My problem with TEDx

Battle of the Beards: Paul Krugman eyes his sometime bête noire, Ben Bernanke. TEDx talk at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Friday, February 15, 2013.)

It wasn’t until after all the speeches had ended and everyone was mingling around the makeshift bar outside that I finally made the connection: TEDx is just like church.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about TED, the conference series that emerged into the spotlight rather suddenly several years ago and has become a staple of the socially conscious set ever since. But I distinctly recall feeling mounting skepticism with each new mention of the organization, which was often expressed in near-mythic terms and was almost always unqualifiedly positive.

The first full talk I recall actually watching myself was Dutch General and then-Chief of Defence Peter van Uhm’s TEDx speech in the Netherlands in 2011. I’d been assigned the video for a graduate class in January of last year. The course was on the American military, and the TEDx talk I’d been instructed to watch was titled “Why I Chose the Gun.” Here’s how it started:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, first of all, thank you for giving me an applause before I even started. As the highest military commander of the Netherlands, with troops stationed around the world, I’m really honored to be here today. When I look around this TEDx Amsterdam venue, I see a very special audience: you are the reason why I said yes to the invitation to come here today. When I look around, I see people who want to make a contribution. I see people who want to make a better world — by doing groundbreaking scientific work, by creating impressive works of art, by writing critical articles or inspiring books, by starting up sustainable businesses. And you all have chosen your own instruments to fulfill this mission of creating a better world.

This, as I would soon discover, was as perfect a microcosm of the TED experience (TEDxperience?) as one could find. First, the establishment of his credentials; then, the obligatory salute to the audience; and, finally, the ode to the transcendent ideal of “a better world.”

There was, however, one part remaining: the rest of his speech. This is generally, in my quite limited experience, the point where the wheels begin to come off the whole TEDx enterprise. In van Uhm’s case, his talk meant spending fifteen minutes defending his embrace of the instruments of warfare in order to create the above-mentioned better world. As self-serving as this perspective may have been, it was at least a fairly transparent attempt to explain the rationale behind his career choice in a way that would appeal to his audience’s likely dovish sensibilities.

But even in watching this, I found myself uncomfortable. Van Uhm’s words, like those of nearly all other TED and TEDx speakers I’ve watched online or in person, are singularly about, and for, the audience: even the content of the lectures themselves, while perhaps superficially centered on the role of the military or the plight of the poor or the promise of technological innovation, is designed to manipulate the audiences into feeling newly sophisticated on a given subject.

As it turns out, it’s remarkably easy to do this to an audience. It is, after all, why we came in the first place. The speakers follow what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the Malcolm Gladwell approach. (It is no coincidence that he has delivered two TED talks himself.) Of course, one can replace his name with the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer’s or anyone else in the ascendant pop-intellectual craze, but I’ve actually read one of Gladwell’s books — Blink, I think — and so I’ll go with him.

The idea, anyway, is to synthesize various simple concepts that any viewer could easily comprehend, use the resulting patchwork quilt to explain the inspiration for a project on which the speaker is working or has worked, and subsequently wow the enraptured audience with any cliched conclusion that fits, tweaked just enough from its most common iteration so as not to raise eyebrows. It’s like fusion Asian food, which contains ingredients from enough various culinary cultures such that complaining that it’s not really a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean dish feels absurd. TEDx is the master of this technique: one is supposed to leave a TEDx event certain of having received inspiration, but it is crucial for the organization’s objectives that the evaluation of any particular talk steer clear of specifics, because that’s where it all falls apart.

Many of the speeches at Friday’s TEDx event at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) were no exception. The ritualistic — at times almost mystical — nature of the event was deliberately designed so as to overwhelm each listener’s critical faculties with all the pomp and circumstance of a staged performance. It was no accident that, following the final lecture, we were all ushered quickly out to the neighboring lounge, where a bar had been set up with wine and beer, and where we were quickly serenaded by a singing theater troupe while we downed our various alcoholic beverages. The point is not to think: it’s to believe.

And it was there at the bar that I suddenly made the connection to church. As someone who spent more than my fair share of time in aging wooden pews as a child and young adult, I am well acquainted with the hushed murmurs of approval that follow a particularly emotive sermon from the pulpit. But these early experiments in groupthink also instilled in me an inherent distaste for this use of public emotion as manipulation. (At several points on Friday, speakers in person or on-screen became visibly emotional during their lectures.) It’s why, for example, I so thoroughly agreed with my classmate in a speechwriting course last week, who said (paraphrasing), “The moment a president mentions his wife or family in a speech, I tune out.” And it’s why my seat neighbor at Friday’s TEDx event was right when he said, half-jokingly, “TED is seriously a cult.”

Indeed, there was something very evangelical about the TEDx event, and never was it more apparent than immediately following its conclusion, as crowds gathered in small circles to discuss their burgeoning creative spirits. Coincidentally, later that night I attended an unrelated performance at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre, Sylviane Dupuis’ Godot, Acte IIIThe play, a bizarre “sequel” to the classic Waiting for Godot, presented a fitting coda to the TEDx event earlier that day. Godot, in Dupuis’ rendering, stood in for God, whose eventual liberation of the two gentlemen from their decades of waiting in place was stymied by their trepidation at venturing beyond their self-defined boundaries: Vladimir and Eragon ultimately decided to stay, feeling safer in familiar territory than they would have in the brave new world just beyond their view.

