The Sound of TED: A Case for Distaste

“Build a School in the Cloud”: Sugata Mitra at TED Talks in 2013

A case must be made, every once in a while, for the necessity of distaste—or else criticism risks turning into yet another way of enjoying commodities. The way we encounter the relatively recent phenomenon of TED is a good example, if only because, unlike, say, Hollywood, it has not yet been critiqued to giggles. 

A few critiques of TED have now appeared in popular media, trying to make sense of what TED is doing to science and popular culture. Almost all of them concentrate on the content of the talks: who is selected, what sorts of ideas get highlighted, how the presenter frames social problems, and what that says about the viewers.

As usual, the New Yorker was the first to gingerly venture out; its long, 2012 piece on TED is packed with the detailed gossip that the New Yorker is often made privy to. Nathan Heller’s article describes the slightly behind-the-scenes glimpses into the way TED producers select and coach the speakers, who pays how much to be at the Long Beach conference, and what the creator of the conference hangs on his office wall. No matter how snarky Heller’s tone, one is only left more enamored with the whole corporation, more interested, more willing to go on watching. This type of cynical open-mindedness is now a definite value of our times. It has become hard to argue against being open-minded to the possibilities of an industry, even if its products might be pure waste. 

Benjamin Bratton, a design-school academic, has offered a somewhat harsher and better-argued critique. His talk, delivered on TEDx (TED’s off-brand mutation), forwards the idea that TED is, in his words, middlebrow megachurch infotainment. The speakers simplify complex problems and present them as manageable and on-the-mend. All that’s needed, they often propose, is to throw some innovation at the problem. Better technology, better networks, better world— even if increased networks and technologies might be at the root of the problem itself. 

In a sense, Bratton is on the money here—and by money, I mean money, even if Bratton himself is not quite aware of that connection. (Don’t) watch, for example, Sugata Mitra’s TED talk—winner of the 2013 TED awards—on his “Hole in the Wall” research project. He describes how the computer kiosks he placed in Indian slums turned into self-organized learning hubs for children. Slum kids, with no or little adult supervision, used the machines to teach themselves math, English, and even molecular biology.

There seems to be an important lesson for educators in Mitra’s experiment. It stirs real emotions in people. Like a lot of what makes it onto the TED stage, it seems to inspire something in the viewer. Mitra’s talk is played and replayed in education courses across the world as an inspiration for… well, it’s not clear for exactly what. Mitra implies that the time for traditional education is over (something that was declared by many people as early as a hundred-and-fifty years ago, when the first “traditional” public school systems were being set up) and that technology can now allow for different, more autonomous and distributed structures of learning. Nevermind that his experiment was conducted in slums where children had no cellphones, no movies, no parties, no alcohol, no swim-lessons in the afternoon, no books, barely a real school, and, yes, no computers; we are to assume that the results there somehow have something to do with European or American public schools as well. Mitra ends the talk with a shameless plug for his project of putting a computer before every child. The lesson of his experiment, the role of play and autonomy in effective education, is in one stroke turned into icing for a project that has very little to do with what got his audience excited about the first few minutes of his talk.

This is obfuscation. A nice little experiment is used to give the impression that a large, systemic problem like schooling can be solved easily. That, however, cannot be the real issue with TED—because what I have just described applies to most of what is funded and performed as social research across the world. It is positivist thought with a twist of sleek camera-work. The debate over what this type of thinking means for practice and research stretches back into the 19th century. Whatever TED’s critics have suggested, there is nothing that TED does to ideas or science that has not been done before. The particular problem with TED is elsewhere.

Bratton-type critiques are inadequate in another manner. There are actually TED talks that don’t try to simplify world problems. Take, for example, those talks that simply present a discovery about some aspect of nature. Can we say that these have salvaged the forum? Or a better question: is Bratton—who delivers his tirade in TED format—totally innocent of what makes TED problematic?

What I ask myself when confronted with any TED talk is this: why do they all sound the same? I close my eyes, and I can tell from the first few lines of a lecture if it is being delivered in a TED format (and this has nothing to do with the cheap burst of applause that opens each video). The language of TED constitutes a special style that did not exist in the public imagination until 2006, and now it is so firmly planted there that everyone— politicians, artists, lawyers, talk-show hosts (think of Glenn Beck’s soliloquies), even college undergrads doing forced paper presentations—everyone leans toward its sugary tone.

I will be crass: the most interesting thing about Bratton’s talk is that in the early minutes of the lecture, just as he has delivered his main thesis, he suddenly forgets what he is supposed to say. There is a pause. It would be perfectly natural in another format to wait and gather one’s thoughts, but the pause is strangely disturbing in this context. He loses his place, then his nerve, and for the rest of the talk he struggles under an invisible weight. He has to heave a breath into each sentence, trying to propel himself into a rhythm that he doesn’t regain until the very end. What he is struggling under is the pressure of the TED style.

What makes the style uniquely recognizable? The sense of self-discovery, as if the speaker is relishing his own story as he retells it—he must seem as if he has constructed the narrative for his own gratification, not ours. At the same time, the talks should never seem spontaneous or conversational: they should seem perfectly practiced, absolutely deliberate. It should seem as if the speaker values every second of the viewers’ time. Nothing would be more disturbing than if he pauses to search for a new idea or a new way of saying something.

