UC San Diego Professor Slams TED Talks — During His TED Talk
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. But for started thirty years ago as a small get together of scientists and artists to talk about the latest in technology, entertainment, and design has now morphed into the huge video library of TED Talks. These eighteen minute or less lectures are free and readily available and have become extremely popular despite topics like the newest in synthetic knees and avoiding internet filter bubbles. To critics there is a repetitive format to the TED Talks and a shallow theatricality that inhibits a fuller understanding of the world. But of the critics joins me today, Benjamin Bratton recently addressed the TED Talks conference with harsh criticism of both the presentation and the substance of the typical TED Talks. Professor Bratton, welcome to the program. I think that people begin to notice a certain similarity and presentation of TED Talks, what have you found to be some of the standard elements of TED Talks? BENJAMIN BRATTON: A certain epiphany of where someone shares a journey of insight and revelation and sells us in a missionary into evangelical type of story asking in audience to buy into and drink the Kool-Aid around whatever they are selling. This is particularly disappointing when what they are trying to talk about and what they are talking about is something that wish to learn about. In a way it is the fact that TED has become such a predominant format and discourse for how we have published discussions about technology and design, and the future of the world that we want to compose. Its limitations become amplified. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In your address to the audience, you called many of the TED Talks middlebrow, mega-church, infotainment and that is quite entertaining read work rhetoric itself. Is it the topics that you object to or the presentation or both? BENJAMIN BRATTON: It's a bit of both, I have good friends who have done TED Talks that I think a really great, but like I said the fact that TED and the conference series and the TED Talks society to communicate the idea has to be done in a particular kind of shallow New Age marketing speak right-of-way, kind of way, it has a toxic effect on the quality of the conversation we're having. I think that we need an open democratic fiber and ineffective public discussion, and to the extent to which that discussion is derailed in people's energy and interests and desire to learn to get engaged, it is diverted into placebo politics and placebo innovation, it actually is not just neutral, it has a long run a negative effect because it takes what may have been all of that energy and interest and difference in to something where it is ineffective. It is not made personal dislike for certain modes of rhetoric, it's the fact that is not working. It's been going on for thirty years and we have developed this way of talking about issues of these comes to getting worse. TED points to a few successes and that is great, considering the size of the operation. Of course they would have a few successes. In the long run, my point is not about TED, it's about the public discussion about the kind of world we want to create what kind of conversations we need to have. How should we deal with questions of ambiguity and contradiction and everything can change in not stay the same at the same time. I think that is the message of TED. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the TED talks that you point to in your critique, you mentioned a specific TEDx San Diego talk in 2011 given by Jason Russell, founder of Invisible Children. It was about - if people can recall that Kony 2012 campaign, here's a excerpt from that talk in 2011. [ [ AUDIO FILE PLAYING ] ] JAON RUSSELL: Joseph Kony is our broomstick engine, he is our broomstick, he is the thing that Oz says to ìbring to me!î This example is so important, because it improves that is possible. It proves that justice for all is not just a fantasy, it his real life and we can all participate in it. We can all participate in a story much larger than ourselves. [ [ END AUDIO FILE ] ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Obviously the Kony 2012 campaign ended bringing, that trend that campaign was troubled and ineffective. From what you said earlier, is that sort of a metaphor for a lot of the talks where people feel good after them but they do not do anything? BENJAMIN BRATTON: I do not mean to beat up on this campaign, to me it epitomizes the inversion of the means and the and spirit set of having means instead of having innovation, it has gone the other way around. It is a content genre that people participate in it that is so fast that people have optimism innocence that something is being done, they listen to the rhetoric of this talk, and the religious tenor, the evangelical tenor of these talks comes through loud and clear, and clearly people want to get some sense of meeting from experience from this as well, and there's nothing wrong with meeting, there's nothing wrong with people wanting to connect and engage in this kind of way, but we need to do this in a way that is a sober and directs and frankly, people have said and for the most part response to my talk has been very positive and touched a nerve that has been waiting to be touched. Some of the critiques have come back and said this is the way that the world works. If you want people to get a weight involved in these things, you have to talk to them in a particular way. Have nothing against simplifying complex things. I would have no access to scientific research of there is not books for me to work with, but I think that the idea that the only way that we can have a robust and active Democratic public discussion about intelligent design is to talk down to people, and to talk to them in this evangelical and messianic way. To speak to them as if that is the only way that they are capable of thinking, I think this is cynical, and I think people are much more capable of that. We don't have to talk to them like they are idiots. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Going back to what you said about TED, they got all the way back to the TED curator Chris Anderson and she has responded to your presentation and other critiques of TED and we have his entire response on our website, let me read you what he said in part: he said "we certainly do not think any TED Talks offers all there is to know how many topics but you can learn enough to get excited about knowing more, it is not a book or a peer-reviewed scientific paper that cannot be either of those things, it wants to amplify them not replace them and bring news of their significance to a broader audience." How do you respond to that? BENJAMIN BRATTON: I was disappointed with his response. I would welcome a robust and articulate pushed back to what I said, but for the most part he was replying to what I hear, I must've said. It was as if he did not even read the article. What he was describing is a function of the popularization of science and how it is that we can communicate science or philosophy or art or activism in a way that makes it available for general understanding and participation. I have nothing against that, that is a good thing, but for him to think that that equals TED, and that TED encompasses that, and there is no other alternative to do it other than the weight that TED does it, therefore if you like the popularization of the idea, then you must like TED. I think that is an inappropriate response. I think if you look at the comments on his, that is how people responded to them. