Earlier this week, citizens of Vancouver awoke to a stunning bit of front-page news – their city had won the Olympics all over again. Or at least that’s what landing the annual TED conference was being likened to by excitable tourism officials when it wasn’t being trumpeted as the Holy Grail of conventions.
No doubt, countless British Columbians were wondering what all the fuss was about. For many, “TED” conjures up images of a low-brow comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and a teddy bear. Little did they know it’s an acronym for technology, entertainment and design and, in fact, a high-brow conference for invitation-only elites who gather to hear “world-changing ideas” delivered in slick 18-minute presentations.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was over the moon at the news. The fact that this cultural forum was coming to his city was another sign of its world-class cred, he boasted. What he didn’t say was that TED imagines the kind of better planet embodied in the utopian dream his Vision Vancouver party has for the city, one that’s devoid of cars and oil tankers and whose economy is bolstered by wealthy software engineers who get to work on their bicycles.
As Nathan Heller, writing in The New Yorker last year, said of the makeup of the typical TED crowd: “It’s the mood of professionals who wear Converse to work, own multimillion-dollar homes at 32, eat local, donate profits to charity, learn Mandarin and rock climb the Pinnacles on Sundays.”
A TED conference costs a minimum of $7,500 to attend. Those hoping to grace the halls of the convention go through a vetting process that includes writing an essay on why they should get a lucky delegate spot.
TED was founded in 1984 by American architect Richard Saul Wurman as a modest annual chinwag for thinkers and brainiacs of disparate backgrounds interested in talking about how technology and innovation was changing the world. Chris Anderson assumed control in 2001 and, soon afterward, it exploded into a global intellectual phenomenon.
Thanks to YouTube, millions have lapped up the highly polished populist lectures on topics that are often arcane in nature but, nonetheless, designed to have a powerful impact on the audience. This exposure has helped expand the TED brand and spawn mini-conferences around the world under the organization’s imprimatur.
Until recently, TED – whose credo is Ideas Worth Spreading – enjoyed mostly fawning treatment from the popular press. Lately, however, the organization has been the recipient of some withering critiques. It has been skewered for lectures that are formulaic in design, that emphasize style over substance and that come across as little more than crass sales pitches for whatever book the presenter happens to be flogging.
Alex Pareene, writing in Salon.com, said the standard TED talk is modelled on a recipe popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell. Common tropes, he suggested, include oversimplified explanations of complex problems, idealistic solutions to said dilemmas, unconventional explanations for origins of identified vexing issues and “staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.”
The most devastating review of what TED has become was penned by a former conference presenter, Evgeny Morozov. Writing in The New Republic, he said TED was no longer a curator of ideas worth spreading but, instead, something quite menacing. “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 … 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.”
All of this is not to say TED doesn’t have something to offer. Many of the lectures – including one by Sir Ken Robinson on how schools are killing creativity – are terrific. TED has helped bring complex thoughts and theories to the masses and produced something more enlightening to do on YouTube than watch uncomfortable testimonials and mashups.
But enthusiasm for TED needs to be tempered with the reality that, while it may be a special conference to host, it can also be a fountain of new-agey, mumbo-jumbo futurism that promises far more than it delivers.