a cocktail party and hold forth!"
posted by uosuaq at 8:02 PM on March 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Why do we (yes, we - I unhappily include myself) get "the ughs" at 'middlebrow' culture? Is it just snobbery?

No, it's because continual exposure to the narratively-packaged, bite-sized version of interesting stuff, in lieu of helpful encouragement to do the actual hard work of grasping the real version of the interesting stuff, is genuinely depressing, the same way high school is depressing, and frustrating the same way the smell of samosas that you can not have, when you are hungry, is frustrating. "Middlebrow culture" is basically the engine that produces the uncanny-valley, prepackaged, depressing version of stuff and feeds it to people who, pretty much by virtue of being people, have the innate desire and the juice to go find the meaningful, instead of the manicured, version, instead.

Basically what mono blanco and uosuaq just said.
posted by busted_crayons at 8:04 PM on March 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


I envision a future where there is a TED auditorium set up in many cities, the brand so diluted that whomever signs up for a time slot that day is free to speak for 18 minutes on whatever and the audience wanders in and out to get away from the sun

We are not all that far from this, note any "TED" talk you may have seen that actually was branded "TEDx" instead...the "x" stands for "no real vetting of any kind, could be even more wack-a-doodle than you might expect"


I thought something like this was the case when I started seeing links like "Watch what this eight-year-old has to say about GMOs blow a TED audience away".
posted by sourwookie at 8:05 PM on March 15, 2015


And... what's wrong with middlebrow? Sincere question. Why do we (yes, we - I unhappily include myself) get "the ughs" at 'middlebrow' culture? Is it just snobbery?

I guess it depends on how you define middlebrow? If you're defining it as "designed to appeal to a very broad audience," I don't get the ughs at generally popular stuff. I like lots of that--I'm down for an Avengers movie marathon in a few weeks and I love terrible pulpy Mercedes Lackey novels and I like to marathon a dumb sitcom now and again. Being middlebrow in that sense isn't my problem with TED talks.

I really dislike TED talks because the more I know about the topic they're focusing on, the more errors I find. I rarely find them explaining complicated topics while giving viewers a feel for the nuances. And the poor performance I see on the scientific issues I do know a lot about makes me very mistrustful of them on the ones I don't know a lot about. TED talks (for me) remove a lot of the complexities that make subjects interesting in favor of manufactured awe, and it's not nearly as good as the real thing is. On top of that, I don't trust the "insights" that you leave with farther than I can throw them. I don't think TED talks are necessarily doing anything to improve public education or engagement with complex topics--in fact, I think they might be hurting public intellectual engagement by teaching people to expect to not have to deal with real complexity.
posted by sciatrix at 8:06 PM on March 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


THIS JUST IN, TEN MINUTE TALKS DON'T INCLUDE EVERY NUANCE.

/OldTimeyReporter

/ModernReporter
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:28 PM on March 15, 2015


THIS JUST IN, IT TURNS OUT IT IS POSSIBLE TO MENTION THE FACT THAT NUANCE EXISTS EVEN IN TEN MINUTES

CLICK THIS LINK TO FIND OUT HOW I SINGLE-HANDEDLY DISCOVERED THIS RARE AND POORLY UNDERSTOOD CONCEPT

/TEDx"Reporter"
posted by sciatrix at 8:31 PM on March 15, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't know about middlebrow, but I find a lot seem to combine contrarianism and oversimplification. I don't think it's an inevitable result of the short format either.
posted by me & my monkey at 8:49 PM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


We could chat about the talks TED tried to censor.

Yeah, followed that link. Weird thing is... All of those talks they 'tried to censor'... Were actually talks that were given. They all had the big TEDx logo behind them (in one case, maybe it was just TED, the dude was in front of the place the 'x' might have been).

So TED curates what it puts on its website, right? And they don't put all of the TED talk there, just some of them, right? And certainly not all the TEDx talks (that might make people realize that TEDx doesn't have anywhere near the standards a TED talk would).

