Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away.
- Stewart Brand
There was an interesting thread on Quora the other day. It was prompted by the question: Why do so many people hate TED?
TED of course is the conference franchise that holds yearly global events, one in Long Beach and the other (usually) in the UK. It also lends its name to hundreds of smaller TEDx talks. These talks are run independently and organized locally. Applicants for all TED events need to apply to attend and need to pay to apply. Because of that process, questions about elitism and cultishness have been dogging the TED brand.
I’ve been thinking about Amanda Todd in the context of these questions about TED. It’s because in that uncanny way life has, I’ve also been stumbling into conversations about social exclusion, albeit conversations where ideas about it seem organized around gender. For example, I’ve been hearing a lot about how women are consensus builders, purveyors of social harmony, and includers to a fault: apparently we really don’t like leaving anyone out.
Since I’m hearing these ideas from both sexes – and from people I like and respect very much — I have to surmise that these generalizations hold some water, if only because they are so widely believed. And the degree to which they are believed is significant. It suggests that for many, the relationship between perception and reality is fused and immutable. It’s a relationship that begs the question: does reality shape one’s perception or does one’s perception shape reality?
Here’s a jarring example of how that question might work: During my mother’s recent health crisis, I spent several months in my hometown. At the local hospital, I met a few acquaintances from high school working there. Two of them, in the course of casual conversation, mentioned how popular I had been. My response was to joke, “Well, thanks for telling me. I didn’t know.” I was genuinely confused and had mixed feelings about these comments. My memory of those years was not nearly as positive. I wondered, had my pain, particularly over being bullied one year, been exaggerated?
So here was my dilemma: on the one hand, I was pleased to hear I had been well-liked; it lightened some of the darkness I’d carried with me from that time and gave me a retrospective sense of belonging. On the other, I had the unwelcome realization I may have gotten some things terribly wrong, that I may have profoundly, and painfully, misperceived reality.
The story of Amanda Todd, and of other young people like her, is affecting because those of us who are old enough understand that the timing of her sadness was key in her suicide. It’s tragic, but she became unhappy at a time when she desperately needed to understand her suffering and lacked the capacity to do so. She was too inexperienced to believe her misery, brought on by relentless bullying, could end.
Here is the video she made to explain herself:
So how does Amanda Todd’s suicide tie in with TED?
I have an ongoing debate with myself and it focuses on my at times suspicious reaction to clubby environments. When I say clubby environments, I mean those places or events where a lot of inflated assumptions are made about oneself and others in attendance. Assumptions like “All of us here are really cool,” or “We’re the chosen ones,” or “Who are those losers over there? Ewww, don’t let them come near.”
These are the beliefs that were written in the bubbles over the heads of myself and my high school friends when we barged into dances or bars, wearing the latest styles from Fairweather and bringing our sassy attitudes with us. It was that behaviour, now embarrassing to educe, that manifested a group-think that had more than an edge of cruelty to it. It was an attitude that sliced through the atmosphere, heartlessly summing up who the winners and losers were. I know from polling my students that my high school years weren’t unique in this regard. There are always groups of girls or boys who act this way. It’s hard to admit now but I think those two acquaintances were right. I spent most of my time on the winning team.
So what am I belly-aching about now?
Behind the bravado, I was like a lot of young people: I suffered with abiding doubts about my place in the world. I was also obsessed with the ideas about justice and fairness. So my inclusion in a group that was cool and exclusive left me feeling ambivalent. It was during my university years that my real self began to emerge, a self that was concerned with others, concerned with issues, and concerned with not leaving people out. I placed my feet firmly on the left side of the divide and stayed there. My political activism has since mellowed, but my sympathies have not.
And this is why I’m ambivalent about TED. There is an ideological bias in the organization running it that serves the corporate and power elite. The TED organization’s refusal to upload a video of a talk given by venture capitalist Nick Hanauer — an incisive talk about income inequality — was a call to arms for those already suspicious of TED’s real ideology. And this suspicion has arisen because of the mix of marketing and hard data that seems to characterize so many of its talks; it’s also arisen because of a cultivated cool factor that is divisive and exclusionary. Fans of TED don’t seem to realize they are being sold a fantasy: detractors, by contrast, have been aware of this for quite some time.
Here is a link to Hanauer’s five minute talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBx2Y5HhplI
In Part 4 of my internet series I wrote about the proliferation of hybrid information found on the ‘net. What I meant precisely was that more and more frequently, subtle marketing language is making its way into so-called “hard data.” I used the Rachel Botsman TED talk as a model, referring to it as an “intellectual infomercial.” It’s a phrase that seems to describe this phenomena best. More specifically, the unbridled marketing embedded in Botsman’s TED talk, and others like it, is disingenuously being passed off as real information. Unlike television infomercials, the kind that are required to tell us they are “paid programming,” TED videos rely on the TED brand to give them intellectual legitimacy.
