The very first TED talks were held in 1984. Richard Saul Wurman conceived the idea of combining technology (T), entertainment (E) and design (D) = TED. But these early talks were not successful, and TED talks were dusted off to be launched once again in 1990. The TED Conference was held yearly in California, and the audience steadily grew. At this time, TED was not on YouTube - well, it was another 15 years before YouTube would be born but was rather an invitation-only event.
The question that many people have been asking lately is: "Has TED really gone from being only for an exclusive audience, and, does it have real impact?"
Of course, you say. TED is easily available to all, thus it cannot be for an exclusive audience. True, but to whom is it geared, what is the target audience?
A question posed in an online forum sums up this concern: "Is TED just an over glorified club of privileged, overeducated, white Americans that love giving each other standing ovations?"
Emily McManus was quick to reply to this question. And so she should have been. McManus is the editor of TED.com, and answering such questions is her job.
Her answer is not unexpected: "[W]ith the rise of TEDGlobal and TEDx, we're consciously creating much better representation ... look at the last 50 or 100 talks we posted on the homepage ofTED.com - I'm proud of this mix of young and old, women and men with many accents and backgrounds, and the challenging ideas they're bringing to the TED Talks front page."
True, there are speakers from North America, Europe, South America, Africa and all other continents (except Antarctica); but one fact is inescapable. The speakers all resemble one another. There is a reason for this. Any TED speaker undergoes rigorous training in how to address the audience. What is an ordinary speech with average delivery becomes polished until it is so quick, intimate and entertaining that the content ceases to be of importance. The low lighting, the dark backdrop ... this is the TED signature. The slick presentation with amusing anecdotes, relating wider, more complicated topics to one's everyday mundane life; it is this that makes those who watch TED talks, like TED talks.
But does the fact that the presenters are young and old, male and female or come in a variety of accents mean that TED is not homogenous? In this age of the "global" citizen, it takes more than an accent to create heterogeneity. If the claim that TED is a global phenomenon that speaks to all is true, then it is not just the speaker we should be examining. The audience should also be studied to determine if they are all of different statuses, different races, different religions. Look at a TED audience from anywhere in the world, and it could be a TED audience from, well, anywhere in the world.
This truth struck home the other day when someone shared the TED talk of a "teyze" - literally aunt, but an affectionate, actually patronizing term - for any older woman who wears a headscarf and is considered to be less than well- educated). This woman, Nuran Erden, gave a TED talk about her village of Germiyan, and the artwork she has done to support the slow food movement in the region.
This teyze, Nuran Erden, stood on the stage in a long cardigan and sweat pants. She had not been made slick or proficient. She stumbled through sentences...took over long pauses, shoved her hand in and out of her sweat pant pockets. She looked ill at ease and uncomfortable. She did not gesticulate. She did not beckon to the audience. Her anecdotes fell flat, because she was unable to make a connection.
We are used to speakers who are shot in such a way that we stand in awe, we literally look up at them. Martin Robbins put this best in the New Statesman: "Cameras lurk below the eye-line of the speakers looking up at their sharply defined forms, picked out by spotlights against dark backgrounds like a Greek god's statue in a museum display case." Nuran teyze did not have such camera shots, she did not know how to play her audience, she was not dressed to bring home the message.
So what, you say. What was her message? Her message fell flat because the audience for Nuran Erden was exactly the same audience that we see in every TED talk. As such, the audience was not able to cheer when it should cheer, nor did it laugh at her jokes, except for a few uncomfortable chuckles. When the audience reacted it was not in empathy with Erden. It was feeling sympathy for her perhaps, but the overriding emotion was much closer pity, or even amazement. Amazement? I hear you ask. Well, the attitude of the crowd reminded me, sadly, of Dr. Johnson's comment about women preachers. When Boswell told him that he had seen a woman preacher, Dr. Johnson replied: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." The audience was not bowled over by Erden's words, her accomplishments or her story. They were bowled over by the fact that such a "simple, salt-of-the-earth" person could give a TED talk. Whether it was a good talk or not was not an issue. It was the very fact that Erden was up there.
That is, a woman who is a farmer, a woman who, from appearance, one assumes has not received higher education (although perhaps she has finished Harvard, we have no way of knowing), a woman who talks in a local accent is treated with a certain amused contempt. The crowd is observing her, it is being entertained by her, not by what she is saying.
