What’s Wrong with TED Talks? Benjamin Bratton (Transcript)

March 5, 2016 11:08 am | By More

New Perspectives – What’s Wrong with TED Talks? Benjamin Bratton at TEDxSanDiego 2013 – Transcript


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Benjamin Bratton – Associate Professor of Visual Arts at UCSD

In our culture, talking about the future is sometimes a polite way of saying things about the present that would otherwise be rude or risky. But have you ever wondered why so little of the bright futures promised in TED talks actually come true? Is something wrong with the ideas? Or with the notion of what ideas can do all by themselves?

I write about the entanglements of technology and culture, how technologies make certain compositions of certain worlds possible, how culture in turn structures the evolution of those technologies. It’s where philosophy and design intersect.

And so the conceptualization of possibilities is something that I take very seriously. And it’s for that reason that I, and a lot of people, think that it’s time that we take a step back and ask some serious questions about the intellectual viability of things like TED.

And so, my TED talk is not about my work, my new book, the usual spiel, it’s about TED — what it is, and why it doesn’t work.

The first reason is over-simplification. Now, to be clear, I have nothing against the idea of interesting people who do smart things explaining their work in a way that everyone can understand. But TED goes way beyond that.

Let me tell you a story. I was recently at a presentation that a friend of mine, astrophysicist, was making to a potential donor. And I thought his talk was lucid, it was engaging, and I’m a professor of visual arts here at UC San Diego. At the end of the day, I know nothing about astrophysics.

The donor, however, said, “I’m going to pass, I’m just not inspired. You should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

Now, at this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine? I mean, think about it: a scientist who creates real knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights. This is not popularization. This is taking something with substance and value and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not how we’ll confront our most frightening problems, this is one of our most frightening problems.

And so what is TED? TED is perhaps a proposition, one that says if we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change. Well, this is not true either. And that’s the second problem. TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. To me, TED stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

The key rhetorical device at any TED talk is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony. The speaker shares some personal story of insight and revelation, its trials and tribulations. What does the TED audience hope to get from this? A vicarious insight? A fleeting moment of wonder? A sense that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

Well, I’m sorry, but this is not up to the challenge of the problems that we are ostensibly here to face. They are complex and difficult and not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. And given the stakes, having our best and brightest waste their time — and the audience’s time — dancing about like infomercial hosts is too high a price. And it’s cynical. Plus, it just doesn’t work.

Recently, TEDGlobal sent out a memo to TEDx local organizers telling them to avoid booking speakers whose work spans the paranormal, conspiratorial, new age “quantum neuroenergy” and so forth — what is called ‘woo’. Instead, they should book speakers whose work is imaginative but grounded in reality. And, to be fair, TEDGlobal took some heat for this, so the gesture should be acknowledged.

‘NO’ to placebo science and placebo medicine. But the corollary to placebo science and medicine is placebo politics and placebo innovation. And on this count, TED has a ways to go. Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics was presented at TEDxSanDiego a few years ago. You’re familiar, I assume, with the Kony2012 social media campaign?

Okay, so, what happened here? Evangelical surfer bro goes to Africa. He makes campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.


You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. And if you’re not cynical, you should be skeptical. You should be as skeptical of placebo politics as you are of placebo medicine.

So T – E – D. First, Technology. We’re told that not only is change accelerating, but that the pace of change is accelerating. In terms of the computational carrying capacity at a planetary level, this is true. But at the same time — and in fact the two are related — we’re also in a moment of cultural de-acceleration. We invest our energies in futuristic information technologies, including our cars, but drive them home to kitsch architecture copied from the 18th century.

The future on offer is one in which everything can change, so long as everything stays the same. We’ll have Google Glass, but we’ll still have business casual. This timidity is not our path to the future. This is incredibly conservative. And more gigaflops won’t inoculate us. Because, if a problem is endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore’s law also amplify what’s broken. It’s more computation along the wrong curve, and I hardly think this is a triumph of Reason.

A lot of my work deals with deep technocultural shifts, from the post-humanism to the post-anthropocene, but the TED version has too much faith in technology, and not enough commitment to technology. It’s placebo technoradicalism, toying with risk, so as to reaffirm the comfortable. And so our machines get smarter and we get stupider. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Both can be much more intelligent. Another futurism is possible.

A better ‘E’ in TED might stand for Economics — and yes, imagining and designing, new systems of valuation, and exchange of accounting for transaction externalities, of financing coordinated planning, and so on. Because states and markets, states versus markets, these are insufficient models, our thinking is stuck in a Cold War gear. And worse is when economics is debated like metaphysics, as if any real system is just a bad example of the ideal.

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