TED Talks and Revolution

Out in the wilds of Facebook, a friend directed my attention to this article on Salon.com which presents a perspective on TED from the inside.  Given my audience, I don’t need to spend much time on explaining TED.  Pretty much anyone who uses the Internet and thinks of him/herself as “smart” has seen at least one TED talk at some point.  In fact, they’re such a staple of the Internet that they were recently lampooned by stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.  I am, of course, no exception to the rule.  I’ve seen quite a few of them, and while I have generally enjoyed most of the ones I have seen, somewhere around the 5th TED talk I watched, I felt like I was seeing a pattern in the presentations.  I confess, however, that it was a pattern I couldn’t put a serious critique to until I read the Salon article.  Now that I have, I definitely have lost a lot of the zeal I felt I had left for these talks.  They’re still interesting little bite-sized ideas, but it’s probably very much worth it to back up for a second and really look at TED for what it is.

I think the first thing that really bothered me about TED was TED itself.  After watching a few talks with my wife, we became very curious about the conference.  I work as a designer-of-gadgets and she works in cultural politics, and we started to wonder if maybe this was the sort of conference we could attend.  Of course, we were quickly surprised to discover the staggering cost to attend the conference, which really is small potatoes compared to the fact that admission is by invitation only.  Of course, those not able to acquire an invitation can attend a satellite conference at a steep but somewhat reduced price.  I certainly understand the need for people putting on a conference to cover their costs and to attract their core audience (since conferences are all about networking), and so I do understand TED’s admission policy and price, but I also think it’s fair to stop and ask what this policy says about the people who are considered a good fit for TED attendance and what it says about TED.  Its primary target audience are what the Salon article appropriately calls “creative elites,” and TED is an opportunity for this class of people to talk to themselves about how they want to revolutionize the world.  If you’re not sufficiently in the TED elite, your money’s still good to them, and if you’re not part of that elite and don’t have TED-level money, then your place is consuming the talks TED publishes online.  While that’s very generous of them to do so, I think it’s also fair to say that it’s still pretty elitist.  I also don’t have a problem with a little elitism, but let’s not mix it with the aesthetics of openness, democracy, or the individual.  TED wants to be about those things, but it repeats a system that is not.

This, too, is forgivable.  I’m a pretty morally generous person sometimes.  The next valid question is really about the general message of TED talks.  I do certainly believe that every person who has stood up to give a TED talk has been out to promote an optimistic and humanistic view of our near-term future.  In the TED world, we question, invent, innovate, and design a more perfect tomorrow.  I’m pretty sympathetic to that whole “World’s Fair mythos,” and its message of optimism and individual creativity struck me at an early age and produced a lifelong fascination with computers.  There remains, though, two major questions on my mind.  The first question is, and the easier one to discuss is this: What if a new, big innovation isn’t what we need? The second one is this: Can the TED creative elite recognize how the system which made them elites may have contributed to the injustices they seem interested in correcting?

The first question I see as the easier one to frame and the easier one to discuss, which is why I brought it up first.  It’s a valid question to raise because it strikes at the core of what TED is out to do.  Is this a conference about changing the world, or is it instead for the creative elite to produce an echo chamber for their values?  The reason why this is particularly valid to ask is because making the world a better place requires a “best tool for the job” mentality, and it’s not always the case that the best tool for the job is the most technologically advanced one.  The world is still a very large, diverse, and often self-contradictory place, and this alone means that the solution to a serious regional or global issue is often not one solution at all but rather a mix of tools and social structures which must be tailored to fit well within the material and cultural landscape in question.  Given my background, I can think of no recent project which expresses the clash between the TED values of “innovation will set us free” and the experience of those combating social ills on the ground than One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), so I’m going to use it as an example here.  Please keep in mind that I do know OPLC has developed since its first major publicity campaign and distribution push, and it will no doubt continue to improve its technology and its foreign relations and achieve some flavor of its goal, but I still feel the example is illustrative.

A couple of years ago, OLPC went on one of its “give one to get one” campaigns, timing it with the holiday season.  It led to a number of conversations I had with boosters of the project where I noticed that the conversations were not about the OLPC project, its technology, or its aims, but about a set of values that went behind them.  At the time, I was designing a smart phone for Motorola, and between working on issues from optimizing battery life under long-lived network conditions and sorting out how the Navajo deal with daylight saving time, I was learning to conceive of my project as a physical artifact that will really exist in the world…something that someone might call 911 on.  As a product engineer, I began wondering about the OLPC XO-1 (their first laptop model) as a physical artifact that people would use, and how this would relate to the goal of giving an education to those who might otherwise go without.  Would the children least likely to receive an education actually get and keep a laptop?  How could it be assured that a parent might not take it away from the child in need (perhaps a daughter) and give it to a child less in need (perhaps a son)?  What if the region in question becomes unstable, and some militia steals the laptops from the children because they’re a sign of American influence?  Can the laptop deliver meaningful education without the support of a school, which will have to purchase the means to service the laptops?  Would developing more libraries and schools, which have a significantly reduced cost per child, actually create more of the necessary society-changing education?  I didn’t honestly expect answers to these questions.  They’re very, very hard questions to answer.  I certainly don’t have answers to these questions.  In many cases, I don’t even know how to begin answering such a question.  What surprised me, however, was not the lack of answers to these questions but how hard it was to get others to recognize these questions as good ones to ask.

