TED: Ideas Worth Spreading?

by Mark Wilson

Kent Sepkowitz criticizes TED conferences in The Daily Beast today. The TED conferences (Technology, Entertainment, Design), says Sepkowitz, value form over substance:

Nowadays, though, TED spells trouble for several reasons. First, it doesn’t celebrate a love of smart people, really; it celebrates a love of smart-style people. Just as kosher-style food looks and kinda acts like the real thing, but isn’t, so too are the diplomats of TED U kinda full of it. TED provides the Cliffs Notes versions of the talks right there online (TED quotes), little gnomic cyber-samplers (“If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average” and “I share, therefore I am”) you can sprinkle around without really understanding a drop of the work that stands behind the claim.

Sepkowitz is right — to a point. Much of what goes on at TED doesn’t help anyone. Great, glorious speakers come up to talk about things they’ve already talked about in books or lectures before (see, e.g., Jill Bolt Taylor’s speech about her stroke, which she had already written about in a book, and any number of speeches by Malcolm Gladwell, who’s already said this stuff in his books, articles, or prior speeches). An audience that already agrees with the speaker, and has probably already heard this stuff before, claps approvingly. What has been achieved?

TED does, sometimes, come up with something brand-new. Hans Rosling’s Gapminder comes to mind: Swedish statistician Rosling shows us, through charts, that our conception of the “developing world” is about thirty years out of date. But, more often than not, Sepkowitz’s criticism is well-taken: for the audience that is most likely to go watch a TED talk or attend a TED conference, these speeches and “ideas worth spreading” are already old news.