The next day I made a correction per Dick Morris’s comment, and toned down some of my adjectives to be more suitable outside of our private listserv. Dr. Bratton, of course we welcome dialog. 

Screen grab of TED.com banner

In our Society for Participatory Medicine, part of our work is to change how people think about relationships in medicine. That involves developing and spreading new ideas. And that’s what TED Talks are about – “ideas worth spreading.”

Three days ago a TEDx Talk from San Diego was posted on YouTube, titled What’s wrong with TED Talks? by Benjamin Bratton, Ph.D. (@Bratton), associate professor of visual arts at UC San Diego. It’s getting attention on social media, because Dr. Bratton’s post on his own site was cross-postedBratton Guardian post grab 3 (with new prolog) on the often-viral UK site The Guardian, with the title We Need to Talk About TED.

Then yesterday, on the SPM members-only listserve, SPM co-founder Joe Graedon of Peoples Pharmacy pointed to the Guardian piece, and a robust discussion started up.  My view of the subject is different from Dr. Bratton’s, and I wrote a long reply to SPM member and fellow kidney cancer patient Peggy Zuckerman. Here it is. (I only speak for myself, not for SPM, and of course we always welcome discussion.)

Read the Guardian post first, which includes the transcript of his talk, or some of this won’t make sense.
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Peggy, once again thanks for your insights about The Work we try to do here. This being the listserv of a community that’s devoted to change, I recognize the value of questions about TED (e.g. Bratton’s post), but I personally have little interest in them. What interests me is, what works for our purposes?

I know there’s plenty of publicity to be had by coming up with a fresh new criticism of anything big, and I myself have big objections to TED’s “it’s all about the clicks and pageviews” structure. For instance:

  • I used to be able to easily monitor my talk‘s rank among others, to understand whether the views I was getting were really related to my talk (i.e. a real spread of our movement), or were just me riding along on the tide. But TED changed how they display the rankings so now it takes real labor to check that. Essentially, they’re keeping the analytics to themselves. Rude, IMO.
  • In their “conversation” page about each talk, there’s no way to link to a particular message: to participate you have to go there and rummage. That’s obnoxious and is clearly in no way designed to foster deep discussion – it’s to get more eyeballs spending more minutes on their site, even if those minutes are spent not because of interest but because of rummaging in frustration. That leads to false analytics.

Having said that, though: who cares? So what if it’s 2/3 a slutty plot to get eyeballs regardless of the content. Yes, they’re TED.com, not TED.org – a business. No harm in that.

But if we here want to understand and debate where value is, it seems to me that the problem comes when people make up a story in their heads that TED is something other than what it claims to be. Their home page CLEARLY says “ideas worth spreading”; it makes no claim about transforming the universe. (Or did I miss something?)

I get an extra jolt of annoyance when any observer casts aspersions on something for not being what OTHERS say it is, when the thing itself never said it. More than once in the past few years I’ve had people say that some talking point of mine is BS, and each time it’s turned out they were reacting to some rumor about my message, not to anything I actually said. In one case the guy who’d been trashing me on Twitter became a good friend … that’s an open mind, woohoo!

It’s a double-jolt in this case, where the author devotes a significant amount of his post to asking (IMO) misguided questions about TED’s motives, e.g.

  • “the future promised in TED talks” – huh? Promised by whom?
  • “does TED epitomize a situation where if [someone’s] work…. is told that their work is not worthy of support, because the public doesn’t feel good listening to them?” Oy! This guy hears a good donor pitch (not on TED!) that’s rejected by an airhead donor, and he blames TED?? Seems to me the problem is the airhead donor. (And don’t tell me the donor gets a pass on his/her thought process because s/he was poisoned by TED. People need to have responsibility for thinking!)
  • “So what is TED, exactly?” Then he goes on a hypothesis/fantasy, again not something TED ever said: “Perhaps it’s the proposition that if we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change. But this is not true, and that’s the second problem.”

I’m not a student of rhetorical strategies but I think there’s a term for when you make up a false image of what something is, and then slaughter the false image. Is it straw man?

I especially decry anyone (any of us) who as a viewer or reader absorbs anything – TED talk, sales pitch, medical journal article, Jenny McCarthy or anything – without thinking independently about it and evaluating whether it makes sense. You get a screwy idea by drinking the Kool-Aid of a goofy TED Talk?  Whose doing is that?

And then, as time goes by, a responsible thinker must monitor how it plays out. (See our blog post three years ago on The Decline Effect: “Many results that are rigorously proved and accepted start shrinking in later studies.”)

So, as I say: what interests me is not throwing rotten eggs at a big thing, unless Big Thing has been duping us. What interests me is, what can be said or done that will make any difference? What’s a useful place to put our focus?

I personally have chosen to be in the business of changing people’s thinking, in a way that will pan out as years go by. For that purpose, my TED talk has been immensely valuable, and the only investment I needed to put in was my time, hard work and mental energy – a distinctly non-capitalist situation that has produced immense visibility for my/our “idea worth spreading.”

As I say, in some ways TED the company annoys me a lot – they’re in it for the pageviews. But who cares? For my/our purposes it’s useful. And they are extraordinary video producers and editors; that service alone is close to priceless, for someone like me.
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