Is TED Watering Down Our Minds?

TED takes big ideas and makes them plain, but does it also dumb them down?

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When I discovered TED, I was thrilled. The idea of 18-minute lectures on technology, entertainment and design wasn’t sexy in and of itself, but the conferences had the type of swagger that only confident nerds could pull off. I would frequently forward links to talks that I found interesting and felt good about myself. Before long the conferences and events were being held all over the world and the videos had attracted over 500 million views online.

Earlier this week in the Atlantic, Megan Garber points out that TED, like the Chautauqua movement before it, is seen as either intellectual discourse for the common man or self-congratulating elites peddling watered down ideas. TED is decried for reinforcing elitism (conference admission is $6,000), but the most scathing criticism is that is takes big ideas and makes them too small – fast food for the mind. TED is where you go to listen to buzz words and feel good – Khan Academy is where you go to actually learn something.  

It wasn’t until I started receiving recommendations myself that I started to grow a little tired of TED. Was I upset that my little secret had gotten out? That it had gone mainstream? Maybe, but I would have grown tired of it eventually. Whenever something transitions from niche to mainstream popularity, the original fans complain that the masses have corrupted what was once pure and noble.

In truth, I am rarely impressed with TED talks anymore (Salman Khan of Khan Academy fame was pretty awesome), mainly because it has developed into a parody of repeating management Newspeak of empowerment, synergy and thinking outside the box to save the world. But TED still serves a purpose – the gathering of intelligent and powerful people to discuss ideas and ways to make the world a better place is generally a good thing. What remains to be seen is if that gathering will be a genuine meeting of the minds or an exercise in mental masturbation and branding.

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Update: A comment below makes me feel compelled to add something. If TED is capable of sharing just a bit of knowledge with everyone, then it is a wonderful thing and I support it. If it’s aim is to change the world and look at problems in truly original ways, then it occasionally succeeds, but mostly repeats itself. I still don’t oppose it – God knows we have a problem in the US with the cult of anti-intellectualism. The very fact that more than half a billion people have viewed TED talks is a testament to its power. But my gut still tells me that with the exception of a few gems, it’s all one big light and sound show.

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8 thoughts on “Is TED Watering Down Our Minds?

  1. I don’t agree w/ this. There is so much happening in the world, no one could possibly follow even a fraction of it. To that degree, I like someone finding something cool and giving it to me in a bite-sized snippet. I never will need to understand the protein structure of spiderweb, but listening to a passionate person explaining how incredibly awesome it is… well, it’s the explicit expression of the fact that the world is full of miracles. That’s what TED is… a treasurebox of bite-sized miracles, waiting to be discovered at my leisure. Why does it need to be more than that?

  2. Yeah, and after the 10th miracle or so, you start getting tired of it because you realize a pattern in all the talks and it all starts feeling like one big show, which is to say, much more form than substance. I loved TED too, for the first couple of years of knowing him, but after a while, he just kept going on and on about the same shit – kinda got boring. If he brings joy and insight to others, fantastic! But I don’t think they’re gonna make the world much better through pep talks. The actual intermingling that goes on during the conferences though – that’s got serious potential, but I wouldn’t know about that.

  3. It’s not that silly! If it’s getting monotonous, perhaps I’d ask if you’re viewing the same kind of topic all the time. Watch something random…. something different, something new….. and if EVERY topic is monotonous… well then you have a problem bigger than teddy 🙂

  4. I mostly agree with Cyriac. Regarding “There is so much happening in the world, no one could possibly follow even a fraction of it.”, I’d say that it’s hard for us to follow esp. if we get info in “bite-sized snippet”, or if the big ideas are watered down, because we need far-reaching analyses and above all, to “connect the dots”: religious, economical, geopolitical, technological, financial, historical… Then it will all look much clearer and not so complicated! Thanks for the article Cyriac.

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