Stop. Just stop. Just stop sending me TED Talks to watch. I hate them and they are stupid. This whole “ideas worth spreading” thing is actually a bunch of empty feel-good nonsense which replaces critical thought and serious learning with the warm fuzzy feeling of a guru telling you that it’s all like, okay, man.
Aiming the old crosshairs at TED almost seems like picking a target which is too easy. It’s basically a gathering where a bunch of pseudo-intellectual bourgeois assholes come to listen to self-satisfied pseudo-intellectual bourgeois asshole celebrities tell us how great they are. A shocking number of TED Talks really are just celebrities telling us their life stories. But it’s never Noam Chomsky or Ha-Joon Chang or Arundhati Roy or Amartya Sen or Tariq Ali or someone else whose life’s work is the painstaking collection of useful information and its concise presentation with the goal of reframing how society actually functions. No, all those people tell us too much about the real world. For example, from Turkey, TED Talks have given us members of the creepy Islamist group known as the “Gülen Movement” like Elif Şafak and Mustafa Akyol, but not brilliant people like Hamit Bozarslan or Şeyla Benhabib. But maybe it’s not so much that TED Talks shun clever people in favour of empty-headed new-agey apologists for brutality (I saw your fuckin’ interview about the Turkish protests, Şafak), but rather that one needs to be empty-headed and new-agey to be interested in TED.
Yeah, it seems like TED is actually some kind of cult. If you didn’t watch that video, Eddie Huang is getting interviewed by Joe Rogan, and both of them seem to like TED a lot in terms of some of the talks, but they’re both also really convinced TED is a cult. The speakers have their time and sex lives controlled by the organization (which Eddie Huang implies is run by racists), and they don’t pay anyone (and they control what you do with your own free time). To give a talk, one has to be fully committed to “the experience,” as the organizers define it. Everyone in attendance is given instructions on when to give a standing ovation, and the audience has to “apply” to attend, and then pay thousands of dollars (for videos that are being spread around the internet quicker than like anything else FOR FREE).
It’s not that they avoid speakers who actually challenge the status quo in human society (after all, the RSA Talks, which are pretty consistently smart, booked two speakers who also showed up at TED), it’s that less people we respect want to get involved with TED, because it’s run, as Eddie Huang put it, like the beginnings of Scientology. The point of TED isn’t really to spread information, and they have no problem spreading falsehoods if it’s in keeping with the aesthetic of TED, so when they say they’re “spreading ideas,” one ought to counter that churches are also “spreading ideas” in much the same way (although usually not with an 8,000 USD ticket). It’s basically a collection of talks (most quite empty) designed to get people attached to an organization that I’m sure we’re all going to be mocking celebrities for associating themselves with in a decade’s time. Most TED Talks sound like this:
Just kidding, the Onion’s hilarious series parodying TED Talks is different from TED Talks in that it has a higher ratio of objectively factual statements to sentences uttered. But one thing that’s spot-on is that TED Talks are designed more to create an experience of feeling enlightened than to actually enlighten. The talks don’t appear to have Q&A sessions, critical thinking is not a component (so much so that the speakers are known to just make stuff up, which may be why we never see TED Talk Q&As), and one is ordered to give standing ovations. Whether it’s that the organizers generally select less challenging speakers or that more challenging speakers can’t function within such a restrictive format, TED Talks have more in common with indoctrination than with an actual forum of ideas, where fact-checking and a back-and-forth would take precedence over a “feeling” and “experience”-based approach to information.
After roping you in with an aesthetic of general inspiration, some of their videos actually have very specific social-moral messages (none too dangerous, of course!). Take this one, which has a very consistent assumption that everyone who’s looking at internet porn is male, and that all of said porn is heterosexual:
I don’t know about you, but I would way rather watch some porn than watch that video. There’s only like one person in that video and he’s not even attractive and he doesn’t even take his dick out.
As I implied earlier, it feels suspiciously like people at TED Talks are the sort of people church groups would approve of, but as I said, it might just be more that that’s what happens when you’ve got a conference where attendance depends upon accepting being forbidden to sleep with your lover (what happened to Eddie Huang, the excuse being that he already had an assigned roommate, but when he offered to pay for his own hotel room, he was told that he wasn’t allowed).
There might be good ideas occasionally “spread” through TED Talks, but as I pointed out earlier with Ken Robinson and Dan Pink, those ideas are available elsewhere (without having to be that person who always fucking posts TED Talks up on your Facebook), and we should be able to have those ideas without TED, and more importantly, without fostering a cultural following for an organization that exploits the fanbase it has created by charging 8,000 USD a seat while NOT PAYING THE PEOPLE WHO THE AUDIENCE IS THERE TO SEE (they have to do it “for the love,” you see, unlike the organizers who are free to do it “for the cash”). “Spreading ideas” without TED may actually aid us in dealing with those ideas more seriously.