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The Tyranny of TED

by Adrian Segar

If you read my blog you’ll know that I’m a fan of short presentation formats like Pecha Kucha (20 slides x 20 seconds) and Ignite (20 slides x 15 seconds), and I have no fundamental objection to the longer, eighteen minute free-form TED format.

But there’s something about TED that I don’t like.

TED is elitist.

It is marketed as such: “The annual TED conferences, in Long Beach/Palm Springs and Edinburgh, bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers”. Attendees are hand-picked. Attending TED is very expensive: currently $7,500 per year for TED Conference and $6,000 per year for TEDGlobal. Much is made of the elite audience in attendance. Presenters are expected to spend significant time creating a highly scripted presentation that touches the audience profoundly, ideally in some novel way.

There’s a page on TED’s website that attempts to address these issues. It defends the exorbitant cost of attending TED live events by claiming that the majority of people who attend are very successful and their success has enabled them to pay these fees. TED is owned by the private nonprofit Sapling Foundation. The foundation’s most recent (2009) 990 tax return states that the foundation had assets of $23 million, revenues of $20 million, and paid its top five employees over $1 million in compensation. TED states that some people are given scholarships to attend, but the 990 shows no details on the level of financial support provided and the website is silent as to the method of selecting scholarship recipients.

I believe that the majority of people have something worthwhile to say about some topic, and what they have to say is of interest to their peers. The Pecha Kucha events I’ve run have been filled with presenters who responded to an open request, and the resulting sessions have been interesting, entertaining, and fulfilling to their audiences. TED perpetuates the myth that only a minority in this world have something worth saying. The organization derives revenue from appointing itself as gatekeeper of who should be up on the stage and creating an exclusive event that can be capitalized. TED is welcome to take this approach, of course, and entitled to its success.

But we should not be led to believe that the presenters of TED are the only people who should be presenting in this way. Such a belief perpetuates the old hierarchical model of learning: a minority of people who know and a majority that don’t. The reality of the importance of social learning in today’s world, learning where a teacher at one moment becomes a student the next, is weakened by a organization that succeeds in the marketplace by selecting and glorifying a few to the exclusion of the rest of us.

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  • http://twitter.com/spelletier Sue Pelletier

    What do you think about the open sharing of TedTalks via the Internet? I believe that’s the counter-argument to the pricing–not sure I buy it.

    Also curious what you think about the latest conference format TED founder Richard Saul Wurman is planning to use for the http://WWW.WWW conference (basically two interesting people talking freeform on stage)? Is it any less elitist? Or more/less educational?

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      Sorry for the delay in responding Sue – I was on vacation last week and just noticed your comment today. Great questions, as always from you!

      A cynical view would be that the open sharing of TedTalks on the internet (which wasn’t begun, I believe, until several years after TED started) was a brilliant means of raising the status of attending in person. Whether this was deliberate or not, the resultant publicity has certainly had that effect.

      Obviously it’s good that the talks are now available on the web, but the pricing for the live events still grates for me because it’s so high. Paying so much money for face to face access with elites is OK in some circles but not with me.

      What I wonder about the new format is how scripted it will turn out to be. Given that the talks themselves are so elaborately prepared, I wonder about the degree of spontaneity of the conversations. I’m a fan of conversational formats when they’re fairly unrehearsed because what happens can be more educational; but if that’s not the case conversations become, essentially, elaborate presentations dressed up in scripted interactions, like a play.

      I don’t think that conversations between carefully selected people are any less elitist than presentations by the same folks. The essential point of my post was that most people have something worth saying to others, and TED perpetuates a myth that only a small number of people in this world are worth listening to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/angela.kennedy.100 Angela Kennedy

    Thank you. You have beautifully articulated the fundamental problem with the whole TED extravaganza.

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      I appreciate your kind words, Angela.

  • Scott Melnick

    I guess I’m a contrarian. I have no problem with the elite nature of TED talks (both the audience and the speaker selection). I’m merely grateful to have free access to so many fascinating talks. And I love that I can now download them and watch them on flights!

    • http://www.segar.com Adrian Segar

      Scott, I think few people would complain about the availability of TED talks online or their usually high quality and interest. But the way that face-to-face TED is pitched as a club that only the wealthy can join is distasteful to many people, including me. And, as I mentioned in the post, TED propagates the misleading elitist notion that only a few people in this world have interesting things to say.

  • http://twitter.com/GoWithGenesis Jay Ward, CTS

    I can see all of the recorded presentations on YouTube for free. I guess that is Sue’s point.

  • Wadewachs

    What I read here is less of an anti-TED sentiment and more of a pro-smart-people sentiment. Of course TED can do whatever they want, and there are benefits and costs to the model they employ, the key here is that while one may benefit from partaking (in some form) of the knowledge present at TED, there is also a balanced diet of other smart ant interesting people elsewhere.

    There are other forms of interesting talks available. The RSA has some talks online, Google tech talks, etc. Perhaps the real call to arms here should be formalizing a way for the interesting people out there to compete with TED. Any takers?

  • Huw

    For the self-selecting organizations, the price must be right. I don’t think the talks are what they’re paying for though: How the audience praise bells and whistles. I’d guess its much more to do with networking. It has its dark side. It’s another badge of attendance as a stand in for doing creative work: not being able to distinguish between the appearance of creative work and doing it. That equates to more showbiz and entertainment, which is congruent with the medium: 1 person on a stage, entertaining. The good TED talks are the ones that buck this.

  • Ivor Tymchak

    You can now add Bettakultcha to your list of disruptive, open-to-all events.

