Thursday, August 12th, 2010

TED: Just Admit It

now that i've got your attention...The September issue of Fast Company contains a breathless look at TED and the viral-video nature of clips featuring its flagship conference's 18-minute lectures — known as TED Talks — by Anya Kamenetz. I spent a good part of this afternoon trying to figure out why this piece, which calls the network of conferences and videos "the new Harvard" in its URL but curiously backs off that claim in its actual headline, got my outrage-o-meter popping. Let's find out!

Early on, Kamenetz says that she "would go so far as to argue that [TED] is creating a new Harvard — the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years." Wow! But many breathless paragraphs later, she concedes that the videos, which are the way that those people who haven't been invited inside the conference's sanctum experience the brand, have their limitations: "An 18-minute presentation, no matter how expert, can't accommodate anything overly theoretical or technical — the format is more congenial to Freakonomics than economics." So, it's really more like correspondence school? Or sitting in Barnes and Noble and reading the books that inevitably result from these videos going "viral"? (Or, really, their tables of contents?)

And then there is the self-congratulatory sheen that every person involved in the story possesses, which somehow especially rankles during the discussion of said videos being free of charge for the non-invitees. Which, well, you get what you pay for (see the aforementioned note about Freako/eco divide). And it's not like TED is a completely "no, thanks, we don't need your money anyway" endeavor; isn't there a complicated matrix of admission policies that is involved with letting people in the door? Where, as Kamenetz notes, this happens:

It's "networking extraordinaire — just a total bonanza," says Cyndi Stivers, editor of Entertainment Weekly's And out of that networking comes action. Wired magazine was born there. An Inconvenient Truth got a big push at the conference. Researchers and not-for-profits find sponsors; writers and scholars find agents and publishers; Web geeks find a path out of obscurity. Esra'a Al Shafei is a 23-year-old from Bahrain who runs an online hub for journalism and free expression called In 2009, she was made a TED Fellow at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford. "TED gives you a sense of credibility," she says. "I've been running Mideast Youth for four years, but before the fellowship, nobody talked about it." TED connections have led her to sources of money and technical and moral support that helped her launch CrowdVoice, which tracks voices of protest around the world.

The lack of interpersonal connection afforded by just watching videos while you're at home (if you have the time, that is) is apparently being rectified by TEDx conferences, which are satellite events around the world in which "at least 25% of the content must be existing TED talk videos." (Keeping the branding alive, of course.) Many of them are free; the New York event will require those people who are accepted to pay $100, because in this city every piece of networking has to have a price tag attached. Kamenetz does note, though, that it's hard to "keep up quality control if you let everyone play."

And you know, perhaps the breathless thesis laid out by that SEO-baiting URL is correct. Maybe TED is like an elite college in a way — you apply for the right to pay money and hang out with a bunch of people who were also able to pay money (and a few people who got in on just smarts), and then the people who weren't up to snuff can get just the "teaching" part of the equation.

So why am I so annoyed by Kamenetz's lofty claims, then? Was it the lede, in which you could see her patting herself on the back as she described her "discovery-seeking brain [getting] a little hit of dopamine in the middle of the workday"? Was it the fact that Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert speaking "on creativity" is one of the talks being touted? Was it the claim that this is somehow a "new model" of education, when it really isn't? Was it the idea, vaguely inferred by Stivers' quote, that TED helped bring forth the absolute clusterfuck of comment-baiting gallery-listicle hybrids that is the current iteration of Was it the closing revelation that the organization's next big step is — gasp! — a social network (or, rather, "a set of tools that will allow people to hold conversations and plan meetings through")? Or is it just that in keeping with the Fast Company editorial direction of Extreme Extremism, everyone involved sounds a bit, well, smug? Actually all those questions could probably be combined into one: "Are these people just getting a little too excitable about the beautiful view from inside their bubble here?" You can probably figure out the answer.


54 Comments / Post A Comment

p is for pee (#900)

I just want to see Sarah Silverman's TED talk.

barnhouse (#1,326)

It's especially irritating because all this is 100% TRUE and I keep going over there and watching them anyway.

What helps is when you actually sit down and try to jot some notes down from a TED "lecture" on the "subject" of "creativity", and all you end up with are three meanderingly abrupt sentences that say things like "monkeys play with balls", "humans like the colour red", "cheese was developed by mistake".

The feeling that you've wasted your time is so powerful it's almost existentially thrilling.

barnhouse (#1,326)

haha YES.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

See, I thought it was the new Cirque de Soleil.

NinetyNine (#98)

TED is just the Scientology of Silicon Valley.

Mount_Prion (#290)

You mean, the other scientology of Silicon Valley:

Church of Scientology Mission of Silicon Valley
1140 Pedro St., Suite #7
San Jose, CA 95126
Tel: 408-971-7234

skybarn (#304)

Well, I took a Kabbalah class from Kamenetz's father in Grad School and that's kind of the same. He promised me that I would have eternal enlightenment, so I've got that going for me.

