Home > rant > I kind of hate TED talks

I kind of hate TED talks

March 13, 2013

The good

There are good things about TED talks. It’s nice to have a thoughtful articulate person saying something a little bit new and a little bit different. OK I’m done.

The annoying

Then there are annoying things about TED talks. People are so ridiculously polished. No idea is that perfect! Rumor has it that, after getting professionally trained for their TED performances, the producers then remove all the “umms” and awkward silences to make it even more perfect. Yuck.

Here’s one way to think about it: TED talks aren’t as good as blogs because they’re not interactive – the audience is expected to receive and not talk back. That’s why I prefer to blog in my underwear and bathrobe, imagining my friends on their living room sofas, also wearing pajamas, and objecting to my stupidity. And that’s why I like the feedback and the comments. It makes my ideas better.

At the same time, TED talks are not as deep as books, where you have enough time and space to actually think through an argument. How could you really develop a deep thought in 20 minutes? You just can’t.

Instead, you have a manipulation of the past which often result in simulated emotional responses, much like how the soundtrack to Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” makes me cry every time I hear it, no matter what emotional state I’m actually in.

The essence of what’s annoying about TED talks is perfectly parodied by Onion Talks, especially this one:

The evil

But what I really hate about TED talks is the curating of ideas that it represents. I realize that any gatekeeper will do this, but I’m particularly concerned about the TED byline, “Ideas Worth Spreading”. According to whom?

Who gets invited to those things? Whose ideas are interesting but non-threatening enough for the TED audience?

And how often do other, rawer ideas get ignored? How appealing do I have to make my idea to rich people in order to be an insider in this mini self-congratulatory universe?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about written by a woman who was uninvited to give a TED talk under suspicious circumstances (with a follow-up here). Granted, it’s a TEDx situation, but it’s the same problem. The paragraph I worry about most:

Looking back, I must admit that upon learning of this invitation some of my colleagues and I questioned TEDx Manhattan’s commitment to serving as a platform for looking at our food system from a non-privileged perspective. Changing the Way We Eat is not a venue for the common person. The website makes no mention of available scholarships to enable low-income people or students to attend the pricey one day conference.  Not only must attendees pay $135 for the privilege of sitting and listening, they also have to apply, explaining why they deserve to be part of the audience and then hope to be selected! Unless the Glynwood Institute does real serious targeted outreach to communities of color (which I haven’t seen and was the primary purpose of my screening party), their set up is going to result in the exclusion of low-income and people of color, regardless of whether it is intentional.  I received feedback from a past attendee that presenters referenced poor people and people of color only as being the recipients of charity or service. I think Changing the Way We Eat needed to hear my voice in order to change the way the mainstream food movement thinks about poverty, food access, hunger, and food system change.

Categories: rant
  1. Thads
    March 13, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Indeed, the TED format presupposes a cozy centrist political consensus. It would be hilarious to watch, say, Noam Chomsky packaging US imperialism, or Bob Avakian packaging Marxist doctrine in a TED format. An Idea Worth Spreading: Workers of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your chains.

  2. ddf
    March 13, 2013 at 7:23 am

    So you do not intend to apply for membership at the mutual admiration society? Thank you for this little dose of common sense

  3. March 13, 2013 at 7:42 am

    So Cathy, do you think we should give people the information they need or the information they want (or are ready for)? The success of TED is taking the audience seriously (even though they can’t talk, they are running the show), it’s the rock star / talk show model of science. It’s entertainment as much if not more than education. Compare to your standard college lecture (from view of those who always sat in the back of the classroom) and it is a massive improvement. I agree with all your gripes and concerns about TED, but I don’t think blogs are the right alternative. Yes, they are in theory open to all, but in practice pretty closed. On the more intellectual site you need to come with a fair bit of background and comfort in intellectual circles. The inner city disadvantage youth could easily stop by here, but would they and if they did what would they take away? I suspect that TED has been a net positive culturally … (if nothing else by giving academics some wardrobe tips), but I compare it more to Hollywood than MIT.

