The Sound of TED: A Case for Distaste
May 19, 2015 6:26 PM   Subscribe

The American Reader makes a critique of TED talks and then uses it to bootstrap a critique of cultural criticism itself.
A decent strategy with TED might be to reclaim our teenage capacities and treat these videos as hopelessly passé—ignore them to death. Critiquing them, even as I have done, will do what criticism has done for television: creating an added enjoyment as you go on consuming the crap you despise. I know what I am watching is disgraceful, but aren’t I great at seeing why it’s disgraceful? I only watch it to keep up-to-date with the unwashed masses.
Previously, previously, previously
posted by maskd (66 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
A good way to detox from TED talks is with Onion Talks, which pretty much took the form for all it's worth. That said, not all TED talks are bad. The form is perfectly suited to some messages.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:42 PM on May 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Pants!
posted by en forme de poire at 6:45 PM on May 19, 2015


(Sorry, I just thought there was something kind of sublime about how he threw that into this sentence: "The point is that the average adult avoids the horror of disgust, which means consciously sticking to what’s most bland and middle-of-the-road: HBO, pants, college, Obama, and, for a few years now, TED.")
posted by en forme de poire at 6:46 PM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Can't help but think of the ultimate TED take-down previously. It's long winded and a little alienating...but there are some gems in there that just nail TED to the wall.
posted by jnnla at 7:03 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


A decent strategy with TED might be to reclaim our teenage capacities and treat these videos as hopelessly passé—ignore them to death.
Am I ahead of the trend if I say that I've never even seen a TED talk? And furthermore, that whenever I have seen or heard the phrase "TED talk" I've thought first of Ted Baxter.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:04 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Popular science will always suck, because never the twain shall meet. It's like mixing water with oil. I'm not saying that one is better than the other. I'm saying that they are two different things.
posted by rankfreudlite at 7:06 PM on May 19, 2015


OTOH, Mr. Bleeding Edge, let's see just how far you get without pants.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:08 PM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Wait why do we hate TED? It is just because it's been popular for a long time?


Popular science will always suck, because never the twain shall meet. It's like mixing water with oil.

It can be done well. It just can't be lazy and done well at the same time.
posted by clarknova at 7:09 PM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Enjoyed the critique, not optimistic about the "let's just ignore it" strategy presented at the end.
posted by uosuaq at 7:13 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Enjoyed the critique, not optimistic about the "let's just ignore it" strategy presented at the end.

Not so hopeful about the utility of cultural criticism that employs the phrase "unwashed masses", either.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:18 PM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Wait why do we hate TED? It is just because it's been popular for a long time?

It has an unfortunate tendency to serve as the unofficial Ministry of Propaganda for a technocratic, neoliberal, market-based, explicitly anti-state, anti-political, only-superficially-populist worldview and the gazillionaires who profit from it.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 7:29 PM on May 19, 2015 [90 favorites]


Wait why do we hate TED? It is just because it's been popular for a long time?

Maybe because, per the article, it's "middlebrow megachurch infotainment. The speakers simplify complex problems and present them as manageable and on-the-mend. All that’s needed, they often propose, is to throw some innovation at the problem.".
posted by kenko at 7:40 PM on May 19, 2015 [16 favorites]


TED’s is the language and tone of the pitch. It’s a style that comes from corporate conference rooms, where product ideas are pitched to potential investors.

...the speakers are rarely addressing their larger audience: their real, intended audience is either wealthy patrons or future clients.


I always disliked TED talks even though I'm interested in science and technology. I couldn't put my finger on why until now.
posted by scose at 7:44 PM on May 19, 2015 [21 favorites]


This is it for me:

"This type of speech was always so humiliating that it was rarely televised: we never saw politicians speaking to funders on TV, not because elected officials could not admit to the act, but because their tone of voice would shame them. TED represents the disappearance of the last vestiges of any sense of shame that once accompanied self-commodification."

Preach on, fucker.

Self-commodification is a shameful thing. Stop pretending it's glorious or noble. Dipshits.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:47 PM on May 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


Well, I think that, with so many previosly's, we haven't resolved this issue. You people are smart ; give me something.
posted by rankfreudlite at 7:52 PM on May 19, 2015


Maybe because, per the article, it's "middlebrow megachurch infotainment. The speakers simplify complex problems and present them as manageable and on-the-mend. All that’s needed, they often propose, is to throw some innovation at the problem.".

