Still from Sarah Kay’s 2011 “If I should have a daughter …” TED Talk
From The Drift:
Suddenly, circa 2010, everyone was sharing TED talks — via email, on Facebook, on personal blogs — and TED, a not-for-profit, was making a lot of money. Tickets to the annual conference were going for $7,500 ($15,000 for VIPs). TED set up partnerships with elite brands. TED speakers who achieved millions of views could parlay the attention into new careers as so-called thought leaders. Advertising executive Simon Sinek’s 2009 talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” massively boosted sales of his self-help-cum-entrepreneurship book Start with Why. Sarah Kay, a spoken-word performer whose TED-talk poem, “If I Should Have a Daughter,” amassed millions of views, told Business Insider, “I’m very much aware that my career would not be what it is had that video not gone online.” In other words, if you could master the TED-style talk, you could sell anything — even slam poetry.
The TED format proved alluring to some academics, too, especially those hoping for a crossover career appealing to both scholarly and popular audiences. Brown’s vulnerability talk vaulted her research to international fame: each one of her books since has appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list. Though there was no peer review process for TED, the conference had a review system to ensure that speakers were presenting valid, trustworthy material. Quality control was compromised, though, through the creation of the TEDx franchise, which from 2009 let licensees use the brand platform to stage independent events around the world. At a 2010 TEDx event, Randy Powell, a man who claimed to be at the “forefront of the most advanced mathematics ever known to mankind,” spoke about what he called vortex-based mathematics. This previously undiscovered branch of math would, he said, “create inexhaustible free energy, end all diseases, produce all food, travel anywhere in the universe, build the ultimate supercomputer and artificial intelligence, and make obsolete all existing technology.” He got a standing ovation.
The video went largely unnoticed until 2012, when a handful of science bloggers found it and pilloried Powell’s claims. The talk, they said, was constructed entirely out of meaningless jargon. In an online forum, a theoretical physicist said that Powell was “either (1) insane, (2) a huckster going for fame or money, or (3) doing a Sokal’s hoax on TED.” Spectacles like this one damaged TED’s brand, and soon critics were accusing the institution of vapid oversimplification. Evgeny Morozov wrote in The New Republic, “TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas worth spreading. Instead it has become something ludicrous.” A long profile of Anderson in The New York Times Magazine called TED “the Starbucks of intellectual conglomerates.”
Perhaps the most incisive critique came, ironically, at a 2013 TEDx conference. In “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” media theorist Benjamin Bratton told a story about a friend of his, an astrophysicist, who gave a complex presentation on his research before a donor, hoping to secure funding. When he was finished, the donor decided to pass on the project. “I’m just not inspired,” he told the astrophysicist. “You should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.” Bratton was outraged. He felt that the rhetorical style TED helped popularize was “middlebrow megachurch infotainment,” and had begun to directly influence the type of intellectual work that could be undertaken. If the research wasn’t entertaining or moving, it was seen as somehow less valuable. TED’s influence on intellectual culture was “taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing,” Bratton said. “This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather, this is one of our most frightening problems.” (Online, his talk proved to be one of many ideas worth spreading. “This is by far the most interesting and challenging thing I’ve heard on TED,” one commenter posted. “Very glad to come across it!”)