TED’s is the language and tone of the pitch. It’s a style that comes from corporate conference rooms, where product ideas are pitched to potential investors. It’s the fundraiser’s speech. You cannot sound needy—you should sound like there is a world out there waiting to buy your work, that you are here only out of a belief in the importance of spreading your idea. And at the same time, everything you say and how you say it should be calculated, catering to the cold, calculating investor. If you are working on something that doesn’t earn money, prestige or attention, then you cannot appeal to the investor’s reason (his reason is money), but at the same time you have to ignite his numb emotions. All wealthy philanthropists are addicted to this type of emotional high: it makes them feel human. 

The E in TED stands for entertainment—but TED talks are the opposite of modern entertainment, where you succeed, financially, when you bring the audience back to you. Here you succeed when they invite you back to them. This type of speech was always so humiliating that it was rarely televised: we never saw politicians speaking to funders on TV, not because elected officials could not admit to the act, but because their tone of voice would shame them. TED represents the disappearance of the last vestiges of any sense of shame that once accompanied self-commodification. It’s no coincidence that the rise of TED is almost cotemporaneous with the explosion of self-confident, sycophantic political speech on the public scene: Obama’s offering of his irrelevant personal narrative as a source of inspiration, no longer only to funders, but to everyone.

The feeling that a powerful person is catering to you, asking you to join in their adventure, is a strong high for the powerless. What gets lost as a viewer watching TED at home is that the speakers are rarely addressing their larger audience: their real, intended audience is either wealthy patrons or future clients. Even if the speaker genuinely wants you to be moved, the form destroys that intention; it blocks the transmission of any real meaning or emotion by reducing the idea to a pitch. I can think of very few talks that break through this problem, and they all do it by breaking the format. Chimamanda Adichie’s talk on the power of a single narrative to harm a nation is one example: she reads the whole thing from a few pages of paper. Throughout, she is nervous, but she does not mind her own nervousness. She has something more important to worry about.

But even Adichie’s presentation caters to the format by not acknowledging the shameful absurdity of the situation.  The only exception is Sarah Silverman’s talk—which TED refuses to publish on its website. In the unofficial video that somehow made it to YouTube, Silverman is called on to deliver a comedy routine.  She is a practiced stand-up and knows her craft—but here she abandons it completely.  She pauses inordinately.  She drags out her jokes until they are excruciating, then repeats them for good measure.  She points her clicker, needlessly and awkwardly, toward the PowerPoint screen behind her which displays nothing but single-sentence TEDisms: ‘Communication is important’ (she talks about discussing a hand-shaped bruise on her ass with her mother); ‘What the world needs now’ (“I am 39 years old,” she says “and I still wake up every morning so thankful that I don’t have to go to school,”); and ‘TED is fancy’ (she discusses how the number 3000 can be seen as a pair of breasts defecating).  Finally she picks up her guitar and informs the audience that her next song is dedicated to the porn-stars in the audience, “and you are all stars” she informs them.  The moment her song—about how all the cocks in the universe cannot fill the hole in the aforementioned star’s heart—comes to an end, she bails, taking the microphone with her and depriving the audience of the chance to applaud her.  On walks one of the largest shit-eating grins in the history of recorded entertainment—a presenter— who repeatedly begs Silverman to come back, until Silverman, who unlike the others in the room does have a sense of shame, obliges.  The audience now push to their feet for a standing ovation that is nothing but an attempt to deny their own humiliation.  “This can’t be right,” mutters Silverman, bewildered.

For various reasons, I find myself forced to sit through a TED-talk now and then. I squirm in my seat—feeling humiliated for myself and the speaker. This is a distinctly un-adult feeling. Adults have lost their capacity for disgust—which is partly why Silverman often jokes about her own unending adolescence. Unwavering critical open-mindedness has, for a very long time, become the correct intellectual posture, and it’s never clear if at any point one can allow oneself to have a visceral reaction against a genre, an industry, or a situation without feeling either childish or curmudgeonly. Teenagers are half-better than adults in this respect: in high doses, tackiness puts them off. They collectively begin to step back from a thing, and they are generally aware that what’s bothering them is not content, but style. So they turn away from Facebook in droves, without having read a single line of cultural criticism on social media. They look back at their own participation in whatever style they dropped with mild horror. That they are then lured in by the next shiny thing is a different story. The point is that the average adult avoids the horror of disgust, which means consciously sticking to what’s most bland and middle-of-the-road: HBO, pants, college, Obama, and, for a few years now, TED.

A decent strategy with TED might be to reclaim our teenage capacities and treat these videos as hopelessly passé—ignore them to death. Critiquing them, even as I have done, will do what criticism has done for television: creating an added enjoyment as you go on consuming the crap you despise. I know what I am watching is disgraceful, but aren’t I great at seeing why it’s disgraceful? I only watch it to keep up-to-date with the unwashed masses.

The problem is that the very act of consuming these products, regardless of how they are consumed, supports their existence. The inert masses today are defined simply and purely by the energy that they channel into consuming things. The critical TV or internet consumer is an addict like everyone else, but his criticism shields him from accepting that reality. What’s needed instead of the constant study of mass culture is a sort of barbaric asceticism. Distaste must have its day.