That's a charicature, and only applies to a fraction of the TED talks. Many are presentation of research findings by engineers. Microsoft surface's prototype was presented on TED and it was the first place the general public saw multitouch interfaces. Likewise the Photosynth was the first time most people saw 3D modeling from images. Femtophotography also debuted at TED.

Sure, the TED talk is a recognizable style that's easy to characterize and lampoon, but in this article there's nothing really substantive. He is literally unhappy with the style over the substance. He is displeased that there is a style at all.

From scientific conferences to Tupperware parties, every venue of public speech has a format that typifies it. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. The existence of formats isn't a worthwhile criticism.
posted by clarknova at 7:56 PM on May 19, 2015 [20 favorites]


This was good, thanks for linking to it.

Also, I hadn't seen the Sarah Silverman TED talk and it's pretty great.

Also, "it’s never clear if at any point one can allow oneself to have a visceral reaction against a genre, an industry, or a situation without feeling either childish or curmudgeonly" is a good question to think about.
posted by latkes at 8:01 PM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


But the problem the author has isn't what technology gets debuted at TED. He's asking the question why these TED video products exist, and also the implications of how they convey their implicit arguments.
posted by polymodus at 8:04 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I like that this was published in a magazine that graces the well appointed powder rooms of serious minded intellectuals. I can envision them now enjoying the latest issue, with their white linen pants removed and folded neatly aside, toilet paper carefully laid down to shield skin from throne, savouring the crisp turn of each new page and meditatively hmm-ing in agreement with how information presented in a certain tone is just so off putting.
posted by Poldo at 8:07 PM on May 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah, all of that writing and analysis to say that one should use their gut. Given how unanalyzed human bias works in other spheres, I would say that, yes, trusting your visceral reaction as if it were truth is childish or curmudgeonly.. or worse.
posted by smidgen at 8:08 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


However, I thought the author was spot on about the TED talk as pitch, which has lingered in my sub-concious for a while now before reading him nail that characterization.
posted by smidgen at 8:14 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


A decent strategy with TED might be to reclaim our teenage capacities and treat these videos as hopelessly passé—ignore them to death.

I thought this has already happened. At least in my corner of the world TED talks were insanely popular for a brief period. And like the article said, after awhile they all started to sound the same. They were everywhere, local TED Talks were must-do events, and then it all suddenly faded away.

I didn't realize they were still popular in other locations.
posted by kanewai at 8:21 PM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Peter Singer's TED talk is excellent. I recommend it.
posted by Gin and Comics at 8:25 PM on May 19, 2015


Inspired by this post from a few minutes ago, I would give almost anything to see Bryan Cranston give a TED Talk as Walter White, written by Vince Gilligan.

And then another one by Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:53 PM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


My new theory is that TED talks are the secular equivalent of Joel Osteen's sermons.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:53 PM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


I don't generally watch the videos online, but there's a TED Radio Hour on NPR, which mixes TED Talk audio with additional interview material with the presenter. It's good and all -- I listen to it a lot -- but it does have that TED sheen to it.

I think in the last thread on this, I referred to TED as "annoyingly middlebrow" (probably because I'd already read the line about "middlebrow megachurch entertainment" at some point). And later apologized, because there are people here who've made TED talks and there's definitely a lot of good TED "content" out there. But the article here seems a little more on the money, so to speak -- a big part of what some of us find unsettling about TED in general is that it's the sound of venture capital taking over the dissemination of knowledge.
posted by uosuaq at 8:55 PM on May 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


My favorite TED talk is all of Jake Gyllenhaal's lines in Nightcrawler.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:04 PM on May 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


I have no strong feelings either way about TED, but I love that pull-quote:
Critiquing them, even as I have done, will do what criticism has done for television: creating an added enjoyment as you go on consuming the crap you despise. I know what I am watching is disgraceful, but aren’t I great at seeing why it’s disgraceful?
This puts into words something I've been trying to put into action for a while. I feel so much better when I spend my energy on things I like, and allow the other things to pass by without the benefit of my approval or disapproval.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:11 PM on May 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


I've watched a handful of TED talks, and I found them to be about 40% pifflewaffle, 30% wet dog fur, and 20% Really Good Stuff.

That's still beating Sturgeon's Law, so I'm OK with TED.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:30 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


That adds up to less than 100%, I know, but you'll have to watch my upcoming TED talk to find out more about my Worldshattering New Way of Adding Things Up to Get 100%!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:32 PM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


"Wait why do we hate TED? "

For me, it's that it's bumper sticker philosophy. NOT ALL GOOD IDEAS FIT ON YOUR BUMPER. Not all important thoughts or important thinkers can or should be condensed into 20 minutes.

