The Steady Decline of TED

It’s TED’s 30th birthday this year. That’s probably not news to anyone with a Facebook account. Forgive me if I’m less than enthused about this.

TED Talks began in 1984. The first “TED” was actually called “DET”. I guess the organizers weren’t bright enough to recognize the easier anagram. At the first conference, Sony unveiled and demonstrated its brand new technology, the Compact Digital Audio Disc, or as we know them now, CDs. Lucasfilm showed off 3-D technology they were working on, and technology guru Nicholas Negroponte made five long-sighted predictions about the future of technology which have come true.

The first conference was a financial flop, but the spark had taken, and TED smoldered for six years before the TED talks returned with a modified format as an annual event.

The first TED talks were important. They were identified by three things:

1: Their scope. The first events were tightly focused on the newest forward-looking developments in the converging fields of technology, entertainment and design (which is where TED gets its name).

2: Their exclusivity. The first events were invitation-only. Not just for the speakers, but the audience members as well. All of the conference attendees were there because they were deemed to be among some of the world’s most influential thinkers, leaders and teachers.

3: Their passion. From the beginning, TED was to be an inspirational intellectual celebration, where the most brilliant minds would be collected together to have their minds collectively blown.

In the TED rebirth, the exclusivity was relaxed a little and anyone could attend, so long as you could afford the hefty $7500 ticket price, and your application for your ticket met the approval of the TED Organizers.

If you ask many observers today, they would probably answer that the “E” in “TED” stands for Education, not Entertainment – a change that many feel is for the better.

Then, beginning in 2001, TED quickly went to pot. Ownership of TED changed hands from Richard Wurman to Chris Anderson, and Anderson immediately implemented changes that incrementally lessened the “specialness” of TED.

“TED” became “TED Main Event” and “TEDGlobal” began. This was a second TED conference that moved around the world. This was not a bad move in and of itself, but the success of TEDGlobal inspired Anderson to slide down the slippery slope that has become “TEDx”.

The TED organizers, assumedly drunk on power and fame, decided that it would be a good idea to license their TED events, in “TEDx Independently Organized Events”. Keeping just the basics of the format – for example, specific fonts for their graphics and the short-talk format – now anyone can borrow the rapidly waning credibility of the TED brand and host their own “TEDx Event”. There are currently 966 upcoming scheduled TEDx events, 481 that are unscheduled, and 9426 past events. That’s about 11,000 events for an event that only began in 2009. Today is March 19, 2014. There are 58 scheduled TEDx events for today alone. Tell me TED organizers can police those talks to ensure the content is up to any kind of standard of quality. They can’t. And they aren’t going to.

In one of my past lives I had a career as a Quality Assurance Manager. It’s a general rule of thumb in the QA world that quantity increases at the cost of quality. Call me crazy, but when it comes to a TED Talk, I’d greatly prefer quality over quantity.

Buzzfeed has a list of the 20 all-time worst TED talks, and it well demonstrates what I’m talking about here. From 3 minutes on how to tie your shoes to 4 and a half minutes on how to properly use a paper towel, these are TED talks that I’m amazed that people paid the $7500 ticket price to see, and didn’t complain about it afterward. Sadly, one of my heroes is on that list. In 2007, James Randi presented a blistering expose of both psychics and homeopathic medicine. While it is a great video for certain people to watch, it’s hardly new information to a typical TED audience. Randi is essentially preaching to the choir, and so I can regrettably understand why that video would be on the list.

The TED 2013 event featured 83 different speakers. That was just at the “Main Event” – the original annual event that now consumes the better part of a week. Some were worth listening to. Some were more suited to the saccharine-factory websites like upworthy.com. I would have been quite disappointed to pay $7500 to attend TED only to watch a guy play with his yo-yo. Disappointed isn’t strong enough a word. I watched the yo-yo guy for free online and I still felt ripped off. A remarkable skill, no doubt, but I’m not sure what I learned from it. Maybe I was supposed to learn that with a lifetime of intense practice and dedication, I too can become mind-numbingly good at a completely unmarketable skill.

