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(TED) Talk to Me

Intellectual porn for the middle class

The TED Talks app on my smartphone goes unopened for months at a time; it has blended into the background image surprisingly well, given that its logo is red and white, and my phone’s background is blue. And yet I don’t consider it a candidate for removal; it has survived several app purges, and I can’t quite explain why. You see, I have a somewhat distraught relationship with TED – I like having it available, but have come to hate using it.

I was first introduced to TED somewhere around the tenth grade. At that time, it seemed the peak of intellectualism, far more relevant than the basic functions we were taught in math, or the names and shapes of clouds taught in science. It was learning, we thought, without tedium or coercion by way of grading. In other words, it was the ideal learning experience, and that’s why we liked it. But if we had been just slightly more honest with ourselves – something quite difficult for tenth graders to do – we would have admitted that we liked it because it made us feel smart, like we were beyond the grind of high school.

This phenomenon – the drive to partake in something because it makes you feel smarter, or like a better person (even if doesn’t actually improve you in any way), is what TED relies upon to keep afloat its brand, its talks, and yes, to sell its $3,750 to $7,500 event tickets.

TED describes itself as devoted to all “Ideas Worth Spreading,” having broadened its scope beyond the original Technology, Entertainment, and Design fields from which it takes its acronymic name. Its cultural cachet, though, extends far beyond ideas. Watching TED Talks is a means of accruing cultural capital – twenty minutes and you come away with one more topic you can pretend to know something about. This type of cocktail party education is exactly what draws viewers into the fold, promising to deliver bite-sized pieces of knowledge that can pave the way to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. But if the talks are steps toward self-actualization, the elite annual events form the peak of the hierarchy itself. As quoted on the TED website, event attendees have called it the “ultimate brain-spa.” Holding the same kind of cultural – and social – value as a spa experience reflects the elitist nature of the events themselves.

There are certainly valuable things on TED – off the top of my head, I can recall Jill Bolte Taylor‘s story of how she consciously witnessed her own stroke, Isabel Allende‘s exploration of feminism and creativity, and Luis von Ahn’s discussion of the power of large-scale online collaboration. But for every Allende, there is a Cameron Russell, telling us that though she makes money as a model, “Looks Aren’t Everything.” For every Bolte Taylor, there is a preachy platitude about being beautiful, about making the most of our time, about being the best we can be (see Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on how we all have a little genius in us). For every truly unique story, there is a twenty-minute lecture that pats you on the back for learning an elementary-school-level moral lesson rather than imparting you with useful adult knowledge.

And yet we are all drawn in by TED’s promise of earth-shatteringly bright speeches – myself included. Though my scrolls through the list of TED talks in search of enlightenment are becoming increasingly infrequent, I do find myself drawn at times by a prominent neuroscientist exploring the search for consciousness, or the visualization of global poverty statistics to debunk stereotypes. But more than this, I am drawn by the big names, the names of leading intellectuals I can drop while talking to friends. And against my best judgment, I also feel the urge to appropriate the knowledge available on the TED platform to elevate my own perceived intellectualism.

The extraordinary stories TED uses as its selling point exist not because of TED, but because they belong to extraordinary people. Their stories would still exist without the events in Whistler, San Diego, or New York, and they may well still be easily unearthed. Though TED does provide a platform, we cannot attribute any of its amazing content to the organization; it’s simply a launchpad like any other. And while its online platform – launched in 2006 – is accessible to all with a web connection, the elite events – pinnacles of all that is TED – are not nearly as open.

After a TEDx McGill event in 2011, I wrote about the selection process for speakers, in which the event organizer told me that speaker selection was based on personal connections with organizers rather than name recognition. While TEDx, created to give communities “TED-like experiences at the local level,” is just dissociated enough from TED to be labelled ‘independent’ (though there was a situation recently where TED exerted its power to shut down talks it deemed illegitimate at a TEDx West Hollywood event), its tone varies little from that of its parent organization. Like TED, it selects the stories they want to bring to the forefront based on some hard-to-define notion of what is interesting and valuable.

TED’s mandate is fundamentally inspiring, professing to believe in the “power of ideas to change attitudes, lives, and ultimately, the world,” but its curatorial position and exorbitant fees create an elitist atmosphere that is more focused on developing individualistic cultural cachet than enacting real change. As a result, TED’s mission is diluted to the point where it might be more accurate to see it as celebrating the “power of ideas – for those who can afford them.”