This is the problem with TED. It is not that the speakers all are upper-middle class intellectuals, despite their country of origin. TED uses ordinary speakers, but it is the production that makes the speech feel as if it is memorable, although, unfortunately most TED talks have the half-life of an ice cube, rapidly dissolving into a puddle. The real problem is the fact that the audience is uniform, it consists of upper-middle class intellectuals. The audience is homogenous. If the speaker is not of the ilk of the audience, then everything will be out of kilter.
The article in the New Statesman has an excellent description of the ubiquitous TED talk style. "I'm aware of only three things: the talk was awesome, I can't remember anything of substance from the talk, and I'm now watching a weirdly artificial standing ovation ... social elites ... basking in the warm glow of someone else's intellectual aura."
It is the audience that makes the TED speech. When people watch a TED talk, they see people like themselves watching, and the speaker tells all listening things that make them feel good about themselves. The talk may give the audience the moral high ground, telling them of some great injustice or cruelty, and what the speaker has done to rectify this. Or the speaker may make the audience feel that they are being allowed to share a privileged view, one that is not open to all.
TED claims that it gives us ideas worth spreading; The first thing we have to ask is who is to spread the ideas? Well, the majority of the videos tell us anyone who has a good idea and is ready to be trained to preform the idea can spread it. To whom should they spread them? To an audience that is not too intellectual, but not uneducated either. A TED audience is not made up of intellectual giants. A TED audience cannot sit through an hour and a half lecture. They cannot learn the current situation, the proposition to rectify this situation and the expected outcome. No, what this crowd wants is the Gettysburg Address, or the "I Have a Dream" speech, great speeches, true. Rousing speeches. But not solutions. Not information. It is actually not possible to change people's minds in just 15 minutes. What we learn in 15 minutes, if we do not take time to process it and store it, is very forgettable.
As we can see from the above, TED talks adhere to a formula. It is not just the lighting, or the camera angle, or even the red carpet. In 2014 Will Stephen gave a TEDx talk in New York on ... nothing.
"...I have nothing, nada, zip, zilch, zippo. Nothing smart, nothing inspirational, nothing remotely researched at all. And yet, through my manner of speaking I will make it seem like I do. ... maybe, just maybe, you will feel like you've learned something. ... I'd like it to seem like I'm making points, building an argument, inspiring you to change your life, when in reality this is just me buying time...."
And this is the TED talk formula ... gestures, gesticulations, sincere facial expressions. The speaker starts out slow, speeds up their tempo, takes a more serious tone, a more fervid pitch, and then drops off, slows down and hammers home their point. As we can see with Will Stephen, it doesn't matter what you say. He is extremely convincing - yet he has absolutely no message.
Ideas in TED talks are not there to be challenged. They are little vitamins of intellectual feel-good, a shot in the arm that makes us feel as if we have tasked our brain - after we all watched a 5- or 10- or 15-minute TED talk. We are far too busy to do anything further.
Professor Benjamin Bratton, from the University of California San Diego (UCSD), goes further, perhaps giving the most damning condemnation of TED talks. He accuses these talks of being "mid-brow". TED talks are pretty packaged messages for those who don't want to think too hard. Bratton states that the danger of TED talks is that they make us complacent by over-simplifying complicated problems.
"Our thinking is stuck in a cold war gear...and worse is when economics is debated like metaphysics, as if any real system is just a bad example of the ideal. Communism in theory was an egalitarian utopia, actually, existing communism meant ecological devastation, government spying, crappy cars, gulags. Capitalism in theory is rocket ships, nano-medicine ... while actually, existing capitalism is Walmart jobs, McMansions, people living under sewers in Las Vegas... Plus ecological devastation, government spying, crappy public transportation and for profit prisons."
"Our problems are not puzzles to be solved...this implies that all the pieces are on the table and just need to be rearranged...If we want transformation we have to slog through the hard stuff... This is not about personal stories of inspiration. It's about the hard difficult work of demystification and reconceptualization."
Bratton compares TED talks to a placebo; this placebo, he states "is not just ineffective, but harmful, because it takes your energy and outrage and diverts them into this black hole of affectation."
Fifteen minutes is a very forgettable amount of time. In fact, the short TED talks were almost predicted by Andy Warhol in 1968 when he said: "In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes."
TED talks as they stand today are elitist and "mid-brow". They are also infinitely forgettable and terribly dangerous. There is enough in our interconnected lives to make us feel that we are all right, that we have done our bit. TED talks make us feel that intellectually we are keeping up with what is around us. But as long as there is an uncomfortable reaction to people from outside the perceived possible TED talk group, these talks will do very little good, and may end up doing a great deal of harm.