I'm more than happy to be liberal in my definition of censorship. I'll extend it to many corporate contexts (eg: many high school history textbook publishers censor history because some states are offended at historically accurate depictions of the US and they don't want to publish a ton of versions of their textbooks). But TED deciding not to publish all of the TEDx talks on its website isn't even *close* to censorship.

Corporation threatens to sue a conference to oblivion because the speakers say truthful things about it's product - THAT'S corporate censorship (and happens all the time with security conferences).
posted by el io at 9:05 PM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'll say this. I gave a TEDx talk. I was skeptical about the short, "Up With People"-oriented format. But you know what? I discovered that it was really good for me to work in a form I was unfamiliar with and even to some extent uncomfortable with. I ended up really liking the talk I gave. No, it wasn't as nuanced or contentful as what I'd do given an hour and a blackboard. But I truly felt it was not bullshitty.
posted by escabeche at 9:06 PM on March 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I spoke pretty generally about the TED phenomenon above, and escabeche's comment makes me realize that was unfair to a lot of people who have delivered excellent talks. I'm sorry if I made you feel like you needed to defend your contribution, escabeche.
posted by uosuaq at 9:17 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm more than happy to be liberal in my definition of censorship. I'll extend it to many corporate contexts (eg: many high school history textbook publishers censor history because some states are offended at historically accurate depictions of the US and they don't want to publish a ton of versions of their textbooks). But TED deciding not to publish all of the TEDx talks on its website isn't even *close* to censorship.

I'd recommend you read up on the background on what happened with the Hanauer speech. It's pretty clear that it was killed because it hit a little too close to home for the Silicon Valley elite, which Anderson belongs to.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:53 PM on March 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


NoxAeternum: I was familiar with the background (although I read your link, I think I may have read that specific article before).

I stand by my opinion; that case wasn't censorship - it was them deciding not to publish (as they only selectively publish TEDx talks). Publishing talks is pretty much an explicate endorsement of them. It would be different if they published all TEDx talks and then neglected to publish that one because it was 'too hot'. I also understand their motivation to stay apolitical as an organization.

When I think of a conference censoring a speech, this is what I think of.
posted by el io at 11:38 PM on March 15, 2015




I give these things for a living - I'm sure lots of people here do. I mean I don't brand them, and they usually don't have lights and stuff, and my university has the decency to give me a damn lectern to hide my trousers behind. I can drink diet Coke too.

Sometimes, if I'm giving lectures to first year undergraduates who know almost nothing about whatever it is, and are making choices about what and how to study, I'll give them a mostly-complete narrative with a neat wrap-up. Even then, I don't think I'm being fair to them not to point out the essential assumptions and implicit support for various starting positions that any body of work contains. By the time I'm talking to anyone further on, barely five minutes goes by without digressions to explain context, shortfalls in data, limits of knowledge, implications of this stuff not being right and so on. On things I know nothing about, TED talks can be just like Wikipedia articles - good starting points for further skeptical reading. But the idea that people may think that there's nothing beyond them - and the sales pitch is pretty much that they're the last word - is really troublesome. Understanding really doesn't come in bite size chunks.
posted by cromagnon at 1:06 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Repeating my previous comments on the topic of TED:

<cynical hat on>TED peddles easy solutions to difficult problems to a bunch of (on average) rich, white, men who can go home and pat themselves on the back afterwards for taking the time out of their busy lives to think about the little people.<cynical hat off>

Less cynically: I think TED talks can often fall into the classic fallacy of proposing technical solutions to social problems. People like the technical solutions because it means that they don't have to confront the difficult social issues underlying the problem in question. When the technical solution inevitably fails (as technical solutions to social problems usually do) everyone has moved on to the next thing & so the real problem never gets fixed. Then the whole cycle starts all over again when the next well meaning activist comes along to try and fix the problem with their new technical solution.
posted by pharm at 1:25 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


my problem with TED talks is that the most you can do in 20 minutes is give the audience a little summary of your field of research that gets them saying."wow! that's really interesting!" and I don't see that that is accomplishing much.

