Given my level of hatred for the whole spectacle it's a minor miracle that this is the first time I've ever mentioned TED Talks on here. With people who know me In Real Life, TED Talks are widely understood as one of the topics one does not broach unless prepared to hear Ed go on a mini-rant. When people first started noticing TED videos, it struck me as well-intentioned albeit unbearably smug and cloying. I figured there were some videos worth seeing and a bunch of others that were not. But it was stunning how rapidly a handful of TED talks became hundreds and then thousands of TED talks. I thought, "There is no way that there are this many people in the world with something interesting to say." The numbers seemed to line up better with a different subgroup: wealthy people who achieve orgasm to the sound of their own voice. Preferably while it generates every meaningless buzzword the brain can produce.
The whole phenomenon got so big so fast – and then became so obviously full of shit to the majority of us – that I felt like the moment had passed; TED Talks became an easy target and I had little to add to the horse-beating that others had not already covered at great length. It has been amazing, however, to watch the TED "brand" mature and eventually become completely meaningless as every "entrepreneur", shill, and con man on the planet seemed to have done at least five of these goddamn things. It amazes me that hunger persists in the world, what with the 50 TED talks done every year that solve the problem.
TED is like a concentrated version of NPR – the richest, whitest, most self-congratulatory circle jerk of elites spewing breathless bullshit. That is not to say that there are no good TED talks; that is to say that you'll probably never get to the good TED talks because you'll tire of wading through the garbage. Like NPR, it tries to appease its white-as-hell audience by injecting the kind of buzzwordy "diversity" that a white-as-hell audience wants to see ("Drawing inspiration from Kanye West and Adele, singer-songwriter Elle Varner writes about girl power and fun in an eclectic mix of hip-hop and soul.") Unlike NPR, they follow it immediately with another Business Casual asshole from the Wharton School yammering on about microlending.
And that, my friends, is what intrigues me enough to finally post about such an obvious target: the perfect synthesis of empty corporate-motivational speak, self-promoting assclowns with no accomplishments beyond drawing from a trust fund, and Diversity Mascots. Oh, and occasionally they throw in a serious academic ("Philosopher S. Matthew Liao directs the bioethics program at NYU and has kicked off the discussion about bio-engineering humans to help combat climate change.") who has cynically figured out how to extract gobs of money from stupid people on the Silicon Valley "Thought Leader" circuit.
This has come to a head because, I kid you not, I know one of these people "performing" (if that is the correct word) at TED's NYC tryout camp. They don't call it that, but what else is it? It's an invite to spring training for people who may have what it takes to wander around Silicon Valley giving $50,000 dinner speeches to Google zillionaires. For the ease of storytelling, let's say my friend= is male. I won't be specific because, despite everything I am about to write, I like this person.
He and I were in the same social circle many years ago when I lived in Chicago – around 2000-2003. He is by anyone's account a bright, positive, ambitious, and outgoing guy. He is also, by equally unanimous account, an attention-desperate self promoter with no discernible skills or accomplishments beyond 1) indefatigable enthusiasm and 2) a trust fund. His professional accomplishments since we both departed Chicago consist entirely of having somehow managed to get his name and face on a large and random selection of media despite having no experience, training, or skills that would ostensibly qualify him to speak on any subject with authority.
In other words, despite being a positive and occasionally charming character, this is the absolute last person on the planet that should be classified as a "Thought Leader". As his thoughts consist mostly of "Hey look at me!", I fail to see what TED is really about beyond providing therapy and faddish platitudes to the Valley's moneyed Steve Jobs cultists. It is not hard to believe people who tell me that there are some great TED talks out there, nor is it hard to believe that at this point the only real requirement to become one of these people is the ability to spout pedantic bullshit with enthusiasm for 12 minutes.
And that's when it hit me. Since the casting call for TED superstars appears to consist of "self-promote by blathering on for 10 minutes about how profound something stupid and anecdotal was," my old acquaintance might be just perfect for the job after all.