Some of them are fine. A few are great. Most make me want to slap America and take away their bumper stickers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:08 PM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Wait why do we hate TED?

Because TED talks are often just clickbait. Nearly every time I've been suckered into watching one, I ended up wasting 15 minutes of my life hearing an interesting question or idea followed by a series of bland, worthless or obvious statements.

I won't deny there are a few good ones out there, and I've even seen one or two of those, but the good ones I've seen would have been just fine as a Youtube video or news article or, hell, a Metafilter comment.
posted by eschatfische at 10:32 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thanks to two links down I just watched Examined Life which is like, an anti-TED talk. I recommend it as a tool for asking a bunch of genuinely important questions instead of hearing a bunch of answers to undefined questions that seem to mostly be about sales.
posted by latkes at 10:53 PM on May 19, 2015


Wait why do we hate TED?

Because they always remind me of the desperate ways in which all those boring old IT conslutant companies try to sell themselves as young and hip and cool by sprinkling this year's load of buzzwords around and getting their employees to Think Seriously about devops or continuous integration, but only in the evening, on their own dime and not on company time of course.

It's also such a boring IT nerd view of the world: "TED debuted Microsoft's Surface technology". Whoop de fucking doo.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:00 PM on May 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Critiquing them, even as I have done, will do what criticism has done for television: creating an added enjoyment as you go on consuming the crap you despise. I know what I am watching is disgraceful, but aren’t I great at seeing why it’s disgraceful?

This sounds like a dispatch from a sad world that I don't really want any part of. I enjoy all manner of "middlebrow" things and I feel no shame and the idea that I should is kind of bewildering.
posted by the jam at 11:36 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


TED is just capitalism celebrating itself, and watching that requires a strong stomach indeed.
posted by colie at 11:55 PM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think I'd be much more tolerant of TED talks if the majority of speakers didn't remind me of Public Speaking 101. I'm not even kidding - the next time I see someone walking across the stage as they transition to a new Main Point, I'm going to scream. That they're talking about "disrupting paradigms" only makes things worse.
posted by teponaztli at 12:27 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]




NOT ALL GOOD IDEAS FIT ON YOUR BUMPER

...is actually a great bumper sticker!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:53 AM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


TED Talks remind me of those 'Some-e-Cards' : some of them were clever/interesting at first, but then they started letting just anyone make them, and the format got cheapened to the point that any time I see one posted I just roll my eyes.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 3:57 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


TED talks are the same as that guy who asks you to come and work for his startup, that he has a "killer" idea that "just needs implementation." Ah, yes, the most trivial part of any software project
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:00 AM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


I have always thought of the TED talk format as being a yardstick derived from academic and technical conferences. I am not thinking so much of the keynote speakers - who might have an hour to play with and whose talks would often be polished - as those on the next wrung down. In theory such presentations should be great: the speaker is talking about a topic they know and which they are passionate about, the audience are smart and the stakes are high in terms of professional standing and financing. Yet often this is not the case: these talks are the realm of the unintelligible chart, the redundantly read out list of bullet points, the truth hidden by jargon and the muddied or buried conclusion.

Against this backdrop TED's invitation to "make the talk of your life" (and their working in the background to help make this so) has been a genuine force for good. The format is indeed suited best for helping mainstream presenters with mainstream audiences on the non-exhaustive list of topics which can be suitably covered within the time-slot. That is fine as long as those limits are foreseen.
posted by rongorongo at 4:10 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


The thing about TED talks is, you end up covered in shit, and the pig likes it.
posted by gauche at 4:42 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I never cared much about TED/TEDx for a reason: the people I knew that were most enthusiastic about them were also the "I have an idea you really need to work hard on, and once completed I will be a millionaire and you'll have a lot of people wanting to hire because you basked under all my Jobsian glory, which is payment enough for now btw" pseudo-entrepreneur, neo-lib/libertarian types. And the Talks they were most interested in were always with some dude that seemed more interested in selling/promoting his own brand while dropping #buzzwords like some sort of WWII bomber. So, not unlike a megachurch pastor.

(also, hi! long time lurker, noticed my bank account wasn't empty for once and decided to join)
posted by lmfsilva at 5:12 AM on May 20, 2015 [8 favorites]


I like how this seems to fit MF like a glove. Much of the critique bandied about seems to have a more hipsters-have-moved-on-to-the-next-new-thing aspect, or TED is annoying because capitalism! As for the article, maybe this guy should do a TED presentation?