And, in fact, they are.  They’re good enough to be part of a college curriculum in the social context of technology.  When they’re asked, the initial goals and first steps of OLPC don’t shine as well as one might think.  I certainly won’t say it fails, but I would say that it shows problems with the initial ideals.  Asking these questions, however, among my cohorts…let’s say we’re the creative bourgeoisie…did not lead to a discussion about the issues they raise or a conversation about the XO-1 as a physical artifact.  Instead, the conversation would generally drift into a conversation about a set of values that the XO-1 represented– self-education, independent thinking, pulling oneself up from one’s bootstraps, and enabling an otherwise lost genius who will change the world.  They’re exciting and comforting ideas, and some flavor of them have been at play among anyone in the creative bourgeoisie or creative elite, but choosing a project because it feels good and reflects your values, without thorough thought about its viability to achieve its goal or the possibility of more successful alternatives, is not an optimal way to change the world.

And, at some level, that’s what TED is about– creative elites cloistering themselves to network and give self-congratulatory talks about the power of their values to change the world.  Selected talks are shared online to encourage a perpetuation of these values.  It’s not a wholly bad thing to get people fired up about innovation and the human spirit, but it also has the power to promote inefficient solutions to serious social issues simply because TED is not about the rather boring, tireless, and eternal effort to make a dent in social issues.  TED is about quick-fire world of ideas, and ideas rise, fall, and become world-known based largely on their ability to resonate with TED-values.  This is a good thing and a bad thing, but I think the “bad” side of it needs acknowledgment, especially when you consider that an idea popular in the TED community will have very low friction to implementation.  From the Salon article:

And in an impressive show of the networking pizzazz of the “TED community” as well. After awarding Jamie Oliver (“The Naked Chef”) the annual $100,000 TED prize this year, TEDsters leapt into action after Oliver delivered his wish onstage that every American child be taught to cook healthy foods. One audience member offered to donate trucks to repurpose as mobile cooking labs. Another volunteered to introduce Oliver to his friend Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sits on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee.

These are powerful and connected people.  They are a Get Stuff Done Elite.  If change can only come on things that connect with their values, then a huge opportunity for real change could easily be squandered for simply not being fashionable enough.

The second question actually follows from my coverage of the first.  The people invited to TED are, by and large, a certain cream of the crop in our current world.  As should follow from the example of how easily such a community can run to the aid of an idea they admire, they have been the beneficiaries of the status quo.  Upton Sinclair famously stated that it is very difficult to get a person to understand something if his or her paycheck depends on not understanding it, and indeed this has a great deal to do with the blindness that privilege delivers.  Privilege is maintained only through contribution in the system which grants it, and it takes a rather broad vision to see beyond one’s own condition.  I actually wouldn’t begrudge anyone invited to TED for not being crystal clear on the rest of the world’s experience.  They’re people, with jobs and families, and their attention is limited.  The question is whether or not this causes TED to become a forum suitable for social change if what must change is the system that gave rise to those TED community members in the first place.  Does TED challenge the injustices of the status quo or ignore them?  Some passages from the Salon article seem to give an interesting picture of this:

According to a study by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Studies, unemployment for those in the top income bracket was at 3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 — nearly full employment. This may or may not help explain why after a year in which the economy shed almost 8 million jobs, there were no talks at TED this year that focused on employment, on bailouts or on corporations or politically connected financial institutions as impediments to reform or innovation.


A Google employee, after giving a mouthwatering demonstration of the various remarkable functionalities of the new Google phone, asked the audience, “So maybe what the world needs now is — more smart phones?” It wasn’t a rhetorical question. This year Google donated 2,000 phones to all conference attendees, a huge marketing coup any way you slice it, putting these phones in the hands of the chattering, creative classes.

True, it takes more than two incidents to talk about broad trends within a community, but when you consider that employment is on the minds of most Americans these days, it does seem a very curious omission, and while smartphones might likely be a second revolution once they become as ubiquitous globally as cellphones are now, I think it’s fair to question the motives of someone from a company backing a major mobile platform asserting that the world needs more smartphones.  This can be of critical importance in the question of the power for TED to change the world, because if the people invited to TED are, in fact, the beneficiaries of an inherently unjust system, then their efforts may be able to fight the symptoms of injustice but won’t see its cause.

This, finally, brings me about to the fascinating contradiction of our age, and it also brings me around to why I am not openly condemning TED.  The author of the Salon piece has been invited to speak on behalf of the Yes Men, a group who are internationally famous for using pranks to expose what they see as large-scale institutional social injustice.  Their experience at TED shows a pattern– when speaking about a system that perpetuates our modern problems, the audience is silent.  But when discussing the pranks of the Yes Men and the desire to produce a new army of culture jammers, the TED audience is amused and rapt.  The reason for this is clear.  First off, the Yes Men are really funny.  Epic pranks.  Everyone loves a good prank.  Secondly, it’s because their model of protest comports with TED values– it focuses on individuals acting in creative and innovative ways to do something amusing to shake up the way people think about the world.  Most importantly, it’s non-threatening, because it’s just performance art and you can always look away.  And so, the result is that the talk was successful once it wasn’t a downer or strictly about the problems of the world.

Even more interesting is that, afterwards, “the secret radicals” of the audience were ready to help launch the project.  It’s a fascinating question to ask why, at a conference dedicated to spreading ideas that change the world, anyone would have to be a radical in secret.  The other thing that brings to light, though, is the curious paradox of our era– it takes the participation of an elite to make real progress, even when it comes to progress in leveling the playing field.  The Salon article closes by suggesting that this is, ultimately, the power of TED– elite though it is, it’s a place where an anti-capitalist provocateur can give a sales pitch to a number of other people and network.  Perhaps, and it’s a good step, but the question I would ask in return is if it’s really that great of a thing.  I’m a pragmatist, so I’m glad to see the Yes Men getting more attention and more connections, but is it really a good thing that it takes a sales pitch that comports with the values of an elite group to recognize that perhaps it would be a good thing for a more fair set of rules to dictate society?