  • Susana Martin Belmonte

    I agree with your point that we are all learners and teachers. However, we all love quality, and good presentations that are amusing and instructive at the same time are like ballet: the easier they look the harder the work behind them. I agree that TED is elitist in that sense, because the level of exigence is high in this regard, but I like it. TED helps us to be better presenters, by allowing us to watch online great presenters for free. There are also TEDx events, that are locally organized, and allow people who can’t attend the TED events to organize and attend conferences for free, in or near the place they live. My only concern about TED is the way they select the conferences. It would make sense that they would consider a mix of well known people that have been recognized in their fields, and TEDx speakers who are voted by the audience because of the high level of their speachs (in form or content). But I don’t think this is the way they do it, and although TED conferences are great, it is very suspicious to me that in the middle of the Great Recession when you search for “money” the TED speaches that you find are not particularly critical or interesting: not a single word about how money is created and the implications of the monetary system in the distribution of income. So you might be right, but from my point of view, the question is not how much attending to a TED event costs, or how good a presenter you must be to get there, but who selects the presenters or the topics, and why.

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      All good points Susana. Indeed, perhaps that fact that it costs thousands of dollars to attend TED Global skews the topics/presenters chosen away from uncomfortable issues like wealth distribution.

  • Barbara Palmer

    I feel differently about TED — I agree they are expensive and restrictive as far as who can attend in person, but I consider the conferences analogous (not equal) to private research universities. Greater benefits extend to those who attend in person, but potentially millions more also benefit from the generation of knowledge, or in TED’s case, the transmission of knowledge. I think the availability of TedTalks, including their translation in multiple languages, is a great resource. The ability to create locally generated TEDx events for free widens and democratizes the curatorial function, since many end up on TED.com.

    For $14.99, you can subscribe for a year’s worth of TED Books, with access to current archives of 36 books, from diverse disciplines, with a new one every month. That’s about $1.23 a book, $.30, if you count the archives.

    I guess I have drunk the Kool-Aid, but it is hard for me to feel left out.

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      Barbara, I guess part of my distaste for TED is that it started out as a purely elitist event (and remains so if you want to attend in person). I am glad they started distributing the videos for free—there’s a lot of great presentations available.

      I stand by my other criticism: in my experience most people have something worth saying to others, and TED perpetuates a myth that only a small number of people in this world are worth listening to.

  • BanGMOs108

    Here’s an even bigger problem with TED that a friend sent me…

    Beware TED and the Sixth Sense Technology that will change our world and soon make us “All Knowing and All Seeing”

    According to Wikipedia, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is:

    An academic organization owned by The Sapling Foundation, a private nonprofit foundation. TED is well-known for its annual, invitation-only conference devoted to “ideas worth spreading.”

    TED is famous for its lectures, known as TED Talks, which originally focused on technology, entertainment and design, but have now expanded in scope to a broad set of topics including science, arts, politics, education, culture, business, global issues, technology and development. Speakers have included such people as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, molecular biologist James D. Watson, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Zoologist Jane Goodall, and Evangelist Billy Graham.

    Six Sense technology

    The wunderkinds at MIT’s Media Lab (Fluid Interfaces Group) have developed a gesture-controlled wearable computing device that feeds you relevant information and turns any surface into an interactive display. Called the Sixth Sense, the gadget relies on certain gestures and on object recognition to call up virtual gadgets and Web-based information, in a way that conjures up the movie Minority Report.

    Sixth Sense aims to integrate information and tech into everyday life.

    Get product information. Maes says Sixth Sense uses image recognition or marker technology to recognize products you pick up, then feeds you information on those products. For example, if you’re trying to shop “green” and are looking for paper towels with the least amount of bleach in them, the system will scan the product you pick up off the shelf and give you guidance on whether this product is a good choice for you. Similarly, if you pick up a book, the system can project Amazon ratings on that book, as well as reviews and other relevant information.

    Feed you information on people. The team says Sixth Sense also is capable of “a more controversial use”: when people are standing with you, projecting relevant information such as what they do, where they work, and so on.

    In Pattie Maes’ presentation at the TED conference in May 2009 she explained how Sixth Sense will help people determine “which is the most ecologically friendly product”. This is the end game for the corporate elite, not only is sustainability (Environmental protection) becoming a sovereign new world foundation for control, but Six Sense will access the “cloud” and tell us which items we can safely purchase(buy).

    We all know that any critical reviews can disappear from Google, therefore companies will need to submit to the “cloud” in order to have their products have a favorable rating.

    NOTE: The “cloud” is referring to the combined information instantly available on the web. It is their new catch phrase, not mine.

    As far as the mark being on your hand or forehead.. well in a literal sense it fits nicely- in its current form it is already a camera and projector (Hat or pendent) and a hand interface. After a few upgrades Sixth Sense can easily become equipped on sunglasses and finger nail paint to give us more privacy and then later move to a chip implant in the eyes and fingers. More importantly it is the representation of Thoughts and Actions = Forehead and Hands

    It’s easy to see how these devices might someday lead us to buy genetically modified foods and other dangerous products all because the cloud tells us it is the best option.

    Every person has a natural Sixth sense, that can be naturally developed via meditation, yoga, etc. We really don’t need a device that accesses a cloud and we certainly don’t want one that tells us what to do or what to buy.

  • steve

    These are the most entertaining short lectures on the net and Saul gives them to me for free. How could I complain about anything TED does to raise funds. Thanks to all who make this outstanding site available to those of us who would not have access to these lectures without the owner, staff and audience, giving it to the rest of us.

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