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think a real nugget in your critique of TED Talks, is the fact that these talks are given with no context. No overall understanding of the history of what they're talking about or how it can be used negatively or how it can be used positively, rather it's just here is this wonderful thing you should know about. How do you think they could change? BENJAMIN BRATTON: That is an excellent point, I think the TED San Diego people did a great job, and they were enormously supportive and you look at the roster of talks for any TED conference and it's such a miscellaneous hodgepodge of interesting people doing interesting things for the most part, there are some various degrees of quality. A not know how anyone could remember the talks they go through after getting such a variety of things, there are jugglers and clowns and chemists and astrophysics, and he becomes a blur of everything. Part of the problem in terms of discussion, it's very wide in its scope and very shallow. We need to go more specifically and deeper on particular issues. To your point, if we really want to engage the public not something we think is important, a long-term issue and not something we can fix right away, we need to look at it from multiple perspectives and must have a kind of deep dive. He did not get water by digging six one foot wells. I think that the idea that people do not have the attention span for that is cynical and I do not agree. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You said that you can tell by simply the fact that TED Talks have not really done anything, but they are now working in this particular format that we find them in now, what are they supposed to do? BENJAMIN BRATTON: The better question is what is it that the public and open democratic discussion about technology, design and the kind of world that we want to compose, social and cultural systems emerging, in relationship to planetary scale computation and relationship to fracturing of modern forms of clinical geography in terms of how you govern in ecology, they're kind of questions that we need to be talking about in their ones that require new languages and participations. If we learn how to answer properly, everything will not be the same. The role of that discussion is to legitimize the outcomes and to bring in as many voices and ideas as possible and to try to leverage these possibilities in a way that is effective. Can you solve any of these problems with the fifteen minute talk? Of course not. That was never the issue, the critique of TED was never that you could not solve climate change in it fifteen minute talk so why talk, it's not on the table like that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you're basically saying that all of these talks are like different icing on the cake that they don't really talk about getting into the cake to change the cake and whether the cake is the right place to put the icing, but we're actually doing here ñ BENJAMIN BRATTON: The rhetoric here in the format which is not just TED, it's in our business schools and design schools and it's all over the place, as this sort of simplified evangelical optimistic happy speak, that is the problem. Their excellent people doing excellent talks and important research that needs to get out there, and they get it out there. The problem is that TED is the only channel, and people will use what they have to. Colleagues of mine have done excellent talks and the use what is available, that does not mean the format works and it does not mean it is the best format we can have. I think multiple alternatives are possible. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you expect to be invited back to a TED Talk? BENJAMIN BRATTON: People and asked me whether or not I would do it TED global talk, and I do not think they are in the substance of way to enter that. They are media company. They are interested in audiences and more importantly I enjoyed these conversations to clarify what I have said, I do not care if I'm liked I just do not want to be misunderstood, I don't like this hype versus counter hype situation. It's not about me, there are better ways to have these conversations. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
They've also provoked a ton of backlash. The conference of "ideas worth spreading" has been called "elitist," "cultish" and "a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity." One San Diego academic recently took the anti-TED gospel to those least likely to want to hear it: TED devotees.
"It's about TED: what it is and why it doesn't work."
Bratton's full speech takes a scathing look at the inspirational style TED popularized and how it's given rise to "placebo politics."
In this case the placebo is not just ineffective, it's harmful. Because it takes your interest, energy, and outrage and diverts it into this black hole of affectation. Keep calm and carry on innovating. Is that the real message of TED? To me that’s not inspirational, it’s cynical. In the U.S. the right-wing has certain media channels that allow it to bracket reality. Other constituencies have TED.
Bratton also splashes some cold water on the face of San Diego's "phones, drones and genomes" economy:
In addition to all of the amazingly great things these technologies do, they are also the basis of NSA spying, flying robots killing people, and the wholesale privatization of biological life. That’s also what we do.
TEDx events like this gathering in San Diego are independently organized, meaning that speakers like Bratton aren't formally vetted by TED. They may give the kinds of people usually missing from official TED conferences a chance to speak. But they can also open up cracks for TED takedowns (and embarrassing love letters to Bono) to slip through.
The job of curating official TED events falls to Chris Anderson, who wrote a Guardian op-ed in response to Bratton's criticism. He agrees TED Talks aren't the most in-depth way to discuss the world's problems, but says they're not meant to be:
A TED talk is not a book. It is not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It can't be either of those things. Nor does it want to replace them. On the contrary, it wants to amplify them and bring news of their significance to a broader audience.
With viewers in the billions, TED talks have reached a very broad audience.
[spotted by Gawker]