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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

TED: A Threat to Civilization?

There is a very old debate between those who popularize complex subjects (Carl Sagan comes to mind) and those who refuse because they see accessibility as dumbing it down for the hoi polloi.

In this video Benjamin Bratton goes after TED:  those talks that bring together experts from Technology, Entertainment and Design (and other fields as well).  You've probably seen one or two (maybe more) .  They are quite popular and free for anyone to watch.  I personally think that TED talks are a fine example of Sturgeon's Law that "99% of everything is crap." A few are excellent, most are so so, and some are just plain awful.

Bratton's argument is that TED not only reduces complex subjects to simple, inspirational, 20 minute infomercials (and turns technologists and scientist into entertainment monkeys) but it actually does harm because it deludes people into believing that they are doing something to change the world while sitting comfortably in their plush seats.  The reality he says, is that TED changes nothing whatsoever and may be, in fact, responsible for maintaining the status quo. And this, he claims is a recipe for disaster. Yes, and life as we know it will end tomorrow and it will be TED's fault.  So there.

I think it's a real stretch to put the end of civilization as we know it at the feet of TED.  Bratton's talk feels like pretty pedestrian iconoclasm - speaking "truth to power" and telling everyone "you are ALL wrong about everything" which is, in itself, a kind of cheap entertainment.

If you've read this far, you've probably gathered that I was not impressed by his talk.  I grew up around scientists and engineers (and artists) who were all very eloquent when it came to their subjects.  Eloquent and interesting enough to hold the attention of people from other fields during dinner.  Were they "dumbing it down" to be polite?  No, they wanted to convey something that they found interesting and worthy of notice from their field to others who were not experts.  They wanted to communicate.  And everybody took turns;  the engineers finished their contribution and then listened to the artists who then passed the conversational ball to the lawyers.  As a kid I learned a hell of a lot over my father's leg of lamb and my mom's excellent apple pie.  I still remember my father (an internationally recognized expert in his field) explaining to me one day Rutherford's Rule:  "If you can't explain your physics to a barmaid, it is probably not very good physics."

I don't have a lot of patience for those who regard their fields as castles with high walls.  We are so darn important and our field is so complex that not just anybody can enter.  Sounds a lot like a gated communities to me.  I just returned to the shelf ( I only read about 10% of the book) a volume of essays by experts on social media.  Not only was it very poorly edited (obscure language and twisted sentences) but when I started seeing multiple references to Foucault (and isn't it always him?)  in places where it was completely unnecessary and added nothing whatsoever to a better understanding of the topic and the points the authors wanted to make, I had enough.

Good writers and speakers are made, not born.  Basic principles can be taught and practice makes perfect.  This is not about turning scientists and technologists into trained seals who bark on command - it's about giving them the basic tools to convey their ideas to the wider world.  Yes, we all at one point or another have to make a public argument in support of our ideas.

There are consequences to doing this poorly. Walk into a board meeting with a complex network diagram, talk to the CEO (an expert on the business and how it works) as if he were a fellow engineer and then ask for the budget to replace the aging routers because "We are the experts and we say so."  Do not be surprised if you walk out of there with nothing.  The day the network goes down, the company is bleeding money, and the CEO starts yelling, you yell back, "We told you so."  Well actually, you didn't.  You gave him an argument from authority and what he heard was not enough to convince him that you knew what you were talking about. (How do I know this?  Because I've done it and found very quickly that it is a recipe for disaster.)

TED is not perfect. But nothing that is the product of human hands and minds is.   Not all the problems exposed on TED have solutions and just because there is a video up about something doesn't make what one sees and hears true - many of the ideas on TED are not "worth spreading."

Not to mention that some of the personal accounts can be downright boring.  Anyone who comes to a party or a dinner and talks endlessly about himself, probably won't get invited back. Nor will the folks who sit there, and when asked to contribute, claim that what they do is so complex that there is no way that the other guests could possibly comprehend it.

Think of TED as a conversation and an attempt to include the maximum number of folks at the table (what in my youth was considered good manners).   In that sense, I think TED actually falls short because there isn't a lot of audience participation, though they do occasionally take questions after the talk. And if people actually enjoy themselves in the process?  Learn something they didn't know?  Feel engaged and interested and part of something larger than themselves?

Oh, the horror.


Sauve said...

I love TED. When we lost our internet for 5 weeks ( thanks Orange. :P ) and I was only able to log on to my mail on Saturday afternoons very briefly my objective was rapidly simple. I made two folders. The first to save your blog posts and those of French Word-a-day so I could read them at my leisure in the future. The second was to save TEDs for viewing later. I was so happy to have done that by the time that Orange finally got off their butts and fixed our internet.

Blaze said...

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." (Albert Einstein)

P. Moore said...

I watched this video yesterday. I thought Bratton had a few good thoughts, but was kind of put off by what seemed to be a degree of arrogance and such a negative tone. I have mixed feelings about TED, but not so much that I would call it destructive or counter-productive. I am also a bit leery about someone who would take the time to create a negative presentation.

Catherine said...

Well said. The good thing about TED is through sharing, the goods talks rise up and do get noticed. We mostly see the cream.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Sauve, I've got some real favs over at TED. Talks that sent me in directions I would not have gone otherwise.

You SAVE my blog posts? Oh my. Thank you. That really made my day.

@Blaze, Oh that is a good one. And who can possibly argue with Rutherford AND Einstein?

@P. Moore, That's fair. He did make some interesting points. The tone stunk.

@Catherine, I suspect that we can refine our search by looking for other people's favorite TED talks. Surely people have posted their lists? I'm going to check that out.

Anonymous said...

End of civilization is too strong; reflecting part of the shallowness of discourse and shortness of attention span, on the other hand?

His piece certainly provoked discussion.

Julia Gandrud (aka JuliaLikesFrogs) said...

This is hilarious!
Don't, whatever you do, try to educate people in a way that they like...

Victoria FERAUGE said...

It certain did, Andrew. And you're right, that's a good thing.

Julia are you familiar with the classic film Beauty Knows No Pain (Erwitt)? If you haven't seen it, find it. It's a hoot. It's about cheerleaders in Texas. 20 odd minutes and well worth the watch.

These ladies suffered for their art. An attitude that I don't think is exclusive to Rockerettes. :-)

Sally said...

I like that quotation from Rutherford, about explaining things to barmaids!

Obviously, I never met Rutherford. But I once had a boss for a summer job, E.C. Pollard, who had indeed met him and respected him enormously. Rutherford had been department head when Pollard did his PhD. There was a big picture of Rutherford on wall of Pollard's lab. I heard a lot about Rutherford that summer.

I was young (20) and Pollard was getting on (72).

He explained everything about the experiments I was doing very clearly and I had a good sense of what it was about. I thought I understood it perfectly.

Then he held a seminar for grad students on the results of those experiments. I went. I was amazed: I didn't understand a thing!

After that, I observed to him explaining things to others. He had quite a knack of getting things at exactly the right level for whatever the audience.

Pollard was an amazing man. What a good summer that was!

And I learned from him. When I give talks, I think first about the audience: what do they know, what do they want to know about my subject, what do I want them to know and how can I build a bridge? That's not manipulation, it's communication,