NPF: ED TALKS

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.

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43 Responses to “NPF: ED TALKS”

  1. wetcasements Says:

    Thank you for this Ed. No, seriously — I'm so tired of trying to explain my hatred of these things — the insipidness masquerading as profundity, the masturbatory self-congratulation, the white people gawking at something supposedly "edgy."

    As a proud Obot, watching one of these things makes me want to listen to Rush Limbaugh and send John Boehner a campaign contribution.

  2. LK Says:

    I never lasted more than two or three clicks through the TED website. I do, however, subscribe to their audio podcast, and listen to about one in three lectures there (judiciously chosen, of course). With that double filter in place, and with the addition of the occasional link from the few people I trust to provide quality linkage in these matters, I think I average a little over one TED talk a week that is actually both enjoyable and educating. The majority of those, by the way, is from the "diversity mascots" (or should the be called DYA's?).
    So yeah, I agree that TED as a brand/operation has gone way overboard (especially with all the TEDx events that seem to be given the same level of exposure and consideration, completely without merit). But there is still gold to be found there, and it can be found relatively easily.

  3. Xynzee Says:

    Perhaps Ed you should just swallow and go get yourself on to the TED list and take "No Libertarians at 30,000ft" on the road. Who knows, you might get yourself some noteriety and some cash.

  4. Ursula Says:

    I admit that I am likely overtired, but this post literally brought a tear to my eye. The first paragraph was so amazing that I was a bit overwhelmed with the prospect of what laid ahead in the rest of the post. You did not disappoint.

  5. Sven Says:

    I'm with Xynzee on this one. As long as your talk includes consuming gin and tacos in as an unsettling a way as possible.

  6. middle seaman Says:

    Saw some amazing talks/shows on TED. Saw some garbage. Are we expecting an organization to adhere to excellence no matter what? That's not realistic. Some of Google's tools are good; some are bad and almost useless. 99 out of 100 refereed scientific paper are junk. 80% of my department at the university are morons (tenured and full professors).

    TED is normal.

  7. Jimcat Says:

    Is it possible to do this if you're not wealthy? I want in.

  8. Tom Says:

    Ed, did you see comedian Sam Hyde's trolling of TED this week? I hadn't heard of Hyde before, and the shtick does get old well before it ends, but I thought it was pretty funny:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cflCyyEA2I

    "And that student…was Albert Einstein."

  9. c u n d gulag Says:

    I liked the first few I saw, and I was kind of enthused.
    Then I watched some more, and they… well, for lack of a better word: sucked.
    What a waste to time, and bandwidth.

    I was like watching "Stand-up Philosophy" – in which, sure, the person was 'standing-up,' but nothing funny was coming out of his/her mouth.

    And I'd heard better philosophy coming from people standing on soapboxes, yelling through a rolled-up newspaper outside parks in NYC.

    Unfunny, unenlightening, and insipid – WITH, a few exceptions.
    In other words, perfect for company seminars!
    And, depending on the TED speaker, perfect for companies trying to give themselves a patina of "social consciousness."

    In other words, what Ed said, and what @wetcasements started us of with in the comments section.

    OT – if this mess in DC continues, and our economy tanks, which do you prefer:
    "Boehner's Boner," or "Mitch's Ditch."

    Also too, OT – How are Rosetta Stone's programs in Mandarin and Cantonese, so I can properly greet our future economic Overlords?

  10. grendelkhan Says:

    Has anyone here seen "Ducks Go Quack, Chickens Say Cluck"? It's amazing how straightforward it is to replicate the rhythms and style of a TED talk and fill it with absolutely nothing.

  11. anotherbozo Says:

    Look, you guys just don't get it. Too many activities are so damn solitary, like reading and thinking. Why plod through a 400-page book on the future of humanity when I can be sociable and listen to a compressed version (with slides!) for 10 minutes? I'm a busy guy, after all, on the go, and my mind functions best when I'm part of an audience, like at poetry readings and museum art lectures. Doing something on my own is such a bore, and so low-energy!

  12. Jason Says:

    Does this mean I can't enjoy awesome science or engineering presentations?

  13. John Danley Says:

    Or TED's insidious counterpart: TEDx. It's a special strain of unmitigated self-aggrandizement that makes the average status update on Facebook seem perspicacious. TED went from a rare opportunity to hear a condensed Harvard lecture series to a forum for "What's On the Mind of Amanda Bynes?"

  14. TomW Says:

    @c u n d gulag – Interesting that you mention Rosetta Stone which is another excellent example of hype and pretty packaging for a product of relatively little substance.

