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.
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.