Nathan Jurgenson, in The New Inquiry observes that this method of delivery — what I refer to as the “Oprah Affect” — is having the unintended effect of pushing some TED talks into new-age territory:
The conferences have come to resemble religious meetings and the TED talks techno-spiritual sermons, pushing an evangelical, cultish attitude toward “the new ideas that will change the world.” Everything becomes “magical” and “inspirational.” In just the top-ten most-viewed TED talks, we get the messages of “inspiration,” “astonishment,” “insight,” “mathmagic” and the “thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”! The ideas most popular are those that pander to a metaphysical, magical portrayal of the role of technology in the world.
Furthermore, TED’s hierarchical vision is also being sold, alongside the more obvious ideas being put forth by individual speakers. Here are comments made by Sarah Lacy, a writer who lives in Silicon Valley and writes for Tech Crunch.
For the last few years, these conversations [about TED] have gotten ugly. What I’ve seen and heard from the outside depicts the sad transition from what used to be an inventive, elite industry conference that cross-pollinated experts from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design to a $6,000, always-sold-out-unless-you-“matter” invitation to rub shoulders with celebrities and talk about how compassionate of a millionaire you really are…Now when the day’s sessions are done there’s a hierarchy of parties throughout the LA-area with strict lists and security. Cliques within cliques, if you will. One friend I spoke with yesterday told me it was so bad last year he couldn’t even hang out with his friends much of the time. Because that’s what you want when you’ve paid $6,000 to attend an event—to be told your friends are still better than you.
Diluted data and exclusive parties are one thing; that the TED organization is trying to position itself as an alternative to Harvard is another. As an academic, this is where I draw the line.
One of the most influential books I read during my undergrad years was Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. It’s a simple book, made up of short essays, but it signaled the birth of a new field of study, that of semiotics. In it Barthes examines cultural icons and artefacts and interprets their symbolic meaning, their connotation as opposed to denotation. One of my favourite Barthes aphorisms is that to understand a culture we must also understand “the things that go without saying.” His argument is that real messages lie in the unsaid.
With TED, the unsaid things are this: We TED people are talented and influential. We are here to have fun and to change the world. We don’t want to hear about non-fun things like income inequality or discrimination. You can join us, but only if we let you. And by the way, the price of admission is steep, so you better be rich.
The ambitious and hierarchical vision posited by TED isn’t dangerous, but it’s not smart either. One important aspect of teaching, which the TED people seem to have overlooked, is modelling. That is, we teachers don’t only teach by speaking, we also teach by being. This is a fundamental truth to which any parent can attest: how often do children imitate us instead of listening to us? If we create an environment that promotes the unsaid aspects of TED, what are we modelling? We’re modelling that money, influence and power are the only things that matter and that if you don’t have them you don’t count. We’re saying that the anxiety of living with an inclusion/exclusion paradigm is normal. We’re implying that if you don’t manage to get yourself included, life might not be worth living. We’re saying that if you are consistently on the outs — consistently excluded, that is — maybe killing yourself isn’t such a bad idea. This may not be how adults interpret TED’s message, but what about adolescents like Amanda Todd and her tormentors?
That young woman, in her fragile way, and in her moving video, was trying to tell us something. She was trying to tell us that being 16 and being excluded hurts. Her suicide is a reminder to the rest of us that adolescence can be treacherous. Some young people simply don’t make it.
Those of us who teach in the arts and humanities have our work cut out for us. We try to model ideas like tolerance and understanding and we do this by teaching students about diversity, about history, about the difficulties of life. The business model of TED isn’t wrong, but it is a business model and as such it represents only one way of being in the world. TED’s popularity is troubling in light of this, but is just one more manifestation of that same attitude I copped in high school. It’s bravado, it’s shallow, and it seeks to dominate by threatening dissenters with exclusion. These are not “ideas worth spreading,” but they just might be ideas worth containing.
I’m going to close here with another quotation from Nathan Jurgenson:
The way TED talks fuse sales-pitch slickness with evangelical intensity leads to perhaps the most damning argument against the TED epistemology: It necessarily leaves out other groups and other ways of knowing and presenting ideas. As Paul Currion tweeted, TED seems “unaware of its own ideological bias.” Let’s take one example. Take a wild guess which gender is massively over-represented as TED speakers… And TEDxWomen stinks of tokenism. Hint: It is better to be more inclusive through and through than to segregate marginalized groups into their own token corners. But the TED style aligns much more easily to articulating ideas that sell than ideas that concern power, domination, and social inequalities. Real cutting-edge ideas also come from the margins. TED’s corporate-establishment voice and style aren’t without their uses, but they are certainly not innovative or cutting edge.
Tags: TED, Amanda Todd, politics of division