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

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.

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‘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.

Communism in theory was an egalitarian utopia. Actually existing communism meant ecological devastation, government spying, crappy cars, gulags. Capitalism in theory is rocket ships, nanomedicine, Bono saving Africa. Actually existing capitalism is Walmart jobs, McMansions, people living in sewers under Las Vegas, Ryan Seacrest. Plus ecological devastation, government spying, crappy public transportation, and for-profit prisons.

And yet, the alternatives on offer range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why? The recent centuries have seen tremendous advances in improving the quality of life. But the paradox is that the system we have now — whatever you want to call it — is in the short term what makes these new technologies possible, but in the long term it’s also what suppresses their full flowering. A new economic architecture is prerequisite.

‘D’ — Design. Perhaps our designers, instead of prototyping the same “change agent for good” projects over and over again, and then wondering why they aren’t implemented at scale, we should acknowledge that design is not some magic answer. Design is very important, but for different reasons.

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Getting excited about design is easy because, like talking about the future, it’s more polite than dealing with the real white elephants in the room such as phones, drones and genomes. That’s what we do here in San Diego and La Jolla. In addition to all of the amazingly great things that these technologies do, they’re also the basis of NSA spying, flying robots killing people, and the wholesale privatization of biological life. That’s also what we do.

So you see, the potential of these technologies is both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, and so to guide them towards a good future, design as “innovation” just isn’t strong enough of an idea by itself. We need to talk a lot more about design as “immunization,” actually preventing certain “innovations” that we don’t want from happening.

So as for one clear takeaway, one magic idea, I don’t really have one. That’s kind of the point.

Perhaps I might venture that if our species were actually to solve its most dire problems, perhaps a lot of us in this room would be out of a job, or perhaps in jail. But it’s not as though we don’t have a lot of really important things to be talking about. We need a deeper discussion about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and cloud feudalism. And towards that, a queer history of computer science, Alan Turing’s birthday as a holiday. I would like new maps of the world, ones not based on settler colonialism, legacy genomes, and bronze age myths, but something more scalable.

But TED today is not that. Our problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. This metaphor implies that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.

“Innovation” defined as “puzzles”, as rearranging pieces and adding more processing power, is not some Big Idea that’s going to disrupt the broken status quo — that precisely is the broken status quo.

One TED speaker said recently about his work, “Now that this boundary is removed, the only boundary left is our imagination.” Wrong.

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff — the history, economics, philosophy, art, the ambiguities, and contradictions. Because focusing just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. We need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. And this is not about “personal stories of inspiration”. It’s about the hard difficult work of demystification and reconceptualization. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

At a societal level, the bottom line is that if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don’t work, and don’t invest in things which don’t make us feel good, but which may solve problems, then our fate is that in the long run it will just get harder and harder to feel good about not solving problems.

And in this case, the placebo is not just ineffective — it’s harmful. Because it takes your interest, and energy and outrage, and diverts into this black hole of affectation. “Keep calm and carry on innovating” — is that the real message of TED? To me it’s not inspirational, it’s cynical.

In the US, the rightwing has certain media channels that allow it to bracket reality. Other constituencies have TED.

Thank you for your time.


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