"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
January 10, 2014

The TED Backlash

TED talks have come in a for bit of criticism of late. One friend described them as “aspirational porn” others have called them “infotainment” and “education-lite.” The Guardian recently posted a screed, entitled We need to talk about TED, which is addresses a number of common themes in the current anti-TED sentiment. The rant has […]

TED talks have come in a for bit of criticism of late. One friend described them as “aspirational porn” others have called them “infotainment” and “education-lite.”

The Guardian recently posted a screed, entitled We need to talk about TED, which is addresses a number of common themes in the current anti-TED sentiment. The rant has a lot in common with a piece written in 2012, called I Point To TED Talks and I Point to Kim Kardashian. That Is All.

Both writers suggest TED talks, by their (superficial) nature, oversimplify the process of scientific research and might well do more harm than good by undermining serious academic endeavour.

Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, responded in The Guardian with TED isn’t a recipe for ‘civilisational disaster’ his own broadside in defence of both the goals of TED and the format for the talks.

“…can you share something worthwhile in 18 minutes? Definitively, unequivocally yes. The Gettysburg address made history in a ninth of that time. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? Sixteen minutes.

We certainly don’t think any TED talk offers all there is to know on any topic. Of course not. But you can learn enough to get excited about knowing more. A TED talk is not a book. It is not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It can’t be either of those things. Nor does it want to replace them. On the contrary, it wants to amplify them and bring news of their significance to a broader audience.”

The Inspiration Economy

The sense of revelation, the a-ha moment, the clear and inspiring call to action are part of the model for TED talks. But, there is so much “inspiring” stuff being pumped towards us these days, it almost feels like inspiration overload.

And, sadly, much of this inspiration economy shares common groud with the self-help movement and so TED talks feel subsumed in the tidal wave of online snippets about happiness, work/life balance or whatever the current trend in “being a better you” might be.

A TEDx Too Far

Part of the problem may stem from the seemingly endless proliferation of TEDx events, which have flooded the online space and to be frank, often play host to talks of questionable value. The actual TED conference is a hard to get into, carefully curated event with a ticket price of $7,500US. TEDx events, while licensed by TED under a set of guidelines, are organised and curated by local communities. For example, there are currently seven Japanese TEDx events planned for the first half of 2014.

While some TEDx events are very well organised, with great speakers and high production values others are much less carefully crafted. Many people I’ve spoken to, who have attended TEDx events, especially in Hong Kong and Singapore have come away disappointed.

And, while there are many good TEDx talks online, there’s also a lot that feel like an exercise in giving a talk for the sake of giving a talk, of chasing the cache, real or imagined, of being a “TED speaker.”

Universal Learning

Putting these criticisms to one side, for the moment, I believe there is something truly noble in the TED ethos, something we experience in the best TED talks and in the experience of watching the best talks regularly, over a period of time. As Chris Anderson put it,

“…understanding the world isn’t just about digging deep. One of the biggest problems of modern intellectual life is that everyone is buried too deeply in their own trench and has little visibility of what is going on elsewhere. Today’s world of knowledge is simply too vast, too intricate for anyone to be at the leading edge in multiple fields.

And this has dangerous consequences. Most of our worst problems can’t be tackled successfully without multidisciplinary thinking, which is impossible unless you can find a way for people to understand each other.”

In 1943 Amy Buller wrote a book, Darkness Over Germany, which suggested the rise in Nazism was due, at least in part, to the overspecialisation of education in Germany. Buller suggested the reason why an educated population had accepted such an evil ideology was due, at least in part, to an education system which encouraged people to only study what was relevant to their career to the exclusion of other subjects or broader cultural concerns. She feared the rise of technical education in the UK, along with smaller non-collegial universities, might cause the same thing to happen again.

Think what you will of the theory, it was enough to motivate the Queen at the time to hand over Cumberland Lodge in Great Windsor Park, originally built in 1652, a former royal residence and the site of many of the meetings held by Prime Minster Stanley Baldwin in the lead up to the abdication of Edward VIII.

Cumberland Lodge held and continues to hold conferences for post-graduates and young academics which allow them to explore ideas in an inter disciplinary way, thinking about the broader social and cultural implications of their research. Early attenders of Cumberland Lodge conferences included Karl Popper, A.J. Ayer, T.S. Eliot and Iris Murdoch and I have fond memories of the conferences I attended, including a rather fiery chat I had with David Starkey over the portrayal of religion in contemporary film and art.

This ideal, of learning in an interdisciplinary way, predates both TED and Cumberland lodge and goes all the way back to the difference between the modern university and the older, often religiously focussed colleges and schools of learning. The university is, quite literally, the universe of ideas.

Although, in many places universities are less and less representative of this ideal of universal education and instead, teach in very narrow fields of focus and specialisation, producing business majors who know little about science or engineers who have scant exposure to the arts.

The Great Value Of TED

Ours is an interdisciplinary world. The problems we face today are often too big and too complex to be reduced down to one disciple only. And, the work most of us do incorporates elements that a generation or two ago would have lived in separate intellectual silos.

Musicians increasingly rely on skills once associated with computer science, while photographers lean on techniques from the world of graphic design. Chefs are increasingly thinking like chemists and everyone from sports coaches to corporate executives seems interested in the latest insights from the world of psychology.

Watching a TED talk won’t make you an expert. That really isn’t the point. But, watching a TED talk might spark your curiosity, inspire you to research a topic a little more, develop a few ideas for your own life, or just give you a little fuel for a conversation with friends or colleagues. All of which, is, in my view, of immense value.

To back this up a little, I’ve included below a few of my favourite TED talks, ones with have challenged, surprised, entertained and yes, even inspired me.

Mike Rowe – Learning From Dirty Jobs

Work is a fundamental part of life and this talk isn’t just an example of brilliant storytelling, it’s a great example both of applying ancient knowledge and also drawing on experience to question many of our assumptions about how we approach work.

David Gallo: Underwater Astonishments

An example of the TED talk as revelation, this simple yet brilliant presentation is a reminder of a time when most of the talks in circulation had a really strong scientific bias. You’ll never look at a seafood platter (or the ocean itself) the same way again.

Brene Brown – The Power Of Vulnerability

This refreshingly honest and frank talk examines how insights from qualitative research can help us with some of the most basic and everyday emotional issues we face. I’ve had everyone from stay at home parents to captains of industry share the link to this talk with me in a “this will change your life” kind of way.

Benjamin Zander – The Transformative Power of Classical Music

A beautiful example of how exposure, understanding and passion can help us understand music and the arts. All too often the understanding of the arts, especially high arts like classical music, is shrouded in mystery and pretension. But, this talk breaks down one familiar piece of music and gives it a context that will allow any listener to understand it better and experience it more richly.

Ken Robinson – Do Schools Kill Creativity?

The most viewed and for many people the best TED talk ever. Educationalist Ken Robinson examines the way changes in technology and society challenge most of the existing models of education. Sharp, erudite and good humoured this is an example of how much ground a well prepared expert can cover in a few minutes and how accessible a theoretical and historical subject can be made to a non-expert audience.

Shane Koyczan – To This Day

A poetic ode to youth, difference and identity. If this poem had been around when I was a younger man, I would have learnt it by heart and scribbled it over my notebooks and even at my age, lines like “they asked me what I wanted to be, then told me what not to be,” still burst into my soul with flames of recognition.

Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Another example of how insights from academic research in the social sciences can be applied to everyday life, this talk, perhaps more than any other was full of a-ha moments, as I pieced together insights from various disparate parts of my life, childhood memories, sporting triumphs, onstage performances, my academic research and more than a few personal failures.

Pico Iyer – Where Is Home?

So many of our ideas about identity, such as race and nationality, are so fixed and outdated and this talk not addresses the way globalisation is challenging such rigid ideas but also gives those of us who live constantly moving through this cosmopolitan reality some ideas for how to identify our “home.”

Bonnie Bassler – How Bacteria “Talk”

Another scientific talk in the “wow, I didn’t know that” mode, this revelatory presentation also brings us to the cutting edge not just of biological research, but also to the future of pharmaceutical treatments and perhaps a change in how we understand ourselves and the nature of group communication.

Elizabeth Gilbert – Your Elusive Creative Genius

The author of Eat, Pray, Love explores the nature of fear and motivation in creative work in a deeply personal and revealing way. By digging back to ancient Greco-Roman understandings of creativity uncorks our selfish, narcissistic understandings of genius and artistry and helps us face the inevitable fears all creative souls face.

Kelly McGonigal – How To Make Stress Your Friend

Stress is pretty much a universal symptom of contemporary life and this entertaining talk not only helps us rethink our understanding of stress, it also helps understand how embracing stress as a natural experience can improve the quality of our lives.

Shekhar Kapur – We Are The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The director of Elizabeth takes us on a journey through history and cosmology as a way to understand the process of telling stories. Drawing from history, mythology and personal experience to explain how imagined worlds and historical adaptations can be brought to life.

Sheryl Sandberg: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders

It is surprising, after so many advances in women’s rights over the last two hundred years, that we don’t see more women at the top of business and major organisations. This talk steers away from the standard responses to the problem and instead directly targets the decisions and priorities of women in the early stages of their working lives and how those limit the pool of potential female leaders in the future.

Jamie Oliver – Teach Every Child About Food

As an exercise in public speaking, Jamie Oliver’s impassioned plea for better food education is a bit of a mess. Giving a structured, formal talk, doesn’t play to this popular TV cooking presenter’s skills. But, this talk is a great example of an idea whose time is right,

Reggie Watts Disorients You In The Most Entertaining Way

A fitting place to finish this little survey of the best TED talks, Reggie Watts masterful and somewhat unhinged deconstruction of the TED-approach to knowledge and presentations is just as entertaining as it is challenging. “TED be rockin.” Oh yeah!

roy donkin 10 years ago

I agree Fernando… in the US, education is more and more seen as job training which feeds into the problem and especially as costs of education increase, causes less “practical” or lucrative fields of study to be engaged less and less.

Fernando Gros 10 years ago

Roy – I get that impression for the US and it is very much true in other countries as well.

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