  4. Recovering Banker
    March 13, 2013 at 8:07 am

    I like threatening ideas, and dislike being congratulated and flattered. I am clearly not the target audience for TED talks. Blogs are an excellent source of info for what interests me, along with some mainstream news sources (e.g. Nature). To me, the quality of the curator/editor is key- the medium (e.g. blog, magazine) less so.

  5. March 13, 2013 at 8:53 am

    The thing about TED talks is that there is always an undercurrent of finance behind every talk. The reason people get invited to talk is to offer something that will make someone more money. The reason the news media is enamored with TED is not because the ideas are good when did the MSM really care about an idea, it’s because of all the power gathered in one room and power always translates to transfer of wealth from the 99% to the 1% in current society.

    When did it become socially acceptable to care more about ‘big ideas’ (that can generate wealth) than society as a whole?

    The more interesting group of people would be those that have ideas that would never be invited to give a TED talk. That might bring some real change.

    • Blimp Rider
      March 13, 2013 at 9:03 am

      “The thing about TED talks is that there is always an undercurrent of finance behind every talk.” – That’s total BS, watch the following TED talk by Mark Bezos and reconsider your thesis statement.

      From a Volunteer Firefighter

      • mathematrucker
        March 13, 2013 at 10:38 am

        The undercurrent jumped right out when I watched this vid.

        A former colleague of mine won the Siemens calculus-teaching award for his state a few years back. He was a strong candidate to win at the national level, but to be eligible, he would have needed to travel to Florida (from Nevada) while his classes were taking their final exams. His principal wanted him to go, but he considered it wrong to leave his students behind, so he didn’t. My colleague I respect; his principal and Siemens I don’t.

      • March 13, 2013 at 10:56 am

        Are you freaking kidding me? This guy talks about his work at Robin Hood with millionaires “ending poverty” and how the audience members should start charity work now, before they are officially millionaires. Really really bad example of TED talks not having an undercurrent of finance, man.

        • Blimp Rider
          March 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

          My Opinion – You either missed the very ethos of the message of get out and help your community no matter what your status or your needlessly digging to defend your opinion on TED talks.

          Just by way of background, this video was played on my graduation day from the Firefighter academy and received a rousing ovation from not only us Brother/Sisters “Volies” but also the modest income family and friends in attendance. I feel it silly to mention our economic status, but your reference to “Millionaires” in your argument (that wasn’t part of his speech) made me think that my point would ring clearer to you.

          A further consideration; just on Youtube alone, the audience for that message is many-many times higher than the audience that sat down for that presentation 2 years ago.
          I find it difficult to fathom that you would burn calories to conjure up a problem in light of the wonderful message presented to further your beef about the forum from which it was presented.

        • March 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm

          Not at all, I like the message. It just isn’t a good example of a TED talk without a financial component.

        • Blimp Rider
          March 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm

          Where is the the financial “undercurrent” to the message delivered.

        • March 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm

          As in, it’s too obvious to be called an undercurrent?

        • grwww
          March 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm

          And this is the real deal here. Ted Talks are empowering. Yes, there are so many people without the same privileges that you and I have enjoyed to be able to have access to the internet and type stuff that ends up in this forum. Those other people, are the ones that need mechanisms that allow them to escape. Knowledge is the most powerful mechanism of change that exists. Teachers play TED talks to their students. I try to circulate great TED talks to people that I know. Money makers are not what TED brings to the stage. TED brings to the stage, substantiated, great ideas, so that they never have to say, ooops, that was a mistake.

          Not everyone gets to do everything. You have to earn your access, and own your privilege. Only when you can do both, with out expecting that either will have to be gift, will be you able to make yourself achieve what you want.

          Yes, you might have to kiss some back sides. Yes, you might have to push someone out of the way. But, that is how our society works. There is nowhere on this planet that everything is fair. Where you are, who you are, who you know, and who you can know are all part of being able to achieve.

    • March 14, 2013 at 8:02 am

      The attitude displayed in this comment could also benefit from watching the recent talk by Dan Pallotta.

