The Cool Kids’ Table

Two things I enjoy about modern trans-oceanic air travel are the airline magazines and the multimedia entertainment system provided on many flights. These two pleasures intersected during my recent work trip to Germany. The October 2013 issue of Delta Airlines’ SKY magazine featured “The Big Idea Machine,” an article by senior writer Steve Marsh about his experience at a TED event in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, my seat-back media player offered a dozen TED talks. I had a passing familiarity with TED, but hadn’t thought about it much, other than a source of interesting lectures. Marsh’s article gave me some context and food for thought as I watched the videos.

TED_talkIf you’ve never heard of TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, it’s a system of conferences, among other things. Its mission statement reads, in part:

We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.

According to Wikipedia, TED has grown from a one-time conference in 1984 into a global juggernaut of live and recorded events, divided into 15-minute-or-so talks about all manner of “ideas worth spreading.” Its free internet library includes more than 1500 of these talks, logging over a billion views by the end of 2012.

Chautauqua posterWhat I realized, after a bit of reflection, is that TED is an Information Age version of the Chautauqua. It seems more than a little ironic that an enterprise devoted to the promulgation of innovative ideas should itself be a very old idea in modern clothing. From the Wikipedia entry:

Chautauqua (shə-TAW-kwə) was an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Named after Chautauqua Lake where the first was held, Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”

While TED does a commendable job of making its lectures and literature readily available to the public for free or cheap, there’s clearly a stratification among consumers. One difference between TED and the Chautauqua is that the elite get first dibs on TED’s “big ideas.” There are the folks who are wealthy, powerful, sophisticated, charismatic, or otherwise influential enough to qualify for first access and direct contact with the creators—and there’s everybody else. Only after the upper crust have their listen behind locked doors do the unwashed masses get a peep through the keyhole.

Marsh gained entry on a free press pass obtained via energetic string-pulling within his social and professional networks, but a ticket to a live TED conference costs upward of $6000, and there’s also a very selective application process to negotiate. Attendance is limited—depending on the venue, there might be between 900 and 1500 seats, total. TED also sells internet memberships that permit live viewing of TED events by individuals and organizations for $995 to $2500 or more, per year.

My favorite TED.
My favorite TED.

These barriers to access, and the delayed release of information to the general public, are significant. In the world of ideas and innovation, it’s the first to market who reap the greatest harvest of profit and plaudits.  And TED may be a nonprofit, but anyone who believes it’s a purely charitable enterprise can do the math. Even with a restricted guest list, after subtracting speaker fees, facility rental, and production costs, that’s still a bucketful of simoleons, and we haven’t even touched TEDLive memberships and the wider TED universe of locally-run “TEDx” events, publishing, and other revenue-generating activities. Networking powerful influencers also yields non-monetary value that may eclipse TED’s box-office income.

Yes, catering to the aristocracy pays the bills and makes the populist part of the initiative viable, but TED’s not shy about touting its exclusivity, and that whiff of elitism in the TED culture sours the whole enterprise, just a little. Marsh may have been blown away by the brainpower on parade at his TED conference, but he wasn’t so dazzled he missed the unspoken message. Some examples:

“…your head is swimming in information while you consider how all this 4-1-1 will be disseminated, in awe of the potential reach of the TEDGlobal hive. Attributing its success to a latter-day Ozymandias who kicks off every TED conference by blaring the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida (pretty much the ancient Egyptian army’s “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah!” to the conquered Ethiopians in the opera) is an easy mental leap. It’s a cult . . . for really smart, really skeptical scientist people!”

“The first thing I learn about my fellow conference-goers is that they’re front-of-the-bus people. They were probably the ones who flirted with their professors throughout class in college. And while their ages range from twentysomething to fiftysomething, everybody here looks as if they would be comfortable on campus—what with their cool boots and rain gear. More than a couple of people are wearing enviable glasses.”

“It’s not too difficult to see TED as the cool kids, a bunch of 1 percenters throwing a party to congratulate themselves on their 15-minute solutions to the hoi polloi’s problems.”

Overall, though, Marsh had a good time and left impressed by the TED community, the content of the conference, and the potential global impact of what he witnessed.

Not the TED I'm talking about.
Not the TED I’m talking about.

There are practical problems with TED’s ambitious vision. TED exists, in theory, to inject the best new ideas into the global cloud so somebody can use them to change the world for the better. There’s no way to ensure they’re getting the idea maker together with the idea enabler who can make concept into reality. That’s not usually the same person. It’s the difference between science and engineering or between design and manufacture.  In Marsh’s words, “I guess we still have to bank on the right millionaire genius meeting the right billionaire genius at the right time.”

As Marsh notes in his article, the TED archives also suffer from selection bias—browsers gravitate toward speakers and topics that echo their own preferences and mindset. They’re not looking for new ideas so much as intellectual entertainment that reinforces what they already think. Some of the talks are more substantial than others—for every innovative, thought-provoking conversation, there’s a piece of fluff, a sales pitch, or a propaganda spot. That sense of smug assurance that all the world’s problems might be solvable with a few 15-minute chats hovers in the air, sometimes. Caveat emptor.

UPDATE: And here’s a recent TED talk that calls the entire TED philosophy into question, a surprising moment of introspection within an enterprise that at times resembles a college pep club more than a community of serious thinkers.

How viral are TED videos, really? The sheer volume of views is impressive, but are people circulating these “ideas worth spreading?” It’s difficult to assess. There are certainly some golden nuggets lurking in the TED library sluice box, and I’ve shared a few myself. I suppose my final assessment would be to keep both your mind and eyes open when meandering through TEDland, and hold your expectations in check. The library’s worth a browse, and I recommend that, but be prepared to lose a few hours once you begin. It’s nearly as addictive as TVTropes…or Oreos.

I’ll leave you with my favorite TED Talk from my flight across the pond, a little reminiscence by humorist John Hodgman, who begins with some speculations about aliens among us, and after a brief orbit, returns to a very familiar and very human place. Enjoy.


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