Response to “We need to talk about TED” from an evangelist’s perspective

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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14 Responses to “Response to “We need to talk about TED” from an evangelist’s perspective”

  1. Heh, as if to prove my point, the TED site has this TED Conversation about the talk that questions TED Talks:

    “We need to talk about TED” by Benjamin Bratton is going viral. Do you agree or disagree with his points?

    Viral? Well, in the first 3 days the talk has 5,300 views…. :-)

  2. Btw, personally I completely agree with Bratton’s appeal for “More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins” in TEDs.

    On the other hand, at TEDMED 2010 I saw Tony Robbins literally waving his arms as he ranted, trying to get the TEDMED audience frothed up, and it was a total flop. (Odd; I just tried to find that video and it’s not online!)

    • Susannah Fox says:

      Great post – will ponder and write more later – this is just to say that my recollection is that Tony Robbins’s video was never posted (at least when I looked, back in 2010 ). It might have been in his contract that it not be recorded or posted on the TEDMED site.

  3. Dick Morris says:

    You wrote ‘on the respected UK site The Guardian,’.

    This is not entirely true. In the UK The Guardian newspaper is regarded as VERY left leaning. It is a common newspaper in universities but not read at all in the so called working classes and certainly not read in the city of London.

    The Guardian has a poor reputation for 80% of the population and is a poor example of clear rational thinking journalism.

    • e-Patient Dave says:

      Thank you, Dick – I was not aware of that, and wrongly assumed that since I so often see Guardan things “going viral,” it must be respected. I’ll edit the post.

      • Mary Saunders says:

        The Guardian has become the last chance for whistleblowers and thus the scoop capitol of the present global media world. For some of us, that generates respect. It is demonstrably correct that the NSA disclosures went viral. I would think anyone interested in accessibility of data by those who have a need to know would have some respect for the Guardian, but maybe that is naive on my part. For matters with less interest than NSA doings, viral is probably a relative term and has a longer gestation period.

  4. Benjamin Bratton’s arrow takes TED as a direct target. And, were it limited to some sort of TED bashing, I would agree on the over-severity of the charge.

    However, what @Bratton actually points out is that “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.”

    The true target is not TED but the fallacy of some kind of innovation that fails to address genuine issues. Those issues that are precisely too complex to fit in TED talks or political discourses or any kind of “innovation beauty contests” for startups.

    So, TED is nothing more than TED. TED is about entertaining and broadcasting ideas!
    But lets remember that Grossman’s law states that “Complex problems have simple, easy to understand wrong answers”. And I can easily agree with @Bratton that there is little (if any) room for answers that, being neither simple nor easy to understand, may well be of the required kind.

    Now, if you ask me if these “complexity fit ideas” could spread more easily if TED didn’t exist… I may ask for a Joker because @Bratton concluded his article before exploring this issue ;-)

    • Thanks so much for bringing this here from Twitter, Philippe. (I hope Dr. Bratton will join in.)

      Personally I couldn’t agree more that we as a society would benefit vastly if we became better able to comprehend compexity. And I’ve lived through pitches like the one he describes, where the person with the resources that could change (part of) the world just wasn’t excited enough. Jeeze: is he implying that hedonism is the criterion?? That’s as airheaded as it gets.

      And it reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon where a Manhattan wife says to her wealthy husband, “If you’re so rich, why aren’t you smart??” :-)

      But as I said on Twitter, since the talk was titled “We need to talk about TED”, and on his site (in the left sidebar) he described it as “my anti-TED rant,” I took it to be that.

      Hm: if the real issue is that we shouldn’t be simplistic about issues that require complexity, perhaps it’s ironic that the talk itself had a simplified title, focusing on that one point!

      Would it be more accurately styled “We need to talk about our fascination with TED”?

      (Meanwhile, I let myself get drawn into the discussion about this on TED Conversations, which seems not to be going much of anywhere, but I’m trying…)

      • Agreed.

        Also there is this Steve Jobs quote about television : “When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But
        when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far
        more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really
        in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”

        So, yes, “conspiracy is optimistic” and we have better talk about complexity ;-)

        There are many domains where one can feel that issues are not addressed at the proper complexity level.

        You are on the first line to know that health is one such place.

        Cancer would be a mundane issue already if only half of the great claimed innovations were not pure buzz.

        Public Health Information Systems would paramount (considering money burned there) if a “record of records” could be used as a continuity of care system.

        But it is not that easy and “shooting the bastard” à la Steve Jobs is not easy either. One reason being that, when complexity is involved, people that fail for reasons they can’t understand will usually successfully pretend that they need more money to succeed.

        This leads to an interesting paradox – alas maybe the may engine of current crisis – very close from the Dunning–Kruger effect (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect)

  5. Peggy Zuckerman says:

    If I have any overt biases, it is against “easy answers” to complex questions. This includes lots of issues, and prevents me from grabbing the soundbites of life and heading off into the darkness with fragile and flickering lights, as welcome as those tiny bits might be at the time. So it is with TED talks, often similar “easy answers”. I do try to differentiate between those and first steps, also faltering at times, but heading in the right direction.

    Certainly TED talks, in there many versions are welcome in the spirit of exchange of ideas, but to expect these talks to be other than inspiration or simple examples of the ideas sped around the world through cyberspace is naive. Though naivete is not always a bad thing, it is too often quashed by the challenges of introspection.

    A friend reminds me of the “butterfly effect”,where one tiny motion can have untold and unseen impact. The Ted talks are part of that, and truly not be to held responsible for changing the world on their own. So it is with patient engagement or education–lots of ideas, discussions and questions. This can lead to our goal of patient engagement–along with endless and enduring efforts to reach that goal.

    Since I am alive and whole, thanks in part to the patients who have engaged me in this movement, I remain optimistic and determined to be part of the change, and use any tool to help

  6. Mighty Casey says:

    Figuring out how to turn the idea-exhaust emanating from TED into action – that’s the trick, isn’t it? TED has become its own worst enemy in some ways, with the spread of TEDx local events, which are vastly variable in their quality and purpose.

    We definitely need “more Copernicus, less Tony Robbins” across the board, not just at TED. Talking a good game is one thing, building a sustainable game is another animal entire.

    I’ll port over this graf from my comments on the list:
    “It seems that just invoking the words “innovation” and “disruption” is enough. Solid ideas taking shape as objects or as platforms for change? Not so much. I’m not saying that real, live folks aren’t disrupting the hell out of things, or innovating like there’s no tomorrow, but I don’t think that many of them are giving TED talks. Most are not. They’re too busy.”

    With all the disruption supposedly in progress in healthcare, I still find myself having to take trips down the rabbit hole whenever I intersect with the system to get care of any kind. Progress is not seen at the ground level yet, and I wonder how much disruption will have to take place before it does … ?

    • Well said, Casey.

      I find I can stop a lot of BS dead in its tracks my asking someone point blank, “What specifically do you mean by disruption?” Most people don’t have a clue how the forces work. It’s the business equivalent of shouting “Physics!!” without understand what F=ma means, and why it’s useful.

      I mean, it’s fine with me if people LIKE physics and support it without understanding, but I sure wouldn’t take their advice or hire them to accomplish anything.

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