  6. March 13, 2013 at 10:22 am

    This is what is really cool about America. Anyone can communicate ideas in just about any way imaginable. If you don’t like the ideas or the way they are presented – just don’t watch or don’t read or don’t attend.

    The fact that TED talks are getting push back from intellectuals is a good sign they are effective in attracting a powerful audience and getting their “ideas spread.” Very few people would turn down an opportunity to present their passions to a TED audience. Of course, not many would turn down an opportunity to be a guest blogger for mathbabe either.

    The competition forces the the rest of us to raise our games if we want to compete in the “idea spreading” market. We might not like what we need to do but there will always be a “conformity” price to pay for our ability to effectively communicate in any venue. Communication is a two way street – you’ve got to do it in a way that your audience will find enjoyable, meaningful and acceptable. Or find yourself shouting in an empty room.

    • Thads
      March 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      This seems a little pollyannaish. You don’t like how Fox News feigns objectivity while spewing right-wing lies into our national discourse? Fine, just don’t watch it! That’s what’s so cool about America!

      To be sure, some intellectuals have trouble delivering a message in an enjoyable, meaningful, and acceptable format. Chris Hedges got in trouble when he tried to give a sobering speech about the horrors of war as a commencement address at Rockford College. (Imagine him as a TED speaker!) But effectiveness is not an unalloyed virtue when it limits the scope of what can be said.

  7. Blimp Rider
    March 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    I’ll bite….. how is there an obvious financial component to this message?

    • Thads
      March 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm

      Actually, I agree that there is no overt financial content to this message, which is admirable in and of itself. It reminds me of Poppy Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” campaign. Volunteerism and praising volunteerism are admirable in themselves, but the context of Bush’s campaign was to insinuate that they could take the place of government assistance. Likewise, with TED, the problem is not the ideas they do spread, it’s the ideas they don’t.

      • Blimp Rider
        March 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm

        On a funny note – On the first day of Firefighter class, our mean-as-hell instructor asked us all to stand up and state why we we wanted to be volunteer firefighters?

        Without fail all but one stated “to serve my community”…. the last guy said with a grin “to score with the ladies!”

        It was the only time I saw the instructor laugh out loud. He was a tough bird….. out of a class of 24, 12 people dropped out in the first 2 weeks.

  8. March 14, 2013 at 3:14 am

    I agree that curation by TED (and especially TEDx) has been problematic, not only because of the people they’ve excluded but also because they’ve had speakers present bad science (here’s a math talk that TEDx eventually decided to pull: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-oRnhrOf0r0 ).

    You might be interested in Evgeny Morozov’s lengthy takedown of TED: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/105703/the-naked-and-the-ted-khanna

    A juicy quote: “Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED ‘ecosystem’—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how ‘ideas worth spreading’ become ‘ideas no footnotes can support.'”

  9. March 17, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Your criticisms (and a few others, like rampant race and class bias on the part of many presenters) are valid, but I don’t know that I would apply them quite so globally. There is plenty of slickness, glibness and shallowness, but many TED talks make no claim to easy solutions, do not advocate ideas that are easily monetized, and do not turn to technology for salvation.

    TED talks are what they are: 18-minute videos that address, with varying degrees of integrity and effectiveness, what can be addressed in 18 minutes of public speaking. I get different things out of reading this blog and out of watching interviews with Cathy O’Neill on Frontline. I wouldn’t trade one for the other. Seeing and hearing–for better and/or worse–are different from reading, so videotaped TED talks, by nature, trade in direct interaction for the “lived experience” of seeing and hearing speakers. For what it’s worth, most of the talks posted online are accompanied by lively comment thread discussions that are often somewhat more intelligent than what one typically finds on such threads (not a tough bar to get over, granted). It might be nice if tapes of audience Q&A were also posted, so that talks would have to be subject to more immediate challenge and exchange–which I would hope speakers would challenge.

    All audiences for everything are “selected”, most on the basis of who asks for tickets first. I don’t fault TED for selectivity, when it comes to speakers and audience members, but I wouldn’t mind seeing an effort toward greater diversity along a number of dimensions, both on the stage and in the audience.

