What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?


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Robert Corr
10 years ago

My favourite critique of TED talks is this one by Reggie Watts.

David Walker
10 years ago

Nick, for once we’ll have to agree to disagree. This talk belongs to a special sub-genre: “X is shallow and poor. I am going to imply Y is deep and rich. I will, however, avoid explaining what Y is, lest it become obvious that Y is not that great.”
To be fair, he does give us a peek at his own special not-greatness:

We need a deeper conversation about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and Cloud Feudalism (and toward that, a queer history of computer science and Alan Turing’s birthday as holiday!) I would like new maps of the world, ones not based on settler colonialism, legacy genomes and bronze age myths, but instead on something more… scalable.

I’d settle for Gall–Peters projection. But that’s just me. Let’s go to his blog and get the proper vision of the future.
Oh lord. The future is Latour and Heidegger and Zizek:

We should consider with caution (and a bit of awe) how emergent genres of apps that project interfacial elements onto what is seen through the device/camera’s eye, including Augmented Reality, or AR) may in effect radicalize and literalize absolutist and fundamentalist dispositions (including but by no means limited to those inspired by Abrahamic monotheisms) in addition to spawning as yet unimagined bizarre new Cloud/AR-based politico-theological mutations.

… and also …

Slajov Zizek’s inversion of real, as that which is defined by fantasy, is here given a literal, if dull, gloss. How then can we locate AR among Modern media and their psychological or psychoanalytic effects? We might say, in line with Friedrich Kittler’s association of film with the imaginary, the typewriter with the symbolic and the gramophone with the real, that his Lacanian quasi-stack would be reworked in augmented reality such that the imaginary is so directly inscribed into the symbolic, as the content of the interface, that the real is also itself collapsed into the imaginary, making the reality of augmented reality perhaps irredeemably occult.

TED talks would have to get a lot worse for me to prefer that. At least with TED it’s easy to tell whether someone is talking crap. With this guy you have to take a three-semester course on post-modern philosophy to work out that he thinks thinking is about phrases rather than concepts.
Yes, 90 per cent of TED talks are crap. Fine. Sturgeon’s Law says that’s the normal result. Promote the good stuff and let the rest molder on the back-row hard disks of YouTube. Problem solved.

10 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

I don’t see a major problem with those paragraphs. The language might be a bit obtuse, but the concepts are in line with his criticism of TED.

That said, I do sense a tinge of jealously in his tone that suggests frustration at how technology geeks have risen to the top of modern society, while philosophers are often deemed an unproductive waste of space.

David Walker
10 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

You may as you say kindly “for once” disagree with me, but now I (largely) agree with you!

Curses! Foiled again!

10 years ago

Thanks so much for this.

I’ve always been suspect of stage managed wisdom packaged into a 45 minute powerpoint.

If TED had any integrity, it would be actively curating and culling crap content, rather than breeding into an localised ‘TED Melbourne’ ‘TED San Diago’ where partly educated hipsters and wicken drummers get their 5 minutes of fame.

TED’s dead, man.

Read a long book instead.

David Walker
10 years ago

In one way, this Ted talk is among the most illuminating I have seen. Here is a bloke who clearly knows what effective communication sounds like. He can even play the effective communicator on TV. And yet when you drill down on what he is talking about, there’s barely anything there. We need to talk about Alan Turing’s birthday? Really? That’s the best stuff you’ve got?

What I’ve written seems an almost literally unbelievable critique. I still barely believe it myself. How could this guy get up and go to work in the morning if his intellectual framework is that flimsy?

Only two things keep me from dismissing it. One is the small group of left-wing critics of this sort of postmodernist dodge, such as Noam Chomsky and particularly Alan Sokal, who has taken the time to pull apart its absurdities.

The other thing is the impossibility of finding simple explanations of what most postmodernists are thinking about. This is the Orwell test: “If you simplify your English … when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.” The leading indicator of dodgy postmodernsim, displayed above, is that its adherents, though clear on the inadequacies of orthodox thinking, never can find anyone to clearly explain their own alternatives.

john Walker
10 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

“what most postmodernists are thinking about”

Back in the early 80s I was discussing (and trying to understand), postmodernism with a older friend. He quoted somebody to the effect: ‘that if you are talking with somebody and the conversation suddenly becomes completely incomprehensible, then the subject of the conversation has become, power’ . Cannot for the life of me remember who it was that the quote came from.

Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)
Reply to  john Walker

1980s joke told me by a friend in that very decade.

How to do post-modernist knitting: deconstruct one, appropriate one, pass the appropriation over.

Moz of Yarramulla
Moz of Yarramulla
10 years ago

Two points,most importantly that I agree entirely about the lack of transcripts. Too many video pieces and podcasts gain absolutely nothing from adding sound or video, and most of them are just someone reading the transcript. Look, no offense, but your voice is not so astonishingly mellifluous that it’s worth spending 30 minutes rather than 5 on the material. Adding video of you doing it does not make things better. There’s a reason why engaging video requires a bigger budget, more people and more planning – it’s hard to do.

And the TED critique… yes indeed, what TED does best is trivia with gravitas.

Dee Rice
10 years ago

TED is simply a platform for to display ideas, not actually helping put them into action. He’s in essence is saying ‘Okay great, all theses acts of solving a problem, could be great, why aren’t we doing any of them?’