What was the TED Talk?


Some Thoughts on the “Inspiresting”

A thoughtful history of the rise and fall of the TED talk phenomenon, and why, by Melbourne-based writer and journalist Oscar Schwartz, himself a TED veteran.

It is common knowledge that, beginning in the early 2000’s, TED talks began to take on a particular rhetorical style codified by its entrepreneur owner Chris Anderson.  In his book,

‘…Anderson insists anyone is capable of giving a TED-esque talk. You just need an interesting topic and then you need to attach that topic to an inspirational story. Robots are interesting. Using them to eat trash in Nairobi is inspiring. Put the two together, and you have a TED talk. ‘

Schwartz calls this fusion the “inspiresting,” finding it

‘earnest and contrived. It is smart but not quite intellectual, personal but not sincere, jokey but not funny. It is an aesthetic of populist elitism. Politically, the inspiresting performs a certain kind of progressivism, as it is concerned with making the world a better place, however vaguely.’

The problem is that, in Anderson’s view, all of this can be achieved without any serious transfers of power.  Politics is dismissed as toxic “tribal thinking” destroying the world changing potential of the free movement of ideas.  And TED was not the sole purveyor of the Inspiresting.  As Swartz cited:

Malcolm Gladwell was inspiresting. The blog Brain Pickings was inspiresting. Burning Man was (once) inspiresting. Alain de Botton, Oliver Sacks, and Bill Bryson were masters of the inspiresting. “This American Life” and “Radiolab,” and maybe narrative podcasting as a form, are inspiresting.’

Suddenly, circa 2010, everyone was sharing TED talks and TED (a not-for-profit) revenues  were exploding.  Fortune and fame were made from TED talks and the book contracts and speaking engagements they precipitated.  But, soon enough, quality control was compromised, not the least through the 2009 creation of the TEDx franchise allowing licensees to use the brand platform to stage independent events around the world. But it became increasingly clear that the ’emperor had no clothes.’ “Inspiresting” reasoning and rhetoric began to be pilloried by science bloggers and social critics. Evgeny Morozov wrote in The New Republic, “TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas worth spreading. Instead it has become something ludicrous.” A long profile of Anderson in The New York Times Magazine called TED “the Starbucks of intellectual conglomerates.” 

By 2013, Benjamin Bratton, a scientist giving a pitch for research funding before a donor, described — in a TED talk! —  being dismissed because his complex presentation (not in the TED-publicized rhetorical style) was criticized by the recipient as “uninspiring”, “not enough like Malcolm Gladwell”. Bratton described TED’s influence on intellectual culture as “taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing.”  He opined, “this is not the solution to our most frightening problems.  Rather this is one of our most frightening problems.”

TED became, some would say, little more than an ironic meme. For instance, you might post something banal in email, social media or your blog and close by saying, “Thank you for listening to my TED talk.”

The backlash against TED broadened to embrace the increasingly evident fact that the technocratic elite was just not playing a part in solving the world’s big problems.  Twitter had failed to bring democracy to the Middle East.  Social media were only free because our personal data was being mined and sold to advertisers.  Obama was not the political savior many had hoped him to be, especially around the banking crisis.  Upward mobility, social equality, and the utopian promises of technology were empty. TED talks continued, endlessly re-articulating Tech’s promise without any serious reflection, as if they could create the world out of nothing, with willpower and well-crafted oratory alone.  Boldness of vision was not tempered by much if any recognition of realities, particularly political realities, and the TED philosophy became little more than a magnet for overblown ambition and narcissism.

And in the meantime Trump became the US president. 

‘Yet the TED progeny continued to offer bold, tech-centric predictions with unfaltering confidence.  And they have continued to do so.…

[A]s the most visible and influential public speaking platform of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, it has been deeply implicated in broadcasting and championing the Silicon Valley version of the future. TED is probably best understood as the propaganda arm of an ascendant technocracy.’

— via The Drift

One thought on “What was the TED Talk?

  1. Interesting; I’d missed that TED was passé, not so much because of my location in Silly Valley but because I don’t follow what now goes by “social media”, or the chatterati in general :-) I am deeply suspicious of any view that assumes there is nothing outside politics, or that nothing gets done without some political change, and dismissiveness of Obama for not working miracles (and of megachurches because, eww, those people) are themselves forms of snobbery. Your summary appears to suffer from having been dictated and imperfectly transcribed: “socially quality” should obviously be “social equality”, but I clicked the link primarily to find out what the situation was with the researcher Bratton; as I suspected, you’re missing a comma after “before a donor”. Poor guy. But pitching to rich patrons is an inherently risky enterprise, “cringe” from the get-go as I understand is the current slang term. It’s always been a matter of showmanship (and the “man” is in that word advisedly; one of Holmes’ crimes is she made it even harder for women to get funding from venture capitalists after her), it’s a horrible way to fund science, charity, art, or even entrepreneurship, and about the only mitigating factor I can suggest is that a research scientist, like any researcher, could use the clarifying of thought as well as the training in holding non-specialists’ interest that comes from having had to teach college courses. Being a good lecturer is a skill with many applications.

    But there was and is a good idea here. Many people absorb new ideas more readily aurally, podcasts have demonstrated again, as public lectures did 100 years ago and as public radio and TV continue to demonstrate, that there’s a large general audience interested in ideas (it’s snobbery to dismiss that, or even to assume that everyone in the US who would have liked to pursue further education has been able to do so), and the formula of a brief, inspiring talk is a way to further interest and in some cases (including Theranos) to get an idea followed up and funded. What’s the alternative? Official funding committees that are hard to reach and not always good at spotting the good ideas (and are deeply political in their assumptions)? Just one-on-one pitching to poorly informed and self-absorbed rich people, like Bratton did? Leaving it all up to planners? Waiting for the imagined political utopia? The article strikes me as in the main another example of a writer demonstrating their political and intellectual superiority by being cynical. But then I am not the intended audience. We have technology (and a hive of clever, well educated people here in Silly Valley, as well as in other places including Austin, Greater Seattle, Boston, NYC …); let’s use them. And let’s please continue providing some entertainment and food for thought for the “common people” who aren’t necessarily politically engaged or Harvard or Berkeley grads beyond Hollywood pap and Facebook-curated news feeds.


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