I think info-hogs like us will tend to grow weary of the TED style, even if TED content is very well suited toward us: the quick 101-level overview of fields where we usually lack knowledge or perspective.

I do agree that TED has a recognizable style that suffers from its uniformity and delivery. That's a style issue that is a reflection on me as much as TED. I've had more substantive criticism with TED, particularly the TEDx talks down the food chain that appear to have been vetted with less rigor, occasionally embarrassingly so.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:20 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


I haven't really dived deep into the TED talks database, but I'd recommend skimming the top 20 list. Just a couple of those are linked to some kind of product or service someone sells, and most of them are probably worth your while. I remember brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor's experience of her own massive stroke to be very interesting, and oceanographer David Gallo's videos to be lovely. Then you can decide on whether you'd like to keep watching and of course inevitably encounter those less-than-awesome videos on your hunt for the real gems.
posted by Harald74 at 5:25 AM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


(And hello lmfsilva, glad to have you!)
posted by Harald74 at 5:25 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]



TED Talks remind me of those 'Some-e-Cards' : some of them were clever/interesting at first, but then they started letting just anyone make them, and the format got cheapened to the point that any time I see one posted I just roll my eyes.


Yeah, I feel like TED Talks used to be...better? More sincere, less eye-rolley?

This discussion is making me think about the recent popularity of the regular-people-telling-stories genre, which I actually really like. But I feel like sometime soon the live-storytelling format is going to get co-opted and overdone and will make us roll our eyes too, and I don't want that to happen. Like, I just read an article about "Backyard Story Night" - an event that some people in Austin started just because they like live storytelling, and it quickly blew up and became a hot trend and now they're so popular they don't have enough space for all the people who want to come.
posted by aka burlap at 7:15 AM on May 20, 2015


Also, yeah, hi & welcome to lmfsilva!
posted by aka burlap at 7:16 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wait why do we hate TED? It is just because it's been popular for a long time?

Yes. We're trying to be cool by being anti-nerd. Also, there's envious why-aren't-WE-up-there?
posted by alasdair at 8:19 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Much of the critique bandied about seems to have a more hipsters-have-moved-on-to-the-next-new-thing aspect, or TED is annoying because capitalism!

I'm warning you lot. I know someone wants to stand up there and deliver a "Why Do Hipsters Hate TED Talks?"-TED talk and I'm telling you now: the effects of that much recursive eye-rolling have never been measured.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:45 AM on May 20, 2015


the fake applause at the beginning of every video...
posted by judson at 8:52 AM on May 20, 2015


Looks like the point of the criticism is more that the TED-talks style of pitching/presenting/shilling has now been co-opted by pretty much anybody who has access to YouTube and has been replicated and beaten into the ground so much that everyone's moved on. But "the act of supporting these products" doesn't "support their existence," except at first. The repeated act of consuming them drives them into inevitable irrelevance, just as with any other briefly trendy product.
posted by blucevalo at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2015


TED is great. Yeah, I mean if you already know what the speaker is talking about then it's not gonna be your thing. But I use a TED talk at least once a week to help teach ESL classes for adults. It has great subtitles in English and almost every other language, the topics are interesting, and even if the speaker is a dolt it does get my students to talk by disagreeing with them.

My favorite one is to show them mayor of Rio's TED where he speaks forever about how he is ending poverty, violence, favelas, and basically bringing fairies and butterflies to Rio de Janeiro through the magic of technology. The class is basically: watch video, everyone dies laughing at how stupid he is, then they talk about why. It's perfect for me.
posted by Glibpaxman at 9:31 AM on May 20, 2015 [14 favorites]


My favorite one is to show them mayor of Rio's TED where he speaks forever about how he is ending poverty, violence, favelas, and basically bringing fairies and butterflies to Rio de Janeiro through the magic of technology. The class is basically: watch video, everyone dies laughing at how stupid he is, then they talk about why. It's perfect for me.

That sounds awesome (except for the part where everyone dies, but hey, you can't have everything).
posted by rankfreudlite at 10:13 AM on May 20, 2015


I have read everything here, and I still don't get why we hate TED all of the sudden. It presents interesting information about the world in a very digestible form. It seems like TED is about trying to do good things and make a positive change in the world.

