Skepticism about TED Talks

The hype over TED talks is not justified

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.

That’s one of the choice lines in Benjamin Bratton’s critique of TED talks. I know many gifted people who have done TED talks, but I demurred when I was asked to speak at one of the numerous TED spinoff events (I think it was called TED-x but it might have been TED-ious). I find the deference of the audiences a bit creepy and also dispiriting. If an audience of my students were as docile and adoring as TEDgoers, I would consider myself a failure as a teacher.

The Onion’s parody of TED talks is the ultimate takedown of the format. If you mixed this video in with a random sample of 9 other TED talks and asked 1,000 TED-goers to guess which one was the fake, I am not confident that most of them would come up with the right answer.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Skepticism about TED Talks”

    1. There’s nothing wrong with middlebrow. There may be something wrong with Megachurches (I think there is), and Infotainment is usually neither informative nor entertaining (and so there’s certainly something wrong with the name, even if nothing’s wrong with the activity).

      There is something wrong with TED, but you should read Bratton’s critique if you want to discuss what’s wrong with TED.

      1. Here’s how middlebrow I am – I got bored with Bratton’s argle-bargling half way through and stopped reading. And Bratton’s first example deals with Malcolm Gladwell, not TED.

        Now I do have a problem with Gladwell because he’s wrong so often, but it’s his wrongness and not his middlebrowness that’s at issue.

        As for infotainment, it’s a matter of choice. I’m not very interested in TED videos, but it’s fine with me if others are.

  1. I think Bratton’s critique suffers from its lack of specifics. And echoing Brian above, I think it’s cheap and easy to criticize something as “middlebrow.” Public intellectuals are, almost by definition, pandering to middlebrows. I mean nothing but praise when I say that this blog – like other high-quality blogs – is a middlebrow enterprise.

    I’m nonetheless very open to critiques of TED. From Prof. H’s post, I think this is right:

    I find the deference of the audiences a bit creepy and also dispiriting.

    But I think it also goes both ways: TED talkers are deferential to their audiences, and don’t challenge them.

    1. Here I am in Day 2, and I’ve already violated my New Year’s resolution for blog commenting, which was to stop saying “but” when I mean “and.”

      Above, I meant to say: “And I think it also goes both ways …”

      “But” suggests I’m trying to contradict something. “And” reflects my true intent, which was to try to add something.

  2. I enjoy most TED talks more as performance art than serious… can’t even think of the right noun here. It’s the performance end of these things that makes them such rich targets for parody — my favorite of which is:

    Bratton’s “more Copernicus, less Tony Robbins” won’t get those priceless audience reaction shots.

  3. I am not quite old enough to have vivid memories of this, but it seems that this movie played once before back in the fifties when Dwight MacDonald criticized Clifton Fadiman for his middlebrow enterprises like Book of the Month Club. At least Fadiman had people reading who otherwise might never open a book. Fadiman was disliked for sparing his audience difficult books by authors like Faulkner and giving them Sinclair Lewis instead. The common denominator with the TED talks is that they make friends by not challenging people to strain their brains overly.

    My sample size for TED talks is too small to generate an informed comment; I only remember that they did not engage me enough to listen to more than a very few. But middlebrow culture is important to preserve, protect, and defend; just as we need a vast middle class for our economic system, we need a vast middlebrow class for our cultural system. The problem with TED, perhaps, is that it substitutes the stage address for the printed word.

    The Onion is often wonderful and the passing of the printed version is a shame. As long as satire remains alive in a civilization there is hope for its survival.

    1. Exactly right, and doubly so in an age of unlimited access to information. When the efficient gathering of information is based on the electronic search, a space has to be made for intellectual grazing. Otherwise everyone’s either a specialist or a victim of epistemic closure. The live performance adds a sense of connectedness that we are also missing. Nothing wrong with any of that.

      And Bratton’s article is really about TED presentations needing to inspire. Why does he care? If he doesn’t want to do TED’s middlebrow outreach, then he shouldn’t do it. Or if he craves fame or needs money, then he should just suck it up and do it. But stop bitching about it.

  4. I don’t share quite the same antipathy about TED, but I do think it’s something of an indictment that the most I’ve gotten out of any one TED talk is from this one.

  5. You’ve absolutely got it. The modern Chautauqua movement. Not necessarily good or bad, but that’s what it is.

  6. TED would be improved if there were a Battle of the TEDs. As it is, the pronouncements that are made just stand until they fade away.

  7. IMHO TED is a victim of its own success: rapt audiences want to say they were at a wonderful event, so are consuming an event, not sharing. And the ubiquity of talks has watered down the quality.


  8. I find it ironic that we have quite a few cars that run on compost (biogas) here. Not sure who our vision guy was though.

  9. You’re all missing the point (as is the original Guardian article).
    The problem with TED is not snobbish critiques like whether or not it is middle-brow or whether the presenters are “too” polished.

    The problem is that it’s part of a propaganda system that affirms for the powerful of the world that they are wonderful people doing the right thing and that all we need is more of their benevolent leadership. Like sitcoms, TED will occasionally transgress a little, to give us a peek of a slightly different world from what we have today, but by the end everything will be resolved by reasserting the goodwill of the plutocracy and how it will handle the problem that has been raised.

    And so what TED gives us is a constant stream of stories about how rich people are *voluntarily* using their wealth to help someone or something — and no stories of how rich people are using their wealth to suppress someone or something, or spend it on cocaine, hookers and private jets. We get a lot of stuff about “OMG The planet is doomed” in the abstract, the sort of thing that allows us to feel we are being very serious and concerned people — but never a talk pointing out that overpopulation is the basic problem here, and things aren’t going to be improved until we (and that means you, Mr audience member) limit ourselves to one kid per couple or less.

    Every so often the real agenda is exposed — and is astonishing. For example Eric X LI’s talk suggesting that what China need’s is a whole lot more fascism, and the rest of us should follow its lead. Or Nick Hanauer‘s talk on how Rich People Don’t Create Jobs which, sadly, runs counter to the whole TED ethos and so was not put online (until this was discovered and massively protested).

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