Time For A TED Take-Down?

In the above TED talk, Benjamin Bratton questions the utility of the format itself. “TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design,” he says, adding, “I think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.” He calls for “more Copernicus, less Tony Robbins”:

Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling…. After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired … you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine? Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularisation. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems – rather this is one of our most frightening problems.

Heebie-Jeebie is unsympathetic, exclaiming, “TED talks are entertainment! The end.” Paul Fidalgo strikes a middle ground:

I suppose … there is a kind of “churchiness” about [TED talks], a gee-whiz awe-inducement about the Great Beyond which may or may not actually exist or come to pass. … In a way, it’s not entirely fair to TED-talkers. For one, they host plenty of talks grounded fully in reality and hard science. Other times, they host talks that genuinely spark new ways of looking at complex problems, or draw connections that deserve attention. But I suppose the point is that it’s hard to know which is which, and especially to the secular layperson, to decide requires a little too much faith.

Chad Orzel remains skeptical of TED naysayers, writing, “Sometimes, stuff that looks like speculative inspirational piffle in the moment turns out to be foundational for a whole new field.” He cites Richard Feynman’s 1959 speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” to illustrate his point:

What’s amusing about this is that Feynman’s famous speech is, essentially, a TED talk. Okay, he does a few more order-of-magnitude calculations than you would expect from a typical TED speaker, and it’s way too long for TED, but in spirit, it’s pretty much exactly the sort of thing TED promotes and Bratton is inveighing against. It’s pure gee-whiz techno-optimism– Feynman himself says “What would be the utility of such machines? Who knows?”– with only hazy ideas about what this would accomplish, or how you would do it. The few suggestions he makes about concrete ways to proceed are mostly wrong, or at least bear very little resemblance to what people actually doing nanotechnology research do these days.

And for a very long time, none of the stuff Feynman talks about went anywhere. You could easily argue that we still haven’t done most of it. If you’d pointed to this talk in, say, 1979 and said it would be one of Feynman’s most enduring legacies, most physicists would’ve said you were crazy. It had basically zero practical impact for decades, but now is trotted out as an example of the prescience of genius, and an inspiration for all sorts of amazing new science.

Meanwhile, Keith Humphreys points to this Onion parody as “the ultimate takedown of the format.”