Indeed, TED has traveled a long and winding road away from their original focus. TED Talks now routinely feature nonensical spiritual fluff like Rick Warren (remember the “Purpose-Driven Life” craze?). TED celebrates anti-science and woo-laden talks like Deepak Chopra (TED 2002 and again in TEDMED 2009, and yet again in TEDMED 2010). Rupert Sheldrake’s “The Science Delusion” (TEDx Whitechapel 2013) and Graham Hancock’s “The War on Consciousness” (TEDx Whitechapel 2013). For some reason that I can’t fathom, the TED organizers have an unhealthy obsession with Karen Armstrong’s bubble-headed “can’t we all just get along” take on just about all the world’s religions. Then there’s Lesley Hazelton’s heavily panned and misguided talk on how wonderful and misunderstood the Qu’ran really is. And let’s not forget Alain de Botton’s tortured and futile “Atheism 2.0” talk in which he tried to pitch the idea that atheists should be more religious. You can imagine how well that was accepted. The list goes on and on.

Do you think they’ve wandered just a little from their scope of focusing on the convergence between Technology, Education/Entertainment and Design? I certainly think so.

TED – to their credit – were embarrased enough at least to remove the Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock talks from their TEDx web sites, explaining that in hindsight, both speakers egregiously misrepresented science and were just plain factually incorrect.

Speaking of removing talks from their web site, there was the famed row between TED’s Chris Anderson and Sarah Silverman when the organizers publicly disowned the talk they invited her to deliver. TED states boldly and proudly that they don’t vet their speakers. They’re interested in the free exchange of ideas, they say. The Sarah Silverman experience demonstrates that this is not the case. Indeed, it seems they can’t even be arsed to Google their speakers beforehand. I like Sarah Silverman. I watched Sarah Silverman’s talk (NSFW) and it’s nothing unusual for her, but it seemed to catch Chris Anderson by surprise. I think if they care about their reputation, they might want to consider at least asking their invited speakers for an abstract for their planned talk.

So to recap, TED has lost the plot. Can TED redeem themselves? In my mind, only if they do away with all of their recent “advancements” and go back to their original format, focusing on the scope, the exclusivity and the passion. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen. What do you think? Do you have favourite TED Talk? Do you have a worst TED Talk?

All of that said, TED can pretty much be credited with the popularity of Prezi – an alternative to PowerPoint. PowerPoint is where creativity goes to die, so at least TED has given us that.

2 thoughts on “The Steady Decline of TED

  1. I got caught up in the whole TED talk fervor for the first time when watching the July 2011 presentation of robot seagull development, with a working model let loose to fly over the heads of the audience. It seemed fascinating and spectacular, and it was. I haven't watched every talk religiously, but go back every now and then and scan the more recent talks and pick and choose. Then I got into posting on the comments forum. Still oblivious to the history of TED, and the source of the tone of the talks, I nevertheless discovered it on my own, in a left-handed way. By that I mean that I noticed the “ideas worth spreading” were often presented with a glorious future envisioned by the speaker, achieved by their work, and were woefully half-baked in terms of context. David Eagleman's March 2015 talk about neurosurgical “umvelt” enhancements to human perception was a bit disturbing because of the lack of analysis of how the research and it's results would actually turn out. Krista Tippet's New Age Speak about three-dimensional compassion was just a load of specious profundity. The talks often reminded me of Popular Science articles ; meant as escapist reading for techno geeks always living in a future that will never come, or at least not come in the form proposed in the articles. I thought that was the long and the short of it – escapism for geeks, but your article, and other sources on the Web, have showed me that I just never got interested enough to do any checking up on TED. By all accounts, the speakers are genuinely brilliant, and TED admin sells them a bill of goods about pitching their ideas to potential funding. I had no idea that audience members had paid $7500, and filled out qualifying questionnaires, just to watch the talks.
    I've put a lot into my TED talk Disqus forum posts, but now I'm feeling some of the wind coming out of my sails. Thanks for your great article.

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