NinetyNine (#98)

Which is nice.

synchronia (#3,755)

I agree that TED is a bit over-hyped. But I have to say, I actually really like Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on creativity. Her point is that we should return to a classical rather than Renaissance view of creativity, where you don't have to *be* a (solitary, tortured) Genius, you *have* a Genius that might or might not visit (and your job is to keep showing up at work until it does.)

NinetyNine (#98)

Obviously she's still waiting for that train.

Slava (#216)

Because, obviously, much, much more has been discovered and created before the Renaissance than after.

Renaissance: When Creativity Died.

DMcK (#5,027)

Her point stands better if you substitute "Romantic" for "Renaissance". And much of the Renaissance was predicated on the re-discovery of Classical works anyway.

synchronia (#3,755)

Okay, yeah, Romantic fits better. Her point was more about the healthiest way to think about the creative process, though, and I'm not sure we have direct evidence that the Romantic view increased productivity on its own.

DandyKoufax (#6,590)

Up to date historical commentary from TED: The Renaissance was a defined historical period in which people began to think and act differently than in the middle ages!

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I watch them because they are either entertaining or informative. What's the big fucking deal? God, I hate trend pieces.

Wait, TED is responsible for the redesign of EW's website?

kpants (#719)

You had me at the title alone, Maura, hee! I empathize with your annoyance, and then some (TED Women.) The TED videos are mostly just emphasized entertainment. Just because something is thought-provoking or literate doesn't make it not entertainment, or for that matter a new model of much of anything.

Here's a really interesting clip of Sarah Silverman talking to Bill Maher about TED:

This interview took place not long after TED organizer Chris Anderson trashed Silverman – the day after she spoke at TED – with this Twitter message: "I know I shouldn't say this about one of my own speakers but I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful."

You won't find a video of Sarah's TED talk on their site. She isn't listed there as a speaker, either.

zidaane (#373)

I often use barnacle as a favored cut down.

zidaane (#373)

It was my understanding AWL bear videos were the new Southern Illinois University.

TED is a masturbatory, self-regarding, circle jerk.*

*I really liked the J.J. Abrams talk.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

I really like circle jerks.

buzzorhowl (#992)

Show me every body, naked and disfigured.

Nothing's shocking.

Congressman Boehner, is that you?

biggyshorty (#4,492)

finally someone throws some cold water on the middlebrow TED. not a day goes by without getting a forwarded TED talk via email or reddit, etc. every TED talk suffers from the same neoliberalizing Chris Lehmann writes about in all his pieces here. their thoughts are whitebread, their "solutions" have no radical edge to them, and their smugness at being Networked – part of the Internet and part of their own elite networks – is unbelievably annoying. i've yet to hear a TED talk that couldn't have been better communicated by someone who hadn't achieved Achievity in the most banal way possible. Why should i listen to rich people tell me about creativity, when i know that they make profits off 14 year olds making their mice? TED is shit, its merely the new generation of self-help "rich dad poor dad" – with all its emphasis on the individual at the cost of structural social transformation – dressed in helvetica, whitespace, and video.

Carnage Hall (#5,633)

This, with one of those little numbers up at the top right corner to show that it travels at the speed of light.

A bunch of smug psuedo-defanged Ayn Randians get together in a hotel ballroom with people who have paid thousands of dollars to hear them reinforce their tedious self-regard and "libertarian philosophy." There's more creativity in my laundry hamper.

biggyshorty (#4,492)

omg and dont get me started about malcolm gladwell and the newyorker cult of sociobiological interpretations of Why We Do This Culturally.

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

UUuuugh yes. Every time I read one of those (and of course I read every goddamned one) I fervently wish there was such a thing as

Anya Kamenetz (#6,858)

Maura, before you make too much of the Harvard comparison, you should note that I went to Yale.:)

I think your post is very well taken. Yes, we love to hate smug, self-congratulatory, elite institutions, but they still do very cool things for the world.

P.S. You INFERRED incorrectly that Stivers' quote IMPLIED that TED had something to do with

P.P.S. Also, you look at and you still find TED too middlebrow?

Carnage Hall (#5,633)


Because something is worse than TED does not mean that TED is good. TED is another rodeo of pay-to-play anti-intellectualism where ends are severed from means–an orgy of lateral social climbing and three-car garage ideals, like the Bohemian Grove minus the spectacular setting. You should really just go all the way and become an isolationist cult. At least you could all wear cool robes.

Anya Kamenetz (#6,858)

Now trying to picture the geometries of a lateral rodeo orgy in a garage. Lost reel of Inception?

gregorg (#30)

Awesome. TED isn't The New Harvard; it's The New 'When I Was Studying In Cambridge.'

biggyshorty (#4,492)

look guys, just because anya now knows about bugs in our moral code, it doesn't allow us to lifehack our solutions to her web2.0 responses. we have to be more creative, iron out those kinks and roll out a new trunk version of happiness and fiber, and continue to make money!

Hey Anya! Thanks for stopping by. And yes, I did infer incorrectly that TED had something to do with — but why hold Cyndi Stivers up as an "expert" if you aren't trying to establish a symbiotic relationship between her work at that site and her attendance at TED?

