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.