It’s too easy to mock TED, says Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. Actually, it’s a phenomenally successful media company popularising science and ideas.
TED, the “Davos of Silicon Valley”, which has refashioned itself into a global media company selling ideas in many forms, can often seem like it’s caught in an endless cycle of pretension and self-regard; an echo chamber in which people suckle polished platitudes from each other and call it deep thought. It’s also an echo chamber that – let’s face it – many people with soapboxes not-so-secretly wish they’d been invited to.
Evgeny Morozov, internet-famous hectorer of optimists, was pushing at an open door when earlier this month he published a long article in The New Republic hectoring TED for intellectual vapidity and pretension, peppering his piece with highfalutin’ philosophical allusions. The piece duly went viral, and thus it became official: contempt of TED is now hip, even de rigueur. Like owning an iPhone, or being enthusiastic about TED three years ago.
But hang on a second. Is TED noxiously pretentious? Yes. Is TED superficial? Of course. Does TED peddle a slightly messianic ideology even as it claims to be above ideology? Sure. But none of those things should obscure the things that are truly great about TED. Because TED is great. No, hear me out.
Let’s start with this. In this video, Swedish statistician Hans Rosling presents figures about development and health in a very striking way, making an arduous subject approachable by anyone. Rosling’s TED appearance and its eventual success online has changed his life, prompting him to dedicate himself full time to making statistics more approachable through data visualization. His most popular video has been viewed over 4 million times on TED.com.
And it’s seventeen minutes long. Think about that. Seventeen minutes. Of course it’s seventeen minutes long; that’s how long TED talks are. But the people who complain endlessly about how the social media era is making us think in 140 character bursts and that the online video revolution has made it easier for us to watch 30 second clips of dogs on skateboards should pause for a second and contemplate that one of the great viral video hits of the era is a 20-minute lecture by an accented Swedish statistician on demographic trends.
If I had told you that such a video could be a hit, would you have believed me? And if I’d asked you whether an institution that makes videos of this kind extremely popular was praiseworthy, what would you have said? Probably yes… until I told you that institution was TED.
TED gives breathing space to many lightweights and poseurs, but it also features people like MIT economist Esther Duflo, widely recognized as one of the greatest scholars of poverty. Her TED talk has been viewed over 300,000 times on TED.com and is the first result for her name on YouTube. And the things she’s talking about aren’t feel-good bla-bla: she’s talking about her very serious, very important research. And it’s a seventeen minute talk. And it’s very popular.
Those are things that TED accomplishes that no other media company accomplishes and that most of the people opining about the shallowness of social media (when they’re not opining about the shallowness of TED) wouldn’t think possible.
Another great example are the TEDx conferences, events that pay for the privilege of using the TED brand and throw TED-like conferences around the world. Is it a shameless attempt to monetize the TED brand by franchising it to a bunch of wannabes around the world? Sure. But the vast majority of these conferences are also great ways to bring together, and highlight, interesting people with interesting ideas in their communities.
If we all stopped with the braying and neighing, the bitter envy, and if we resisted for the siren call of feeling smugly superior of rich pseudo-intellectuals, we could perhaps see TED for what it actually is: a media company that has been very successful at the business of popularisation.
Is TED shallow? Well, a seventeen minute TED talk by Esther Duflo is shallow by the standards of an academic journal, but I think it’s pretty stellar by the standards of YouTube.
Is TED pompous? Well, most successful media brands strive to be aspirational. And it’s not particularly pompous by the standards of The New Yorker’s diaereses, the Economist’s world-bestriding leaders or our own monochromatic site design.
Is TED ideological? What successful media company doesn’t have a worldview? If you lose that, you’re dead. Of course it has an ideology. It’s an ideology that can and should be critiqued but must be taken for what it is: an editorial stance.
TED is a media company with a great business model, great content and an audience it understands well and panders to – like every good media company does. It occasionally features windbags, but it also performs the extremely worthy service of connecting a bunch of interesting people through franchised conferences all of the world and of making seventeen minute lectures about important topics both popular and generally available.
On balance, that’s an entirely positive thing.