I dislike the Malcolm Gladwell school of breathless "isn't this cool" reporting. it's treating the audience as passive consumers of cool tidbits.
posted by jayder at 4:32 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


If the intention was to show how these persistent problems we need to solve are complicated, interconnected, and deeper than the facile notions we've held until now, then take me to church. Because it is about time we countered political reductionism.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:41 AM on March 16, 2015


the most you can do in 20 minutes is give the audience a little summary of your field of research that gets them saying."wow! that's really interesting!" and I don't see that that is accomplishing much.

If your field of research is something most people don't even know exists, I think it accomplishes a lot.
posted by escabeche at 6:27 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


TED is incredibly middlebrow ...
Middlebrow megachurch infotainment, even.
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:30 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


If your field of research is something most people don't even know exists, I think it accomplishes a lot.

Right, but it's the difference between saying these two things:

"Look, this stuff that we're all doing is really cool! Difficult, because you have to account for X and Y and Z is a bit of an unfortunate confound, but look at what we can accomplish! There's some discussion about A and B and their impact, and we're still trying to figure out what's going on with C--we know a few things, but not what it's actually for--but what we do know fits together so beautifully. Look at how all the subunits move together to accomplish the process!"

"Look at this awesome thing that I, an unquestionable authority, have discovered. It's new and exciting! Look how it fits together so neatly and perfectly! Really makes you think, huh. People have studied this thing before, but they didn't see this. This is how I realized it was happening, and you see it all fits together neatly. Look at how all the subunits move together to accomplish the process!"

Which of those is more engaging? For my money--and honestly, what is backed up in my teaching style and my observation of students paying attention to different teaching styles--acknowledging how science is messy and difficult and sometimes experts don't know things makes people perk up and feel more engaged. I watch my students perk up when I say "You know, I don't know about that subunit of this protein, but I can check and see if anyone does?" in class, or when I explain to them that the lectures my instructor of record writes are revised according to the new stuff other people have discovered in the past year.

On the other hand, I like messiness and incompleteness and people going "well, what about the other things?" It makes me feel like I'm getting a better view of the whole picture. Maybe my tastes are unusual. What do other people think?
posted by sciatrix at 8:54 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


On the one hand, TEDx was (lovingly) made fun of in a recent episode of the awesome High Maintenance, so it's jumped some form of shark, however small and juvenile that shark might be.

On the other hand, without TED I would've never heard of LIFTRs and thorium nuclear power, and since it factors into a number of my recent futurist utopian fantasies, without which I would be very depressed about the future, I should count it as therapeutic, so, Yay TEDs, I guess.
posted by eclectist at 9:09 AM on March 16, 2015


One person's middlebrow is another's entry into another new field of interest. I agree that a lot of the TED stuff is over-neatly wrapped up and tends to fetishize technology as the solution for everything. However, I consider myself a pretty smart generalist and listening to the TED stuff (or the NPR show which I like better actuall) really gets me excited about science and learning. I'm sure if I heard one about programming (one thing I know quite a bit about) I would think it was oversimplified, but that's sort of the point. They want to reach what they hope is a big group of people who like science and tech but don't really think about it that much in their daily lives or who don't have this stuff as part of their job.

I mean people even rag on "pop science" books like say Brian Greene, but even with those most of my smart friends get like halfway through and then never finish. There's just too much to know about and too little time. I see the TED talks as sort of like browsing the descriptions in the college course catalog when you are trying to choose a major. Or just keeping tabs on all the neat stuff that's on the horizon of science.
posted by freecellwizard at 1:33 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I work in a field of endeavor. Dr. X of my field gave a wildly popular TED talk. People are constantly emailing or Facebooking me a link to that talk and then waiting for me to respond. It's difficult. I'm glad people are enthusiastic about my field. Dr. X isn't an idiot and he didn't lie in his talk, but it would take me an hour to discuss what he said in a reasonable way, and the people waiting for my response wouldn't have that attention span and wouldn't understand my complete lack of enthusiasm. It's my job to pay attention to nuance and scale and feasibility so don't hold your breath for *my* TED talk..
posted by acrasis at 4:28 PM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


« Older Do You Want to Play Some Puzzles?   |   The Disturbing Puzzle Game That Nobody Can Solve Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments