TED, Money, And SmartyPantses

Suddenly, there was TED, right?

I mean, it got really big really quickly. I met someone recently who wants his business to be Davos-meets-TED. It’s got the status of Davos now?

TED is iconic. Of something.

This article about the TED juggernaut has everything going for it: gorgeous writing, schmoozing on beanbag chairs with industry captains, eccentric east coast woodsy hermit millionaires, extended flower metaphors, and people talking about higher ed who really, really, really shouldn’t be.

Since it’s behind the paywall, here’s the summary (you’re welcome):

TED is conquering the world by packaging mediocre ideas into internet-ready heart wrenchers.

Heller goes into tremendous detail about how TED talks are prepared: they are minutely produced, coached, and rehearsed. They are filmed and edited using the emotional language of cinema. They present singular ideas couched in winning personal narrative. They cut out the data.

Oh. And it costs $7500 a person. For the cheap seats.

So what is TED selling?

For one, they are selling a curious synthesis of elitism and democracy. You can pay four figures to go to Long Beach and meet Jeff Bezos. Or you can watch the movie versions of the talks for free on You Tube.

In a climate of paranoia, fear, and acrimony (I’m talking higher ed, not politics. Or am I?) watching a TED talk online can feel pretty smart and empowering. It’s a stirring narrative with something smart-sounding mixed into the middle to make it seem hearty.

And the brand is vigilantly preserved, despite legions of TEDx franchises around the world. “Volunteers who want to organize a TEDx event receive a hundred-and-theory-six-page manual detailing regulations and requirements.”

It’s vigilantly preserved enough that Sarah Silverman broke the system.

[The video of her talk is banned from TED.com! So here it is! (It’s 22 minutes and not at all for work unless you work in Awesome Inc.) It’s basically trademark Sarah Silverman, they knew what they were getting, but oops. Maybe not. “I don’t remember any 9-11 firefighters adopting terminally ill retarded children. That’s all I’m saying.” Because her spoof of piety is EXACTLY what TED needs. Therefore they banned her for life.]

So you get some high-class-feeling ideas. Here’s Heller on the TED-branded irony:

TED’s sensibility reflects a West Coast mood… It is the mood of professionals who wear Converse to work, own multimillion-dollar homes at thirty-two, eat local, donate profits to charity, learn Mandarin, and rock-climb in the Pinnacles on Sundays. It is the friendly, self-effacing irony of winners.

I grew up in what became Silicon Valley. I know that mood.

7 HD cameras. Hollywood editors. Months of rehearsal. Ticket prices that buy you access to the people who run the world.

So the ideas feel and look high-class. And they go down easy.

And that’s what TED is supposed to be selling: ideas. Like the tagline: Ideas worth spreading. I’ve addressed the “worth” angle. But ideas? How do they stack up?

If the thirties and forties were the golden age of the Great Books programs—the tools of a middle class striving toward the academy—TED is a recourse for college-educated adults who want to close the gap between academic thought and the lives they live now.

There is, perhaps, an air of wishfulness to that endeavor. Two very different ways of thinking about ideas shape intellectual life today, and TED’s sentimental gestures arise from efforts to obscure the difference between them.

Heller skips over the class analysis implicit here and goes on to his magical mystery metaphor: Sunflowers versus Bougainvillea.

Sunflowers are ideas that you can pluck out, plop in a vase, and enjoy. Ideas that fit well into 15 minute talks framed by a story about one’s grandpa.

Bougainvillea are ideas whose growth (and understanding) depends on a rich context of past knowledge. Ideas that need, say, a book to fully articulate. Or at least an article.

Try to “use” an idea from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas quickly on a TV talk show, and you’ll confuse many people and irk those who are not confused. This isn’t because the viewers are stupid, or because Levinas’s ideas aren’t useful. It’s because their usefulness is clear in a specialized context.

But when we put all our money behind the sunflowers—and when we download them endlessly and let them change our everyday, movie-tickets-seem-too-pricey-this-week lives, when sunflowers are the only aspirational objects of the middle class—then the sad, tangled bougainvillea starts to seem worth less. Much less.

So much less that the most viewed TED talk of all time, by Sir Ken Robinson, contains flammable poop like this, and his actually a being a professor for a little while doesn’t make that poop any less stinky and combustible:

I think you’d have to conclude that the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors…. Our education system has mined our minds, in the way that we strip-mine the earth, for a particular commodity.

How to put this elegantly?



It’s the same anti-intellectual tripe that has bogged down our culture for decades. Pink Floyd did it. Forrest Gump did it. In the 60s, maybe there was a point to it. Maybe, for half a second. But not even then, really. Not in this way.

Every university-level educator I have known has striven to expand minds, to teach ways of thinking that can be applied to any endeavor, to help students understand this preposterous world as bigger and better than they suspected.

And in the past few decades, as higher ed has transformed such that 70% of Ph.D.s cannot get stable work, many many many academics are actively discouraging their students from becoming professors.

So he’s lying in fact, and he’s lying in spirit.

And that’s the most popular TED talk of all time. And Sir Ken Jerkinson’s website is glossy and golden.

These are not ideas worth spreading. This is not dialogue worth encouraging. Sometimes it’s nice, like “this year’s TED moment,” a public-interest lawyer talking about inequality in our criminal justice system.

But it’s not the future of education.

But, given its money and popularity, it may be the future of public intellectual life.

In which case, give me some pink, tangled, poisonous-if-you-eat-it bougainvillea.

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2 thoughts on “TED, Money, And SmartyPantses

  1. Matthew says:

    I read and enjoyed that article as well. I like some individual TED talks, but the genre is just too much and too manufactured. Thanks for your thoughts, and for pointing us to Sarah Silverman’s banned talk. I didn’t realize it was available anywhere.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    You are totally right: there are some great TED talks. And it’s great that the organization gives a venue to some important ideas, like the focus in the article of Susan Cain’s book on introversion. Which sounds like a great book, and I hope to read it soon.

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