  15. Turkle Says:

    I'm reminded of Cockburn's immortal takedown of Tom Friedman:

    "…fire[s] volley after volley of cliche into the densely packed prejudices of his readers. He never deviated into paradox, never shunned the obvious when he had a chance to grapple with it. His work was a constant affirmation of received beliefs."

    http://mailman.lbo-talk.org/2000/2000-September/016822.html

  16. c u n d gulag Says:

    TomW,
    I kinda figured.

    Me thinks they doth advertise too much.

    That's usually a good tip-off – the more a company advertises, the less there there is there.

  17. ladiesbane Says:

    The Sheryl WuDunn presentation was AMAZING, mind blowing. She and her husband Nick Kristof present at universities, global groups, and to anyone who will listen. Check out YouTube for the 3- or 10-minute versions, watch the special, read the book — whatever your interest, wallet, or attention span allows.

    Watching it made me want more amazing content, and diving into TED videos made me mad and stabby. If I were locked in the audience chamber, it might flow properly — intensity building with moments of rest, stimulation followed by soothing — the way a good DJ lines up a show. But on their own most of it was bland, trivial, pointless.

    The TED phenomenon-making is exactly as you called it, no dispute. It's as if they monetized PBS to tap the rich liberal market. Showmanship is involved (or Eddie Huang would not have been asked) but the cold equations of conning people rule (or Eddie would not have been fired for doing the sort of thing that got him hired.)

    But I hope no one among your happy followers writes off anything with "TED" in the name as self-indulgent crap just because more gets done when you suck up to the folks with big money. It's not always cynical money-extraction. Sometimes it's desperate and real. People with money get shit done…when they can be enticed to do so.

  18. Thomas Says:

    My grandfather once told me, "Boy, if anyone around you says the phrase 'thought leader' with a straight face, get the hell away from them right now."

    It's advice that's served me well.

  19. acer Says:

    NPR and Wired, meet The Secret.

    Jay Smooth's was pretty good.

  20. jon Says:

    Affirmation Addiction is a serious problem in our society. I went to a huge presentation at the convention center, where celebrities and cloying personalities told inspirational tales of dealing with tragedy and triumph, and got the opportunity to sign up for investment planning and other things, all for the price of free. Work conferences are filled with all of the most self-congratulatory reacharounds that you may or may not mind the assfucking rather than the money just going to something else, such as a day off and $20, that could boost morale.

    Read Bonjour Laziness on corporate language. It's a beautiful, life-affirming, subversive little book that can change your life. Won't free you from bullshit, but you'll laugh more.

  21. Misterben Says:

    The problem with TED is that it got too big and too good at providing a forum for con men and hucksters. There are still good and even excellent talks to be found, but the ratio of good to horrendous is like 1/1000. The awesome science lectures are drowned out by meaningless feel-good psychobabble.

    It kind of reminds me of "This American Life". Started out fascinating, but after a while, it became extremely predictable – it had become a forum for a certain type of voice, and people were clearly shaping their voice to fit the program.

  22. dbmain Says:

    About halfway through this rant, I thought, "THIS would be a good TED Talk."

    "Our speaker today is Ed, a poli sci educator, and he has some thoughts on today's Thought forums, like TED. Here's Ed."

    You then begin. Shortly into it would be the compulsory audience shots, which usually feature the bright faces of the newly enlightened, but would now show gape-mawed people being insulted in a place they thought was safe from that.

  23. John Josephson Says:

    Thank you, Ed. I thought I was the only one who felt this way about TED talks, mostly because I used to work at a startup and was surrounded by TED worshipers.

    It's the self-congratulatory tone that I hate.

    On the plus side, a really interesting TED talk was given by one of my best friends, Raffaello D'Dandrea:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/raffaello_d_andrea_the_astounding_athletic_power_of_quadcopters.html

  24. Vinny Says:

    **********
    Tom Says:

    "Ed, did you see comedian Sam Hyde's trolling of TED this week? I hadn't heard of Hyde before, and the shtick does get old well before it ends, but I thought it was pretty funny:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cflCyyEA2I

    "And that student…was Albert Einstein.""
    **********
    I laughed out loud when he said :
    "What inspires me is teaching African refugees program javascript"
    "What inspires me, is finding out how to get maglev trains to get resources to the moon."

  25. Drangus Says:

    I deduced who the person is by evaluating the level of bullshit in description and confirming his presence in Chicago for a degree.

    Anywho,
    The more I look into him, the more I agree.

