TED Smashed Dare to disagree... with TED

TED has taken a lot of flak recently. Over at The New Republic, Evgeny Morozov has just published an eye wateringly brutal review of the popular site for bite-sized talks:

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

…The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think.

This follows Carl Zimmer‘s similarly scathing account (this time on a talk by Philip Zimbardo and I must admit, I wholeheartedly agree with Zimmer’s criticisms of Zimbardo’s talk):

 Zimbardo has served as the president of the American Psychological Association and has written a number of bestsellers and textbooks… and then this distinguished psychologist came to TED and delivered a rapid-fire bombardment of disconnected statistics and sweeping generalizations without any serious evidence backing them up. In this talk, he ends with a warning that our species will descend to the level of banana slugs. It’s like the punchline of a joke.

I’m not a fan of over-generalising, and as rampant over-generalising is one of my biggest criticisms of TED, I’m going to try not to do the same thing here. I’ve seen some tremendous TED talks and I’ve seen some horrendous TED talks. TED has it’s problems but TED is only a platform, though a powerful platform it may be. It’s not a source in itself and it’s clearly not where people should be headed for their sole education – there are far more promising on-line destinations for this than TED, but there again – TED told us that already.

If I were to be in charge of TED, I would not necessarily ask for higher quality-control, I’d ask to see better referencing, I certainly don’t want to see TED reacting to criticism by policing what speakers can say. As long as sources are adequately provided, I’m happy to do the leg work and fact-check myself, or let the hive-mind do it for me – but this becomes a nightmarish task when you can’t find a source to start with. Another thing I’d like to see is questions from the audience. I’ve heard people say time and time again that the most interesting part of lectures is the Q&A. This has certainly been my experience and I think it’s sad that TED does not allow its audience the freedom to question the speakers at the pulpit of ideas. As Zimmer so eloquently put it, “When a TED talk ends, the lights go out. There’s no time for questions”.

For all its faults, TED remains a great springboard for ideas and inspiration. I’m not convinced that its style is really as bigger problem as has been made out by some, it serves (or at least it should serve) a very different purpose to true on-line learning. I see TED much the same way as I see Twitter, never as a source – but often as a doorway to discovery. I do however agree that we need to change the attitude that TED is somehow a stamp of approval for fact-checked information, that it is not. The attitude we should have to TED is no different to the attitude we should have to all things – a healthy scepticism. This TED talk (ironically), sums up both this attitude and the purpose of TED (as I perceive it) just perfectly:

It’s an inspiring talk, it’s from someone from a strongly academic background but who is not chiefly an academic. It’s not particularly well referenced but that’s sort of the point. It’s not meant to be a lecture, it’s meant to kick-start you in to thinking for yourself. A little inspiration can go a very long way, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always check, question and challenge our sources. Always, always, always. Even.. no.. especially when, our source is TED.


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