So what if they are an ad/pitch for money? How else are people going to get money? Kickstarter? As far a sales pitch goes, they seem to be about the opposite of demeaning. Now, maybe some of those changes will only happen because they will benefit a certain section of the population monetarily, but it is still a rich resource of interesting ideas and hopeful thinking. Capitalism is going to happen; let's try and get some positive change out of it.

Yes, the world's problems are more complicated than a 15 minute TED talk can explain, but that doesn't mean you are totally helpless to change anything. These talks might even grab some kid's attention and get them into a field of study that they wouldn't have considered before.

Positive reasons abound! #HatersGonnaHate
posted by prozak at 11:25 AM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


The form is perfectly suited to some messages.

And the Onion has that message covered as well.
posted by flabdablet at 11:30 AM on May 20, 2015


It seems like TED is about trying to do good things and make a positive change in the world.

I think that's kind of a problem for a lot of people, the worry that trying to do good things and be positive often really means selling feel-good bullshit like this:

My favorite one is to show them mayor of Rio's TED where he speaks forever about how he is ending poverty, violence, favelas, and basically bringing fairies and butterflies to Rio de Janeiro through the magic of technology. The class is basically: watch video, everyone dies laughing at how stupid he is, then they talk about why. It's perfect for me.

except to people who don't have the context to see through it. And that the people who actually run and attend TED events are mostly members of an insular corporate elite predisposed to favor that kind of quick fix thinking. Plus there's always a concern that most people just don't have the time, let alone the knowledge, to parse out misinformation from convincingly elegant presentation, but that's an issue much bigger and older than TED.

The assertion that to pitch one's ideas is disgraceful seems a little... ivory tower. But there's also a real question whether one should expect to have to fund one's sophisticated scientific research project via a pitch to an audience of wealthy people and the infotainment-seeking general public.
posted by atoxyl at 2:59 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have read everything here, and I still don't get why we hate TED all of the sudden

For my part, it's more indifference and mild irritation. I don't think it's all of a sudden, though. There are a lot of things in this world that I find irritating, but I don't say much because everyone else seems to love them. And when I discover that there are actually quite a few people who think the same, there's a certain bonding moment. [i]TED irritates you? OMG me too! I thought I was the only one![/i] It only looks all of a sudden, or like a hipster pile-on.

I listened to them regularly for a while, and friends and I would share recommendations. It all felt glossy and light weight, like the keynote speakers you get at corporate events, or maybe at an Oprah rally pre-party, but they were also really interesting.

And then, as noted above, it transitioned to everyone has a story. It felt like they stopped curating the talks, and that as long as you spoke in a certain style you could have a TED talk and share your story - which was often about nothing. Or not even deep, although they are always related in a way that makes it seem like there's a life lesson buried in there somewhere. And it seemed like there were dozens of new talks a day. As the ration of trite talks to interesting talks grew, my interest plummeted.

Like anything, we tend to be more harsh with things we once liked that have gone sour than things we never liked at all.
posted by kanewai at 3:32 PM on May 20, 2015


Here's the reason I hate TED talks as someone who's been in Toastmasters for years to get better at public speaking: I blame it for why everyone in my club(s) over the last few years seems to have developed an allergy to speaking from the club lectern. People come out for their speech, assertively move the lectern out of the way so YOU KNOW it's about to be a BIG TOPIC, and then proceed to take up more room than is really necessary to get across their point.

I am legit thinking of preparing a speech defending the use of the lectern, and just showing a bunch of clips of famous people speaking from lecterns.
posted by mostly vowels at 3:58 PM on May 20, 2015


Well, for what it's worth, the biggest part of my day job is getting in front of audiences to deliver talks on various subjects, and I never ever use a lectern. I walk around, work up a bit of a sweat, engage with the audience. It's not from any actual training or TED-influence or anything, it's just the style I've developed over the years, and the one I find most effective.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:10 PM on May 20, 2015


This may be my favorite comment ever posted on MetaFilter:

mbrubeck: I feel so much better when I spend my energy on things I like, and allow the other things to pass by without the benefit of my approval or disapproval.
posted by zanni at 5:18 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


I like TED because most public speakers are freaking terrible (I go to conferences and die with boredom). I like the TED Radio Hour better because of the background information, though.

It's a magazine I can listen to in the car, which is about the only free time I have for magazines.
posted by Peach at 6:35 PM on May 20, 2015


all of the sudden
posted by unknowncommand at 7:22 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Marcel Marceau's was the best.
posted by Chitownfats at 9:21 AM on May 21, 2015


Sometimes TED and the talks get smug.
posted by theora55 at 7:33 AM on May 24, 2015


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