Just HOW Wanky Are TED Lectures?

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Once upon a time, attending a TED talk was by invitation only. Since 1984, these Technology Entertainment Design (TED) chats have been a hot-bed of the latest thought-shower and paradigm shifting awakenings of industry leaders, academics and thinkers who are far, far smarter than you. No really.

In fact it was only recently that TED, relaunched in 2002 as an "idea-based non-profit endeavour", decided to chop down its genius tree, build a town hall and let the masses in. Now TED ("Ideas Worth Spreading") can be viewed online for free, as pithy 15-minute keynote addresses. And doesn’t the blogosphere just love it!

Here are a couple of typically breathless endorsements:

"omg someone else who’s heard of TED talks? I LIVE for those things. Check this one out: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/vilayanur_ramachandran_on_your_mind.html"
S.C., Newton, MA

"Yeah — they’re fantastic. 20 minute bus ride = get your learn on."
C.C, San Francisco, CA

As an outlet featuring key people doing often very interesting things in a wide range of fields, TED has apparently grown in the minds of many bloggers into a kind of oracle.

Paul Sheehan, whose recent rant in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested Google was a new religion, should probably check out the competition. The aura surrounding TED presentations reminds Blogwatch of the demagoguery of old time revivalism. Down the left-hand-side of its homepage TED categorises its talks as: "Jaw Dropping, Persuasive, Courageous, Inspiring and Ingenious".

Perhaps the best way to measure just how valid this assessment is might be to look at two particular talks which have been received quite differently in the blogging community.

A recent example over which many viewers, Blogwatch included, "got their learn on" was the unveiling of an unusual symbiosis of existing technology — a system that uses off-the-shelf products costing a total of US$350. The project is called SixthSense by its creator Pranav Mistry who works at MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group, and the talk was presented by senior Media Lab figure Pattie Maes.

They describe the SixthSense as "a wearable computing system that turns any surface into an interactive display screen. The wearer can summon virtual gadgets and internet data at will, then dispel them like smoke when they’re done."

Apparently this presentation was the buzz of the annual TED Conference this year and it’s easy to see why. The device gives the wearer a digital "sixth sense", which allows you to view additional information and suggestions or preferences according to your own sensibilities or profile in real time and in the real world.

As MIT’s Patti Maes noted, the device lets the user interact with information using hand gestures in the air, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Maes pioneered research into "software agents", and she describes the approach of the Fluid Interfaces Group, which she founded and directs, saying, "We like to invent new disciplines or look at new problems, and invent bandwagons rather than jump on them."

The reaction across the blogs to this TED talk has been mixed. While plenty of geeks out there are loving it, there’s also a type of geek who’s quicker to condemn than acclaim, criticising the clunkiness of the hardware. Against that, some more thoughtful commentators, such as Curious Raven point out that the easy availability of the hardware was a deliberate choice, to demonstrate that the amazing part — the software and the interface ideas — is well within reach.

That accessibility is also possibly why some people have a problem with it. As one commenter said, "I am deeply skeptical of machines like this because I think they make our impulse to be lazy easier to indulge."

The talks aren’t all nearly as interesting as this one. Having gone on a bit of a TED binge and spent the last 36 hours watching TED talks, Blogwatch is unsure if many of these new ideas or wowsey-zowsey creations really are worth all the buzz. We don’t share Stefan Sagmeister’s conviction that design "can make you happy", nor do we agree with Malcolm Gladwell that social observation "A" always explains social observation "B" in the way that Gladwell always insists it does, as he turns coincidences into circumstantial evidence and then into iron-clad conclusions.

Clearly the list of interesting people involved with TED, aka the TED Brain Trust don’t always get it right, and it’s plainly wrong to regard every one of these presentations as "jaw-dropping". One problem could be the number of these things they put out. You can get an idea of just how many they’ve done using this handy spreadsheet. Still, many undoubtedly represent a useful addition to our general knowledge of the field under discussion.

If the SixthSense gizmo was the classic example of a pretty well-received TED talk, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s appearance at the forum in July 2009 was an equally conspicuous example of what happens when the TED hubris does no one any favours. Brown’s speech demonstrated how the biggest weakness of the TED output is its ability to showcase guff with no application or relationship to reality.

This speech, apparently given without autocue, was essentially death by a thousand motherhood statements. Brown took the opportunity to celebrate the world we live in, its "instantaneous communication", "capacity to find common ground … deal with injustice … Now a truly global society". The blogosphere couldn’t get enough of Brown saluting the world they live in. The speech was peppered with anecdotes from the dark days of history: Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Vietnam War. But Brown called on whoever was listening to realise we now have the chance to …

"We have got to create in this world also institutions for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, but also for reconstruction and security for some of the conflict-ridden states of the world… We have the means by which we could create a truly global society…to create global institutions for the environment, and for finance, and for security and for development, that make sense of our responsibility to other peoples, our desire to bind the world together, and our need to tackle problems that everyone knows exist."

But even frequent TED viewers and the self-regarding blogosphere couldn’t entirely ignore the irony of Brown’s performance. This one, the top comment on the TED site at the time of writing is perhaps one of the best:

"How he can stand there and talk about the importance of international institutions, when he was a key consenting figure in a government which fundamentally undermined the UN, to go to war in Iraq, is beyond me.

"How he can use images and talk about the importance of protest, when his police force have brutally put down protests and even killed innocent civilians, is beyond me.

"How he can talk about the corruption of other nations, when the UK government is going through one of its most kleptocratic stages in recent history, is beyond me.

"How he can talk about narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, when he has presided over an economic era which has seen the gap between the rich and the poor grow, is beyond me. How people can lap up his empty, ironic speeches set to such painfully staged deliveries (you guessed it) is beyond me.

I’ll give him one thing, he, or his writers, certainly know the target audience."
Adam Hurrell (+9) Aug 14 2009

Meanwhile plenty of others agreed at least with the sentiments Brown expressed, arguing that it was more important to show support for the points raised than argue over the sincerity of the person raising them. Which is all well and good, but it does raise the question of just how valuable a talk like this is when it’s presented by someone with little credibility on the issue they’re discussing.

Blogger Steve Fisher is critical of TED but still sees hope for this type of forum.

"This year’s Gnomedex in Seattle was the ninth in its history and my fourth. I am continually blown away by the people in the crowd and on stage who provide a TED-like experience for a fraction of the price and no pretension (no invite-only BS)."

And what exactly was so inspiring?

"The guy who drives the Mars Rover (how cool is that?) showed in his closing remarks an image of Earth which was the first picture taken of our little blue marble from another planet — awesome. It got a standing ovation and took the conference to a whole new level."

Maybe TED is a forum like any other, and its stated mission is no guarantee that it won’t be captured by people with agendas exploiting its aura to send highly targeted messages to a particular niche audience.

Maybe? More like definitely. But that just means viewers will still have to think for themselves about whether the lecture’s amazing subject is being sincerely discussed, is properly understood by the speaker, is actually new, or is even relevant to reality in any way.

And it doesn’t mean you won’t see some riveting talks there. Check out the scary one about war robots and how dodgy the whole automated military sector is becoming.

It’s jaw-dropping.

New Matilda

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