The Sideshow

TED talks don't work, says TED talker

TED talks, during which experts speak to audiences about serious problems and scientific ideas that may solve them, are something of a love-'em-or-hate-'em proposition.

Some find them inspirational. Others, such as Benjamin Bratton, associate professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, characterize them as "middlebrow megachurch infotainment" and "placebo politics."

Bratton delivered his critique of TED, a nonprofit that says it's devoted to "ideas worth spreading," during a TED talk, of all places. In an 11-minute rebuke, Bratton asks why the proposed bright futures often promised in TED talks don't come true. He lists a series of reasons why, but resists coming up with "one simple takeaway," because, to him, over-simplification is one of the shortcomings of TED, which stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design."

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us.

Bratton continued:

"At a societal level, the bottom line is if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don’t work, and don’t invest things that don’t make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems. In this case the placebo is worse than ineffective, it's harmful."

Comments posted to YouTube are, for the most part, supportive of Bratton. Christopher Gaul wrote, "Wow! While I don't think it's entirely fair to throw all of TED under this bus, generally speaking, this guy's right on the money. Worth watching."

Another commenter wrote, "This hit the nail on the head with what is wrong with Ted Talks, and yet at the same time was doing the exact same thing that he was pointing out as faults. He even says he has no solution to these problems, but he says what they are doing is wrong, while he has no solution. Kind of seems pointless."

You can read an entire transcript of the TED talk here.

Follow Mike Krumboltz on Twitter at @mikekrumboltz.

View Comments (783)