I’m hoping the parallel with TEDx is obvious by now. The lesson of Godot, Acte III perfectly echoed my childhood experience at church, my undergraduate experience at a religious school, and — finally — it perfectly illustrated the ethos of Friday’s TEDx event as well. The idea is to take the audience (whether churchgoers, wide-eyed undergrads, wide-eyed TEDx audience members, or even Vladimir and Eragon in Godot, Acte III) to the precipice of discomfort — to make us feel edgy — but then to pull back before critical questions can be asked or uneasy rebuttals mounted.

For example, soon after former New York City Education Chancellor Joel Klein opened the conference with a call for innovative thinking on public school education, Columbia professor Christopher Emdin took to the stage and launched a passionate, thinly veiled rebuttal of Klein’s remarks (without ever calling him out by name). At one point, he mocked the idea of “revolutionary” thinking on education by turning around in a full circle on stage and concluding (paraphrasing), “You end up in the same spot where you started.”

This could have doubled as an effective critique of the institution of TEDx itself. But then Emdin’s own talk derailed, as he attempted to link the idealism of his tragically deceased younger sister to the efforts of policymakers to reform education for disadvantaged and low-income youth today. “We need to feel the pain!” he nearly shouted on several occasions, but even he didn’t seem to know what that meant in concrete terms. Who needs to feel the pain? The youth that already know hardship, by virtue of where they live and how limited their opportunities are? The educators themselves? Those of us sitting in the audience at TEDx? The answer was never clear: we — or someone — simply needed to “feel the pain,” or else we’d stop fighting. For education, or something.

Later, a SIPA student passionately critiqued the Peace Corps model, declaring, “Grateful as I am for my experience in the Peace Corps, I recognize that the developing world cannot just be a training ground for young, idealistic Americans. The problems in communities like the one I lived in are far too serious for that.” And yet he was speaking at a conference created entirely for young, idealistic (and often inexperienced) Americans interested in solving enormous global problems — the type whose very presence at TEDx signalled their personal enthusiasm for the brand of fifteen-minute bursts of inspiration in which the speaker was participating himself. Indeed, his extrapolation of his own disillusionment with his two-year volunteering effort in South Africa into an ardent condemnation of the entire Peace Corps’ allegedly flawed practices was itself a case study in misplaced idealism.

Lamenting the overrepresentation of inexperienced recent college graduates and their estimated $93,000 price tag to taxpayers for a two-year commitment, the student gazed directly into the camera and implored the Corps: “Come here, Peace Corps recruiters! Come to SIPA! Recruit these guys. Recruit Professor Stiglitz.” But it was not entirely clear what makes a SIPA student so much more qualified than the average Peace Corps volunteer anyway. (Perhaps on this point I’m biased, as I know several young, not entirely idealistic Americans who have participated on the program. I visited one such friend in Macedonia last year, and his duties — teaching English to local eighth-graders — hardly fit the speaker’s crude stereotype of un-self-aware American students running amok in their host countries.)

Towards the end, another SIPA student provided some comic relief with an interesting talk that began with a discussion of ancient Roman poetry but transitioned suddenly into an unannounced hip hop set, in which he switched between English and French during the solo performance. The crowd, predictably, went crazy. In many ways, the entire TEDx event was a distillation of Stuff White People Like into conference form. (Perhaps more to the point, The Onion has already lampooned the TED mystique in far more brilliant fashion than anything I could manage: “I’m not telling you anything,” one speaker declares, that “every goddamn asshole don’t already know.”)

It may seem as if I’m being unduly harsh on the speakers. The student who spoke about the Peace Corps, for example, mentioned in a recent Morningside Post article that he’d been “thinking about development issues” since long before joining the program. And despite the fact that his lecture appeared to be mostly drawn from his own experiences while a volunteer, it’s possible that his firm conviction for reform is based on thorough research as well. As the student himself conceded in the article, “TEDx basically asks you to distill years of thinking on a particular subject into a few minutes, a heroic task.”

That’s exactly my point. The problem is not the speakers: it’s the entire concept. But the student got one thing wrong: it’s not so much a heroic task as a useless one. Speakers attempt to condense massive amounts of empirical and anecdotal evidence into a fifteen-minute extended elevator pitch, and the result is a confusing mishmash of half-baked policy solutions for a collection of (sometimes only vaguely connected) social dilemmas. The tragedy of this is that people with innovative ideas — including, most likely, the Peace Corps speaker and most of the other ones from Friday’s event — come off sounding like used-car salesmen instead of the world-changers TEDx tries to funnel them into being.

