Profundification – a trend of our times: Part One

OK so you all kind of know this, but I’m going to go out on a limb and just put it out there as one younger member of my family has been heard to say. It’s depressing how much stuff is sent our way which repackages what’s already in the ether – stuff we already know, indeed stuff we may have grown up knowing, which is then fed back to us as AMAAAZING new insights into our contemporary world. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll savour those ‘aha’ moments – NOT.

This is the profundification of the commonplace.

The TED Talk above is on a subject that’s dear to my heart. It’s on the over-reliance on experts, the way experts can worship their paradigm and ignore what’s pretty obvious, and in the process tyrannize the wisdom of the lifeworld. I’ve even written whole essays on subject suggesting some possible ways to tackle the problem. So you’d think I’d love a TED Talk on that subject, especially since I agree with it.

Now I’m not expecting rocket science. I know that this is retail speechifying. The speaker is trying to explain ideas about which they’ve thought for some time to people for whom it may have no special significance. They need to be engaged and, dare I say it entertained. That’s as it should be. But lots of talks like that can be really interesting. I’m sure you can point us to some in comments. (On a second run through this I offer this TED talk as an illustration).

But really, having endured the hokeyness of the introduction, gritting my teeth thinking “this is the price of her TED Talk, this person will know something or say something of interest, perhaps compellingly, with cool illustrations” it turns out there is virtually no there there. Just the rehearsal of platitudes we already know – plus the obligatory reference to a brain scan. (Having invested in the technology, Troppo is scanning your brain as you read this and in the future you can be the first to learn the amazing fact to which our research will lead simply by staying tuned to Troppo.) 

And it’s not just that what is presented could have been communicated in a single paragraph or two (I long for the day when TED talks have transcripts that one can scan to find out what’s in them, and get one’s way to the interesting bits – as I first discovered the interesting TED talk I linked to above – it was originally in French, so we got an English transcript.)

In this presentation the platitudes are laid on so thick that, commonsensical as they are, some are so naively put they’re often likely to do more harm than good. When you’re told to challenge experts, insist that they explain everything to you? Well when my second child was born I didn’t exactly expect that from the doctors and midwives, but did try to be a somewhat informed person in the room. But with time constraints pressing in, with a vast knowledge base and organisational system beyond my ken and a stroppy and robotic midwife with poor English, imported because she had the requisite certificate and would work for less than most self-respecting Aussie girls, her KPIs came well ahead of involving little old me.

Though I’d fondly entertained the notion that I’d stay on top of things, it rapidly got down to my choice between making a complete arsehole of myself and having the baby delivered in an atmosphere of seething hostility, or pretty much shutting up and doing what I was told. Now it’s true that many interactions with experts and professionals are not quite so fraught and against time pressures as this one, but generally speaking if you’re getting help from a specialist – perhaps less so from a doctor, you can take an interest, but you can’t challenge everything, you are unlikely to be able to understand everything, and you’d be a dolt to hold everything up until you do. Your desire to understand the content of the expertise being dispensed is also mediated by your relationship with, your confidence, or lack of confidence in the professional. Anyway, the talk doesn’t even get to that level of post-primary school sophistication.

In Part Two we look at Profundification business class.

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18 Responses to Profundification – a trend of our times: Part One

  1. Antonios says:

    Question everything, including the need to question everything.

    Isn’t it also the case that it’s among more educated and left-wing circles that vaccination levels are lowest?

    I’m particularly gobsmacked by people who say one should be more “open minded” to the possibility that horoscopes, or any other such gobbledegook, are of any worth.

  2. paul walter says:

    Well, I enjoyed this and continue gain incredible value for money from one Nick Gruen…to me a very helpful thread starter from which I derived a strong burst of identification. I am only half through that tape, but am gnashing tooth at the sort of twaddle written in newspapers by columnists, with all this “we/our” stuff throughout that to me typifies what Nick is discussing.

    Besides, it always amazed me how lecturers could do this sort of stuff when I did uni courses..fixed mild-smile, a bit “zoned”, not a break in step for half an hour or so.

    But I can’t offer up anything more constructive just now, my brain and I feel tired and defeated (weather, mediocrity?), as they did after reading Prof Quiggin’s most recent thread starter, with its ingredient of challenge;

    “The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity”.

    If a person isn’t up to it themselves,sometimes it’s nice to just to sit back and read or listen to someone who may know better, after all.

  3. paul walter says:

    Of course, listening or reading the whole tape does help in developing a better idea of what the topic is and what is at stake..
    Btw, was the horseshit about the watch at the end there accidentally or deliberately?

  4. David Walker says:

    Even profundity can be done badly, and emotive over-generalising is one way to do it.

    I also suspect the brain scan anecdote is 90% BS, but that might just be me.

  5. desipis says:

    TED talks seem to be the X-Factor for (people who like to think they’re) smart people.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I don’t watch it any more with my daughter having left home, but I think the X-factor is great. Popular, exciting, engaging and something that opens the world for new talent and takes it through an intensive talent development process. What’s there not to like?

      • desipis says:

        I don’t have a problem with the general idea. It’s the way it’s packaged to squeeze every ounce of drama and emotion out of every situation that bothers me. It might be OK for those who are after a quick endorphin fix, but it’s not exactly a format that’s conducive for clear minded appreciation of the substance of the presentation.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Yes, it’s true – that’s tedious and one reason I don’t watch it myself and tend to watch it while doing other things when the kids watch it. So that’s defs something not to like!

  6. Mr Denmore says:

    This subject came up in a Guardian article recently. The author described TED as middlebrow, megachurch entertainment.

    • Patrick says:

      Kumbaya! The Guardian and I agree.

      • Mr Denmore says:


        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Except that a blanket objection to TED talks smacks of a kind of snobbyness. It’s terrible to see how far downmarket they go, but at their best there are some very good presentations – though I confess rarer and rarer.

          I make this point because I was quite taken aback when someone who I thought was excellent – Stephen Poole – started attacking the cyber-husslers.

          He made some very good points and hit some targets, but it was all encased in this up itself British literary establishment superiority which led him to deprecate the usefulness of people who had come up with some good stuff – like Clay Shirky, and people who I think are just damned good – like Jay Rosen.

  7. paul walter says:

    THIS is the Denmore…
    Always pictured said soul as somewhat more ancient.

    Each new days comes, one learns some thing new, just when one thought one finally had all bases covered.

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