Sunday, August 28, 2016
Last updated: 11 months ago

Katic: Vancouver a perfect home for TED-style elitism

Photo Illustration Andrew Bates/The Ubyssey, photo TEDx Vancouver/flickr

Photo Illustration Andrew Bates/The Ubyssey, photo TEDx Vancouver/flickr

To celebrate TED’s 30th anniversary, TED is moving its annual conference from Long Beach to Vancouver. Our city couldn’t be a more fitting locale. Like TED, Vancouver’s elitism and privilege is thinly veiled by its idealistic but unthreatening faux-progressivism.

It may surprise you that $7,500 is the price for a front-row seat to TED’s “ideas worth spreading,” but where else can you meet thought-leaders at super-charged networking events, like TED2013’s “organic local cuisine under the stars in an isolated desert canyon”?

There is some value in local, independently organized TEDx events (I organize the TEDx Terry Talks), but the main TED conference has become completely insufferable.

When I first started to watch TED talks, I thought this interesting new medium might help to make challenging ideas more accessible. However, TED is anything but challenging; it is intellectual pablum that has done little more than create a bloated ideas industry. Dominated by a culture of feel-good techno-utopian do-good millionaires, most TED talks over-simplify complex global problems and offer quick technological fixes.

I am not the first person to raise these concerns, though; it has become almost cliché. TED talks are “intellectually pretentious and almost industrialized in their production” (Globe and Mail), “quick hits of epiphany from our pundit overlords,… a one-night stand with ideas” (Harvard Business Review) and “a massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism” (Salon). The philosopher Daniel Dennett even went so far as to suggest that TED has become something of a religion, observing that it “already, largely wittingly I think, adopted a lot of the key design features of good religions.”

However, a simple takedown of TED’s self-congratulatory culture would miss the mark: its flaws are more fundamental than that. TED’s biggest weakness is its unwavering commitment to a unique brand of feel-good, please-everyone techno-optimism.

For instance, take global poverty. Typical TED answers include giving the rural poor access to cell phones and laptops. Like the missionaries of old who believed Africans could lift themselves out of poverty if only they had enough Bibles, these millionaire missionaries think iPads might do the trick.

But this feel-good fix entirely removes the many real political issues that underlie the problem, like weak institutions, corrupt regulators, unfair trade deals, unsafe working conditions and exploitative multinational corporations.

Another popular idea is micro-finance, which tells a similar feel-good story of how wealthy philanthropists can use an exciting new financial innovation to help the poor help themselves. However, to borrow a phrase from Evgeny Morozov, micro-finance demonstrates how TED’s “idea worth spreading” have become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

I just produced an extensive radio-documentary on micro-finance for the Terry Project Podcast, and we found no scholarly evidence that micro-finance has any capacity to lift a society out of poverty. However, we did find that the industry capitalized on TED-style optimism to fuel a micro-finance bubble, with some micro-finance profiteers charging the poor 4,000 per cent interest (that is not a typo), and others intimidating their clients to the point that it caused a spate of suicides.

But you are never going to watch a TED talk about micro-finance suicides or micro-finance millionaires, or other such messy issues that might leave you feeling confused, guilty, overwhelmed, angry or offended.

The best demonstration of this came from none other than Chris Anderson himself, TED’s chief curator. Anderson decided not to publish a Nick Hanauer TED talk that advocated for aggressive income redistribution through taxation. When Hanauer accused Anderson of censorship, Anderson replied by denigrating Hanauer’s talk for being “partisan head-butting” that would make “a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs feel insulted.”

Therein lies TED’s fundamental flaw. Chris Anderson thinks TED can have its cake, but eat it too: radically transform the world and keep everyone happy while doing it. Unfortunately, the solutions to complex global problems will not always please everyone. Issues like poverty or climate change have their villains, and a real solution would strip those villains of their privileges.

However, I wouldn’t expect to hear those sorts of ideas at an elite conference like TED, because many of those same people will be in attendance. Best that TED feature some venture capitalist with an idea for combating poverty with 3D printers, because we wouldn’t want to upset the feel-good vibe with an honest conversation about justice, oppression or privilege.

  • Liberal_Lover

    This article is a prime example of what happens when someone spends too much time writing in academia instead of being constructive. *Refer to Ken Robinson’s creativity in schools*

    I understand the point you are trying to make, and there is a little validity in it. However, to take a polar opposite view to TED and attempt to discredit how amazing it has been to reshape conversations around the world is disheartening to say the least.

    TED is a place for stories, to inspire change not to guide it. TED makes scientists of all stripes rockstars. TED helps to provide a stage for conversations that are new to many people and cultures.

    I’m grateful that you produced a radio show to rip apart micro-financing. There are many horror stories that need to be shared. Perhaps if you collected them and spoke about the differences between the horror and the success stories, you too could be invited to speak at a TED X event.

    Here’s a handful of talks on Failure. My personal favorite is David Damberger: What happens when an NGO admits failure.

    • Gordon Katic

      Interesting premise. I don’t really think of myself as an academic, so I wonder why I am such a prime example of it.

      Has TED reshaped anything? I’m not so sure. If anything, it has taken us away from addressing fundamental political issues.

      • Qin

        I don’t understand your obsession with politics. Why don’t you write to UBC’s Math department and ask them about their contributions to “fundamental political issues”. By the way, they hold conferences too.

  • Qin

    The fundamental flaw with your article is that you make a false assumption about TED that has not even been encouraged by its own PR. TED is about “ideas worth spreading”. It’s not about comprehensive solutions to global problems. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if anyone can give one in the context of a ten minute speech. Clearly, it’s not going to provide the same amount of detail as a 100+ page report from the UN or an article published in the American Economic Review. I don’t understand why you are expecting TED to do that…

    • Gordon Katic

      Right, TED isn’t lofty and full of promises. Have you watched any TED talks? Literally on the front page right now, you will see a talk called “How to green the desert and reverse climate change.” I haven’t even watched it, but do you want to put money on whether or not he talks about international climate treaties, consumption patterns, oil and gas companies, or anything remotely political? if he does, I’ll eat my hat.

      • Qin

        I see. If a TED talk doesn’t address politics than it’s not useful?

        The speaker, Allan Savory, is a biologist and environmentalist. He talked about the ecology behind desertification. Why would you expect him to talk about politics?

  • Haruka

    Mr. Katic, my question to you is: what have YOU done to address the “real political issues” that you speak of? Please get off your moral high horse and contribute to the conversation, not negate it. We have enough armchair academics in the world who would happily take on that role.

    • Gordon Katic

      Interesting ad hominem. First of all, I reject the notion that writing is somehow not doing anything. The column in itself is about real politics. But beyond that, I am a student, I have a radio show, I am an environmental activist, I organize a monthly discussion series with leading academics, and I organize a TEDx conference.

  • Kate

    Don’t worry so much! It’s just fun speeches!

  • Guest

    Can anyone write for the Ubyssey? I have had enough of Katic’s didactic whining.

  • Sandy

    Google “TEDx Censorship” and you’ll find out that TED has indeed lost all credibility as far as being open to new ideas goes.

  • Kat

    On technology: Increasing communications technology in impoverished countries has been shown to help on a variety of levels. Being able to use a telephone and read a bible are wildly different things.

    They have to be “cell phones and laptops” because you can’t give these people 20 year old phones and computers, because it is much cheaper to install cellular/wireless infrastructure than anything else.

    This article has other issues, but this one’s probably important. I recommend watching one of those TED talks or taking some classes to find out why.