And it’s not even that the speakers aren’t world-changers. Many of them are, and have already — to borrow a cringe-inducing phrase — “made a difference” in very real ways, all over the world. And it goes without saying that most, if not all, of them have certainly accomplished more than I have. (My most TED-worthy life experience would probably be the undergraduate semester I spent in Cairo, during which I volunteered at a school for deaf children. But any speech on that experience would necessarily consist of me regaling a bewildered audience with tales of my woeful incompetence: screwing up Arabic Sign Language, failing dismally to teach the children the game “Duck Duck Goose,” and in general confusing most of the kids in more ways than one. All I can hope is that none of them were permanently scarred by the experience. I know I was.) But TEDx reduces all of these complex and nuanced life experiences into a fifteen-minute barnburner in which virtually nothing useful emerges from the dust kicked up by the speech.

Even worse, these awareness-raising conferences aren’t equipped to facilitate lasting change. They’re much closer to accomplishing what Emdin derisively called “revolutionary” thinking: turning a full circle and ending up in the same place. There is a clear line connecting the type of thinking exemplified by TEDx and that of similarly grandiose but ill-informed ventures like the “Kony 2012” campaign. It’s not passion that’s lacking. But passion is dangerous in the hands of an institution that encourages superficial speech-giving and a daylong mutual back-scratch with an adoring audience.

Of course, all was not bad at TEDx SIPA. There were many engaging speakers, and I would divide them into two primary categories. The first is the list of distinguished guests whose careers either began long before the idealistic-industrial complex grabbed the United States by storm, or at least were able to avoid the worst of it. These are people like Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman (who collectively represented nearly the entire reason I attended), writer Eliza Griswold, and reporter David Dieudonné. In general, these speakers strayed from the carefully constructed TEDx manual of walking meaningfully onto the stage, gazing for a silent moment at the audience, taking a deep breath, and then letting fly an impressive succession of words that bore little relevance to real life.

Instead, these men and women spoke simply and authentically. Authenticity is perhaps the key component here because, more than anything else, it was the single element that was most missing from TEDx SIPA otherwise. Everything felt endlessly choreographed and contrived, down to the cheesy Large Hadron Collider joke and the gentle reminders to applaud twice — consecutively — following each lecture. (This last bit reminded me of the zombie-like practice of “mic checking” during Occupy Wall Street protests.)

Krugman, for example, ambling his way toward the stage and noticing his PowerPoint flash onto the screen, began, “So, great. And, uh, OK, great! So…” before launching his grim take on the recession, a short overview replete with graphs and, of course, all the trappings of elite economist frustration. His conclusion was just as genuine:

The fact of the matter is that, if you want to ask, “What is so terrible about the way we’re messing up our policy right now?” It’s terrible we’re losing $900 billion a year probably of wasted resources. We’re probably significantly damaging the future, but above all we’re destroying millions of people’s lives. And we should stop doing it. Right now. Thanks.

And here’s the end of Joseph Stiglitz’s lecture:

Final question is: is there hope? Inequality has been at the level that it is now in the United States in two previous periods: the Gilded Age [and] the Roaring Twenties. In both of those instances Americans looked over the brink, [and] they decided they didn’t like the direction in which we were going. In both of those instances we pulled back from the brink. The Gilded Age was followed by the Progressive Era. The Roaring Twenties was [sic] followed by important social legislation in the ’30s. The question today is, as we understand the enormous cost that our society is paying by this high level of inequality, will we once again pull back from the brink? Thank you.

Now contrast these two conclusions with, for example, the end of Andrew Rasiej’s lecture:

So if we really want to go to a place where we are empowered by this [gestures to a PowerPoint image of a smartphone], to a place where we can actually change the world, we have to get past our past. You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. This is my challenge to you. The future is yours. Let’s build that new model. Thank you very much.

Nothing in those sentences means anything at all. But this unseemly fact matters not one whit at TEDx, because Andrew Rasiej speaks well. On the other end of the spectrum, Krugman, for all his scholarly erudition, is a decidedly unimpressive public speaker. But this is why speakers like him were the exception and not the rule at the TEDx conference, which took to heart the lessons of television production in selecting its photogenic presenters. For all intents and purposes, a TED(x) talk is useful if the person delivering it is young, attractive, or wearing sufficiently bookish glasses.

The second category of engaging speaker was actually composed entirely of one person, a SIPA student who spoke plainly but with evident feeling about a photography club he’d founded in Johannesburg, South Africa. Missing was the prefabricated TEDx stage presence, replete with exquisitely timed finger jabs and a slow, methodical gaze from side to side to maintain eye contact with everyone. His talk, instead, was direct and to the point — he showed PowerPoint slides of his photographs and those of other members of his club — and his speech left out the soaring rhetoric and nails-on-a-chalkboard cliches so common to the other speeches that day. It felt as if all the speakers had attended a pre-conference training session on How to Deliver TEDx Speeches, and he’d forgotten to show up. Given what I saw at TEDx on Friday, that’s the highest compliment I could ever pay him.

Post Revisions:

About Jay Pinho

Jay is a data journalist and political junkie. He currently writes about domestic politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography. He would very much like you to check out and if you have the chance.

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