Anyway. Elitism among those people who are sooo happy to be smart rankles with me because of the way culture is falling out these days — thanks to technology and socioeconomic factors, it seems to me like these elites are coalescing into more self-congratulatory, self-reflexive groups. So the "very cool things [that are done] for the world" start to benefit smaller and smaller groups — but since those groups are powerful and they're all just so thrilled with themselves and the great things that they've done, their endeavors, even though they in the grand scheme of things are only good for maybe a few people, are held up as Good For Everyone. This is partially why phenomena like "Eat Pray Love" bug me too! (I imagine given your background that you've read Chris Lehmann's series on this site — he writes about many of these sorts of phenomena! And don't think for a moment that I am not aware that the Awl readership is not its own sort of elite.)

Also, is not middlebrow — it's pageview-whoring. Very different aims there.

Joey Camire (#6,325)

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy watching some of the TED talks (Stefan Sagmeister), but I think anyone who is honest with themselves would admit that it is about feeling good about yourself more than learning something new. The old "look at me, I'm smart" reassurance after your boss crushes one of your ideas.

Anya Kamenetz (#6,858)

Hi Maura–I actually think we have similar concerns about elitism vs. openness.

My contention is that many of the cool things that TED does spread more widely than the cool things that Harvard does, because of its attitude toward openness and its use of social media.
Harvard has a crappy open courseware site–it's very difficult to find and view many Harvard lectures online. MIT has the best open courseware site, but even the most-watched video lectures have been watched a few hundred K times, while the most watched TED talks have been viewed over 6 million times.

Lectures are admittedly a small percentage of the benefit offered by either TED or Harvard, but they're not nothing. The spread of the TEDx platform with over 600 events worldwide offers a way for ever-more people to participate, often for free, in a much closer approximation to the TED experience. I would love to see Harvard & Yale try something like that.

Also, I haven't spent much time on the site, and generally I enjoy reading it, but no I don't consider Awl's readership (or Fast Company's) to be "some sort of elite." Being smug, self-congratulatory, and insular is not enough; in order to be elite you also have to excel at something.

Shots fired?

I mean, I would argue that elite audiences (of any site, not just this one) are ones that seek out content that isn't merely served up to them. But maybe we have different definitions of the term!

But point taken on the attitude of openness in the platform. And don't you think Harvard & Yale do try similar sorts of events, albeit with audiences that are constrained in different ways — i.e. alumni gatherings? There's still an element of selection afoot, of course, but the TEDx gatherings I've browsed seem to have that as well.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

> to excel at something

We're ace umbrage-takers, but then, you're an ace umbrage-giver, so, point Anya Kamenetz!

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh gee, no, point Maura Johnston, who has entirely failed to lose her cool. And another to Johnston for complete avoidance of the phrase, "in order to be elite." Make that five, actually.

(Also, are these TED guys trying to put across the idea that these tiny little popular-audience-tailored introductory lectures are in any way comparable to actually studying anything? Kind of confused, now.)

scrooge (#2,697)

"…in order to be elite you also have to excel at something."

You mean, like George W Bush?

BeRightBack (#59)

Exactly, barnhouse. This isn't equivalent of anything being enrolled in an actual course of study at a university can give you. It's more like showing up for one day of the no-credit Continuing Education classes universities set up for bored retirees.

NinetyNine (#98)

Huh, smug, self-congratulatory and insular is exactly how I would characterize FC.

I didn't know actual eliteness even existed! I thought it was a word insecure people used to describe themselves and their friends.

Matt H (#45)

Thanks for this post. On top of everything mentioned in the post, TED can be just plain scary sometimes. Whether its Sam Harris trying to debunk more controversial scientific studies. ("Whenever we are talking about facts certain opinions must be excluded;) Or Bill Gates arguing for Malthusian population controls in the 3rd World; I'm less than convinced that the dialogue at TED represents free and honest academic inquiry.

Tacitus (#6,918)

"MIT has the best open course-ware site, but even the most-watched video lectures have been watched a few hundred K times, while the most watched TED talks have been viewed over 6 million times."

Yes, but MIT's lecture sperm is far more potent than TED's dead swimmers.

So how is Ted Turner involved in this exactly? Sorry, I just skimmed "smug" and "TED" and "company" and, you know…

The University of Phoenix has a lot of good online videos for a fee, too.

maebefunke (#154)

I'd say that 70% of the times I tell someone I'm an anthropologist they start raving on along the lines of "OMG I LOOOOOVED Wade Davis' TED Talk."

Wade Davis is not the ambassador I want carrying the discipline in which I work to the public. His work is really problematic in that he uses it as a vehicle for his own self-promotion and crosses a lot of ethical boundaries that make most anthropologists in my department very uncomfortable.

I've always thought TED is overrated and I love that Maura wrote this.

Nathan Jurgenson's blog post, titled 'Against TED,' sums it up for me: "TED’s popularity means that it plays an important role in how we understand the link between technology and society, and the corporate, evangelical, noninclusive, and ultimately out-of-touch vision it promotes needs to be replaced."

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