    I've had a thought recently that this person applies to…
    He's a guy who does a lot of shit that deep down no normal human being cares about. He then must be fantastic at repackaging his garbage knowledge to look like certified gold plated shit and have the intellectual masses consume it like chocolate, wrapper and all. Because it's novel. Novelty is like crack to white wives. He's mysterious because he knows so much shit about stuff you really don't care about.

    I googled "___ _____ is a dick" if he cares as much about his persona as I believe he does, it'll pop up in his google analytics. That's my charitable work for the day.

  26. Pennelope Pennebaker Says:

    I'm thrilled to learn that my initial refusal to devote 15 minutes to my first TED Talk and every one since was justified.

    Thank you.

  27. Arslan Says:

    The supreme irony of TED is that these people are talking about solutions to the world's problems when they actually ARE the world's problem.

  28. acer Says:

    @Misterben:

    On second thought, a better analogy would be "This American Life + The Learning Annex."

  29. SeaTea Says:

    TED is just like many other human constructs, like religion, or most charities, or new-age philosophies, or self-help books, or miracle diets and exercise plans. It doesn't matter if it actually delivers anything, or if the promises made over and over are never fulfilled. What matters is that people can believe that they are part of something important, even if there's nothing to it except the belief that it's something important.

  30. wyldpirate Says:

    @dbmain–sounds like good start of a stand-up routine for Ed.

    I've watched a lot of TED vids and many of them are akin to sophisticated infomercials and suck schwetty balls. OTOH, many of the TED talks on science-related topics are quite good as the speakers generally do a fine job at layman-izing complex topics.

  31. mothra Says:

    I'm with Xynzee, Sven and dbmain. Of course, hard to participate in something you abhor, even when it is to take it down a notch or two.

    And Ladiesbane, I love you, but please FOR THE LOVE OF GOD quit using "amazing" as an adjective. If everything amazes us, then it isn't really amazing, is it?

  32. Peggy Says:

    Dbmain beat me to it… I just can't wait for ED talks, the opposite of TED. By which I mean… I can has Gin'n'Tacos podcast??

  33. Xynzee Says:

    I second Peggy's GnTs podcast

  34. E* Says:

    Aah, this post reminds me fondly of your review of "Atlas Shrugged," the post that brought me to this site in the first place. First, you take something I hate thoroughly, then you articulate all of the reasons for the hatred that I was unable to discern.

    Appreciated.

  35. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    With friends like you, who needs enemies? Lolz.

    But seriously, yeah. Pompous dickeweedes who were born or otherwise placed on third base and then bloviate on video all about the awesome triple they hit.

  36. Linar Says:

    > Also too, OT – How are Rosetta Stone's programs in Mandarin and Cantonese, so I can properly greet our future economic Overlords

    As a second (plus) language speaker of both who is asked this constantly: they're shit. Pimsleur's programmes are far better at preparing you to be the foreign monkey spouting a few words of niceties in the absolutely hardest languages in e world (aside from every other language) for the delight of your Overlords. Add oil.

  37. geoff Says:

    Hey all, Thomas Frank is on the case:

    http://www.salon.com/2013/10/13/ted_talks_are_lying_to_you/

  38. ladiesbane Says:

    Sorry, Mothra, no promises. It's not something I use in speech or regular correspondence. Just a terrible habit, and I apologize for irking you. But not everything amazes us, and we tend to share when things do.

  39. Liz Says:

    I definitely watch TED talks. A lot. Some of them are pretty provocative, requiring me to think through the arguments and logic and data being presented to me through a haze of Excitement! Drama! Theatrics! And some of them actually present interesting ideas or stories.

    On the other hand, I hate that TED has become the new standard venue for marketing books or other products. Because, in general, I hate marketing and marketers.

    Also, I attended a TEDx at my alma mater, and was supremely disappointed by the experience. For white-awesome-bloviation-back-patting reasons mentioned above.

  40. LK Says:

    Just had to add that to the mix:

  41. mimi smartypants Says:

    Oh god not fucking Seth Porges. No.

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  43. Da Moose Says:

    The Singularity will be reached when NPR staff members deliver TED talks. Yes, the absolute and clear whiteness of both content channels is so friggin annoying. I have a handful of big government liberal friends who love NPR and TED. They also love to look down on me when I complain about racial hiring quotas for federal positions, as if I am some kind of racist, not someone who simply wants to see important federal positions filled by the most qualified rather than the most racially qualified. These are the same folks who cross the street to avoid a black person coming their way.

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