ted blog

The good, the bad, & the TED

We’re very excited to partner with TEDxSydney and bring this year’s event to Sydney Opera House on Saturday, May 5th.

TED is a brand that divides like few others. Like all brands that cause such divisions, its vocal detractors are balanced out by its diehard followers. Millions of people watch and share the videos online. Others scoff and declare it a fad. A waste of time.

So recognisable is its content and format that it’s even spawned its own parodies such as Onion Talks and TOD Talks.

With just over a fortnight until the Sydney event, we thought we’d take the time to consider the debate surrounding TED.

There’s a question on Quora, ‘Why do some people hate TED?’ (which, at the time of writing, had attracted seventy answers, hundreds or comments and thousands of votes).

Some points raised include: it’s too simplistic, too optimistic, it diminishes the value of scholarship, there’s too much variance in the quality of talks, it’s mindless entertainment, it focuses on answers to the exclusions of questions, it imposes the need for narrative in thinking, and it’s elitist.

We can break this down into three main potential issues with TED: it oversimplifies, the quality of talks is unreliable, and it’s elitist. We’ll address those questions in reverse order.

The first grievance, that TED is elitist, is an accusation so frequently levelled that TED addresses it in the ‘About’ section of their website. Yes, tickets can be in the thousands of dollars for the big events, which effectively puts up a barrier to physical participation to many. But again, that refers primarily to the main events and only for physical participation. It’s hard to level the argument of exclusivity and elitism against an organisation that gives away most of its content away for free, that translates that content into multiple languages for free, and that develops tools for online communities for free.

(Besides, as TED point out, lowering the price wouldn’t increase access to TED, it would just increase waiting lines).

The second grievance is that there is too great a variance in the quality of talks.

One thing to bear in mind is that TED is essentially a media platform. There are only two TED global events per year. Most events are “TEDx” events, which are independently organised events from local license owners. There are a lot of TEDx events around the world (including TEDxSydney at Sydney Opera House), with each event comprised of multiple talks. Apparently there’ve been around 16,500 TED and TEDx talks. There’s probably few people, even among the diehard TED community, who would argue that there are enough “ideas worth spreading” to fill up all those slots. By their very nature, ideas worth spreading are hard to come by.

Again, I think most TED diehards could point to a TED talk that deserved or even inspired the ridicule of an Onion Talk. But Onion Talks, funny as they are, aren’t really a true takedown of TED because they address only the easy targets. In fact, insofar as they engender a more critical viewing of such talks, then perhaps they’re actually benefitting TED after all.

Take for instance Randy Powers’ talk about ‘Vortex Mathematics’ at TEDxCharlotte. You won’t find it online. That’s because TED took it down after the community raised questions about its accuracy and significance. It wasn’t just absorbed and celebrated by the community. It was singled out for debate. It was a dud. Just as there would be duds among anything over 16,000 in number. But those same crowds that weed out the duds help highlight the gems.

It’s also interesting to note that most of the top answers in the Quora thread mentioned that discussed the negatives of TED acknowledged the existence of numerous TED talks that they loved. In that sense, the negatives aren’t so much a discussion about TED in general, but a discussion about the “bad” talks. TED itself, then, isn’t bad. It’s a media platform that, like others, has a mixture of content that’s good and bad.

The final grievance is that TED events devalue scholarship. They are too short, too pithy, too digestible. They bastardise complex problems into simple solutions. They are junk food for the mind.

It’s true. All of this is true – if, that is, you’re comparing a TED talk against an implicit benchmark such as a PhD. In that case, yes. But that would be to set TED up against an ideal but unrealistic and unfair alternative.

Take this excerpt from a response in the Quora thread:

The alternative isn’t a deep serious dive into scholarship, it’s videos of teenage girls lip synching and cats falling off counters. It’s surprising and encouraging that so many Americans and presumably people worldwide are awakening to science, public speaking, discourse and culture, even the lite version.

TED may be the “lite version” of serious scholarship, but compared to other ways that 300M could be spending their time, it carries considerably more weight than its detractors grant it. Like all crib notes, it only gives you the gist of the topic, which is all it can realistically do.

Anything that gets people into ideas and thinking probably contributes a net benefit to society. Not everyone can contribute an idea worth spreading, and not every idea can be condensed into 18 minutes, but the mere fact that people are spending their time watching these talks, talking about these talks, even debating these talks is a good sign.

While TED may not be the university of the 21st century, it may be good for universities in the 21st century. It shifts perspectives from occupational-centred outcomes to learning for the sake of learning. Watching a TED talk may not be equivalent to a “deep serious dive into scholarship,” but it does give the spotlight to those who have engaged in that deep and gives you an insight into their findings. It’s up to you to explore the ideas you like from there.

TEDxSydney comes to Sydney Opera House on Saturday May 4. It’s already full up, but will be livestreamed to various places – stay tuned for details.

This is posted by Ideas at the Hosue. No one from TEDxSydney was involved in or consulted for the creation of this post.