    Some books, blog posts and TED talks are smarter than others, but the greatest value of the better TED talks is that of providing a jumping-off point for the beginning–not the end–of further discussion of ideas and issues.

    I do find myself wondering what an alternative

  10. March 17, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    ..what an alternative TED would look like…

  11. March 27, 2013 at 1:45 am

    I hate TED talks. Mostly because they are short and the information is not very stimulating. As the OP said, I need more time to reflect on what the speaker is saying. I need more time to formulate my ideas. Also, the speaker never presents anything “fresh”. The ideas are simply spins on other ideas someone’s already had. They seem like on of those things people go to, to feel good and smart about themselves. One of those things where people don’t know what the speaker is actually talking about, but they pretend they do for the sake of “being smart”.

  12. March 29, 2013 at 12:12 am

    I know this is quite lowbrow for the audience here, but some dude named Eddie Huang was on the Joe Rogan (actor/comedian) Experience podcast dishing some dirt about his experience at the TED conference. You definitely get the idea that money is a big focal point of TED, although it might not necessarily appear that way on the surface. WARNING: Lots of NSFW language ahead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JhwQ17mLjo

    • mathematrucker
      March 29, 2013 at 10:41 am

      Thanks for the heads up on this revealing vid. I’m a big fan of both Rogan and Stanhope. (I’m a big fan of real people in general…that’s what brought me here in the first place!)

      Had to chuckle (and cringe a little) when Joe and his assistant couldn’t multiply 2K times 8K in their heads. The dollar sign in front wasn’t nearly as funny though.

    • March 30, 2013 at 7:37 am

      Holy shit that’s a great video. Telling people when to give a standing ovation. Crazy. Thanks!

  13. September 7, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    I think TED talks are biased towards what flatters limousine liberals & echoes the condescending tones of “noblesse oblige.” Ordinarily that wouldn’t bother me, it’s still a free country & I want to be exposed to a variety of perspectives, opinions, & ideas. However, I really don’t like it when just one set of ideas, the ones postulated by their ivy league cliques, is presented as the only ones worth spreading. It is a problem when all the gate keepers of information start acting like the country clubs of the 1950s & lock out people & ideas they do not favor. I’m still waiting to see a poor person of any color on their stage.

  14. Tendril
    December 5, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Ted talks are mostly pro capitalist nonsense. You’d never find them talking about hardcore Marx or the world’s core problem from which most problems stem: debt created money. There are some very good Ted talks though.

  15. Caveman
    January 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    I have a very indifferent view about TT, I neither hate nor praise it but I do appreciate that it brings forth some topics ‘worth’ discussing.
    It shows the opinion/view of one individual in a 20min (more/less) time frame. That’s about it. Not much to ‘hate’.
    You asked “ideas worth spreading” according whom but have you thought that all ideas may be worth spreading? (‘worth’ is used very loosely) And by spreading I don’t mean enforcing but sharing. By sharing an idea we are open to criticize it or embrace it. In the end it is up to each individual to take from an idea what they wish to take. Even your ‘idea’, as presented in a blog form, isn’t exempted from this.
    I tend to view ‘ideas’ and ‘opinions’ as an individual’s perception from/of life. Doesn’t mean I have to accept it as my own or agree to it. There are a lot of individuals who have little thoughts within themselves that they want to ‘share’. We’re all doing it.

  16. mathematrucker
    January 31, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    The following slogan gets broadcast repeatedly in TED “public radio” ads:

    “Ideas that will change your view of the world.”

    “Sharing” is a nice word, isn’t it. That’s why the previous commenter chose it. Children are taught to be generous and share with each other.

    “Ideas that will change your view of the world.” TED, Einstein, Hitler, Kim Jong-un were/are all very successful at sharing ideas with the intent of changing people’s view of the world, ideas everyone had/has the freedom to accept or reject, so everything’s cool. Dennis Rodman among others would surely agree.

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