Last week, I excitedly registered to attend TEDx UM, which will take place in exactly a week. I attended TEDx last year and thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating environment and the intriguing discussions with friends and strangers alike between lectures and over lunch. Since then, I have listened to a myriad of online and podcasted lectures, thirsting for more. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is “a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED is an annual conference and TEDx are local events. Its website describes it as “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”, which seems true at face value. TED lectures and the ideas, information, and perspectives they offer have opened my eyes to new and fascinating visions, affirmed my passion for my own particular interests, and informed me to the extent that I often reference TED lectures in class, extracurricular activities, and every day conversation. Topics have ranged from the development of electric car batteries to teaching philosophy in prison and from the sex life of an octopus to the politics of atheism. Though I am thrilled to attend this year’s event, it is not without some reservation and awareness of compelling criticism regarding TED’s objectives, audience, and exclusionary and/or inclusionary consequences.
Nathan Jurgenson’s article “Against Ted” in The New Inquiry asks “When did TED stop trying to collect smart people and instead collect people trying to be smart?”. Jurgenson continues: “what began as something spontaneous and unique has today become a parody of itself.” He argues that the popularity of the event is riddled with political implications. TED’s popularity means that it plays an important role in influencing how we understand the link between technology and society, religious and nonreligious, innovators and consumers, etc. With this important and influential role, comes a potential political agenda.
Jurgenson next argues that TED is engaging and entertaining to the point of becoming increasingly exclusionary. TED’s attempts to present itself as fresh and cutting edge often fail to deliver. The conferences consider every idea revolutionary, every innovation life changing, and every insight inspiring or astonishing. TED, he explains, has developed an edge: the speaker has become the sales representative; the lecturer has become a sales pitch, and the audience the consumer. The new wave of cutting technology has found a new medium for advertising and consumers in the individuals trying to be smart by attending TED.
Sarah Lacy echoes these arguments in her critique of TED: “Why I’m Fed Up with TED”, in Business Week. The TED events, she argues, are exclusionary and only allow the big names in Silicon Valley and pretend to hold a “care-about-the-little-people attitude” that comes across as false, patronizing, and ill informed. Speakers talk about multiculturalism, caring for people in developing nations, and world aid projects that help people desperately in need and the audience nods their heads sympathetically and then go out for a fancy dinner afterwards.
I think some of this is true. First, there is a certain drama, flare, and fakeness to a 15 minute lectures that takes place on a huge stage targeted for an eager audience. In addition, there is a great deal of depth and nuance to the argument that organizers of TED have an obligation to be fair and open minded, that if they are truly imparting today’s most revolutionary ideas, that these ideas should be balanced, reflective of the actual ideas out there, and lacking a political objective. Lastly, I do not believe that the criticism of learning about those in need and then not doing anything about it can be reserved for TED alone, though it is indeed relevant.
One last thought: TEDWomen purports to support and empower the ideas, ambitions, and success of women in an unequal society. However, if there is a problem of underrepresentation of women presenters at TED conferences, then it seems intuitive that the solution is to invite more women to speak. If it’s a problem that an equal number of women and men are invited to speak and women do not participate or volunteer as often, then we need to address some serious societal questions as to why this is. Then we must ask ourselves if creating a separate venue for women or incorporating them into the “man’s event” is the best option. In “Does the world need TEDWomen?” Ryan Brown adds to this discussion: if TEDWomen events are about empowering women and exposing gender inequalities and problems that women face in the world, then shouldn’t they all the more be incorporated into the main TED lectures? Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the choir.
By: Naomi Scheinerman
(Photo Courtesy of TEDx)