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TED not a recipe for ‘civilisational disaster’

Chris Anderson talks to TED2013 speaker, Ron Finley, who got a ticket for planting a vegetable garden in South Central Los Angeles. Finley's talk has been viewed 1.6 million times, and inspired many to plant their own gardens. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Chris Anderson talks to TED2013 speaker, Ron Finley, who got a ticket for planting a vegetable garden in South Central Los Angeles. Finley’s talk has been viewed 1.6 million times, and has inspired many to plant their own gardens. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

This morning, The Guardian published this essay written by TED’s curator, Chris Anderson, in response to a column in the paper last week. In this essay, he dives into the misconception that TED Talks oversimplify complex subjects, and explains why we as a company are dedicated to the principle that knowledge should be shared.

Seven years ago when TED Talks debuted online, the blogosphere buzzed contentedly over this new free form of intellectual food. The Guardian itself once wrote an op-ed titled “In Praise of TED”. Today, with more than 2 million TED Talks viewed daily, some bloggers have discovered you can win a lot more clicks by going with “In Condemnation of TED”.

The fact that most of their theories contradict each other just adds to the fun. TED is, apparently, leftist propaganda. And also pro-establishment-corporate-sponsored misinformation. It takes mainstream science too seriously. And also not seriously enough. It’s elitist. But it also shamefully allows thousands of ordinary people around the world to ruin its brand by becoming organizers of local TEDx events.

The latest assault was given at a talk in San Diego last month, the text of which was published in The Guardian last week. I learned that my organization is promulgating “a recipe for civilizational disaster”.  Gosh.

The core of the argument appears to be that TED Talks oversimplify and are intended to stimulate emotion rather than reveal the world’s true complexity. This meme has been percolating around the web for a while in one form or another. And if I may, I’d like to explain gently why it is based on a misconception of what TED is trying to do.

First some common ground. There’s no question that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing:  the trainee medic who confuses mouth to mouth resuscitation with the Heimlich maneuver; or the freshman who thinks his introduction to philosophy class entitles him to take over family dinner with an exposition on free will. (My sisters still don’t accept I had no choice in the matter.)

So I understand why someone could worry about TED’s goal of delivering something valuable in videos of less than 18 minutes. If TED Talks were the only way that ideas could be shared, they might have a point. But last time I checked, there are countless communication forms out there in the world. Before you can answer the question “Are TED Talks dumbing people down?” you really need to ponder: compared to what?  The critics pushing the oversimplification argument seem to believe that if only people weren’t wasting their time on silly TED Talks, they’d be reading books, taking evening classes, poring over scientific papers, or at the very least subscribing to the critic’s uniquely brilliant blog.

Alas, I suspect that assumption is false.

Our minds are ground zero in a brutal battle for attention. And most of the time, the memes that matter are getting buried.

Countless TV channels, video on demand, and an infinity of enticing websites, apps, videogames and social media feeds offer irresistible distractions 24/7. Books pile up unread on peoples’ bookshelves and Kindles. The number one question facing anyone who wants to help improve the quality of public discourse is: how the hell do you get a look-in?

When we first experimented with giving away TED Talks on the web, our main concern was not that we might upset the people who pay to see the talks at our conferences, but rather that no one would watch. Why would you sit through an 18-minute lecture when there’s a whole world of hilarious cat videos to be explored?  To our astonishment, the talks started to go viral, and it happened because our speakers were tapping into something amazing and primal:  in certain circumstances an idea resident in a human mind can be encoded in language, transmitted sonically and visually into a receiving mind, and cause that mind to resonate with the same insight and excitement felt by the originator.

For this little miracle to happen, it needs all the help it can get. The ignition of curiosity. Clarity. Humor. The stripping out of needless jargon. And yes, in some cases an emotional connection to the speaker is a valuable ingredient. You learn more from people you care about.

So one way to think of TED is as an attempt to give the ancient art of human-to-human communication modern clothing so that it can get a foothold in today’s attention competition. By limiting the talks to 18 minutes or less and encouraging our speakers to do all they can to  illuminate, clarify, engage and delight we appear to have found an approach that appeals.

But can you honestly share something worthwhile in 18 minutes?  Definitively, unequivocally yes.  The Gettysburg address made history in one ninth that time.  Martin Luther King’s”I Have a Dream” talk? 16 minutes. We certainly don’t think any TED Talk offers all there is to know on any topic. Of course not. But you can learn enough to get excited about knowing more.

