This essay, Against TED, by Nathan Jurgenson at The New Inquiry raises some important perceptions (and misperceptions) and isn’t the first criticism of TED we’ll see. Nor will it be the last. It’s really not that hard to find such criticisms; they’ve been around for some time and they all point to many of the same things we’re all aware of – perception of exclusivity, neatly defined problems tied up in bows, the “religion of TED”, etc.
Like any organisation, TED, and those of us that attend or organise TEDx events (I am the licensee for TEDxCanberra), as its community, need to be aware of the need for positive change and reinvention. I’m well aware that TED itself is going through a period of introspection about its relevance and the shape it takes into the future; it’s a subject of discussion that TEDx organisers around the world have been asked to contribute to.
As someone whose day job it is to help to define the way an organisation gets out its message and designs and delivers the things it does, I’m more than abundantly aware that no matter what insiders believe (and I do believe that TED really does have the best interests of the globe at heart and really is interested in “ideas worth spreading”) that it doesn’t matter. What matters is perception. Because for most people, even otherwise smart, critical thinkers, perception is reality. And there’s no use arguing against it.
For example, the matter of the cost of TED is often contentious. Sure, its production values are insanely high and it must cost a terrifying amount to put on, but what almost everyone I’ve spoken to outside the TED community don’t know is that TED runs non-profit. When I point this out to many people they’re often far more circumspect in their criticism of TED after that realisation.
Overall, I think the biggest problem TED faces, to quote my Marx, is that it has become something of an opiate of the masses. It’s all too easy as a reasonably wealthy, middle class person, to attend TED, or a TEDx or to watch videos and to feel aware of problems in the world and become smug and self-satisfied that in your awareness, you’ve helped.
Not by a long stretch.
What really needs to follow is action. To take ideas worth spreading and convert them into actions worth doing.
Every. Single. Time.
Truth be told, the TED community already does this. It’s another thing too few are aware of. For the past number of years, TED has become really not just a single event, but a continuum of things – events, the TED Prize which funds US$100,000 of work by an outstanding individual (it’s worth looking to see who the winners have been), the TED Fellows, and other good works that are funded out of the Sapling Foundation. So, the actions worth doing that I put forward already happen. It’s just that most people don’t bother to look that deeply. They just see an expensive, exclusive event.
That said, I do think that there is an element of the audience, both physical and online, that feel they satisfy some “involvement in the world” quota just by showing up. I think it’s incumbent on us to make sure that percentage is small by encouraging action, no matter how small. If the end result is that someone walks away with their views changed, that may be enough, or a starting point.
I’d like to urge the international community of TEDx organisers to be a part of that; to be a community that doesn’t just showcase great ideas, but that inspires, drives and gets involved in action. To be defined by betterness, in the sense Umair Haque outlines in his book of the same name.
We’ve done it a little at TEDxCanberra, but are focussing on it more strongly this year. We’re going to ask presenters, where possible, to challenge the audience to get involved, or to leave them with a question, or a call to meaningful action.
No more neat bows.
If the doing of important things was what the rest of the world saw from TED rather than the (somewhat incorrect perception of the) wealthy and famous attending an expensive, hard to get in to event where they satisfy their perception of being involved by listening for four days, I think there might be fewer of the negative analyses out there.
As I said, perception is reality. What people see in TED, regardless of what we believe on the inside of that community, is what it is.