Readings | Whats Wrong With TED Talks | Week 3

Monday, February 18th 2019, 3:45:11 pm

This critique of TED talks from, ironically, a TEDx talk itself was really on point. Bratton’s definition of the format itself using its own acronym (though not really) perfectly summarizes his attitude:

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

This connection he makes to the megachurch sermon reduces the TED format to the “thoughts and prayers” level of impact (i.e. not very much).

He then goes on to highlight what exactly is missing from TED talks, giving really tangible examples of where TED topics don’t dare tread and the format’s milquetoast trepidationary style:

But it’s not as though there is a shortage of topics for serious discussion. We need a deeper conversation about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and cloud feudalism (and toward that, a queer history of computer science and Alan Turing’s birthday as holiday!)

Besides the restraint TED talks exhibit to a fault, Bratton goes on to explain that its reductionist approach to big problems is also, well, a problem. TED talks frame problems in too narrow of a model, perhaps. Or, in Bratton’s own words:

Problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.

He then adds:

“Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.

This suggests that the TED talk skirts around the underlying problems, rather than actually addressing them.

Ultimately, his placebo analogy to TED talks draws attention to how TED talks can actually be harmful. In Bratton’s words:

In this case the placebo is worse than ineffective, it’s harmful. It’s diverts your interest, enthusiasm and outrage until it’s absorbed into this black hole of affectation.

Granted, comparing TED talks to black holes of affection is a pretty harsh statement, but it drives the point home that we (as an audience) should really demand more from the format. Demand a little less conversation, and maybe more direct action. Besides, y’know, thoughts-and-prayers-only-level responses to problems.

Omar Delarosa avatar

Written by Omar Delarosa who lives in Brooklyn and builds things using computers.

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