A TED Talk is not a book. It is not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It can’t be either of those things. Nor does it want to replace them. On the contrary, it wants to amplify them and bring their significance to a broader audience.

But understanding the world isn’t just about digging deep. One of the biggest problems of modern intellectual life is that everyone is buried too deeply in their own trench and has little visibility of what is going on elsewhere. Today’s world of knowledge is simply too vast, too intricate for anyone to be at leading edge in multiple fields. And this has created all manner of dangerous consequences. Most of our worst problems can’t be tackled successfully without multi-disciplinary thinking. And multi-disciplinary approaches are impossible unless you can find a way for people to understand each other. One of the reasons people come to TED is to hear from some of the world’s leading experts in a way that’s accessible.  If you want to be a psychologist, go to university. But if you want to get important insights on which aspects of modern psychology might be relevant to your life or work, you could do a lot worse than listen to Dan Gilbert. Or Barry Schwartz. Or Amy Cuddy. Or Danny Kahneman.

TED started off (30 years ago) as Technology, Entertainment and Design. But today it’s expanded to include any credible topic of interest, including all areas of science, culture and public concern. If more people understood subject matter outside their main interests, even if only at a basic level, our shared conversation would be a lot more productive. TED Talks are designed to facilitate that interchange. We’re as eager as anyone to address the complexity of the world’s systems. Paradoxically, that can only be done by nurturing a form of simplicity in how we communicate about them. That’s the only way to bring to the table a wide enough mix of people. Simplicity does not have to mean dumbing down. What we’re looking for is explanatory elegance.

Can it go wrong? Yes it can. One speaker might try too hard to be “inspiring” at the expense of content. Another might over-promise or leave out some key caveats. Given the visibility TED offers, there are a lot of speakers now eager to get onto the platform, and some may try to get there by copying what they think the “TED formula” is. Just so as you know, we do all in our power to prevent this.

Our goal is to find people who have remarkable knowledge to share, and help them find a way of sharing its significance in a way that is accessible to an intelligent general audience.

Our instructions to speakers include:

  • substance matters more than performance
  • personal connection may be good, emotional manipulation is not
  • there is no formula. Give the talk in your own authentic way

It’s thrilling how many are able to deliver something special. Check out  Bonnie BasslerDavid Deutsch,  E. O. WilsonMurray Gell-Mann. All brilliant science communicators, combining clarity with real substance.

One last thing. Some recent criticism of TED comes from people who are confused by our TEDx initiative. Five years ago we started allowing people to organize their own TED-like events under the label “TEDx” where the x stands for “self-organized”.  This initiative has exploded in popularity. More than 6000 such events have been held and are continuing at the rate of about 8 every day. These organizers book their own speakers and take care of their own logistics. We offer them guidelines and advice but really the core of their events and programming is down to them. TED staff does not co-organize. We don’t pre-screen speakers. That would defeat the purpose. This is a ground-up effort. (Paradoxically, the recent Guardian critique is a transcript of a talk first given at a TEDx event.)

It’s only by genuinely granting power to local organizers that TEDx could have achieved its current scale. We have been astonished how good most of these events are. From TEDxSydney (which packed out the Sydney Opera House) to TEDxKibera (held in a slum near Nairobi) audiences globally have been informed and inspired. Like Wikipedia it shouldn’t work, but it does. And also like Wikipedia, occasionally mistakes creep in. Out of the 40,000 TEDx talk videos now online, around a dozen have been truly embarrassing, featuring pseudoscience or other absurdities.

But guess what? The system self-corrects over time. Organizers learn from each other, and we are committed to empowering them with tools and advice that will allow each year’s events to be a little better than the year above.

Collectively TEDx events have become a remarkable content aggregator, posting talks from people like Frans de WaalBrene BrownGian Giudice and thousands more.  Longer term, they are building something truly hopeful: a worldwide network of communities in hundreds of cities, dedicated to understanding the world a little more clearly and to helping usher in a better future, both locally and globally.

At the heart of this phenomenon is a belief that knowledge can and should be shared. TED-like Talks are only one of many ways in which this should happen. But they have a role to play, and we see it as an encouraging sign that millions of people around the world have enough hunger for learning to want to spend time watching them.

Let’s give Einstein the last word. His dictum is our guide. And we give both its sentences equal weight. “Things should be made as simple as possible. But no simpler.”

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