The Tyranny of TED

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 2015 990 tax return states that the foundation had assets of $53 million, revenues of $66 million, and paid its top six employees over $2 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.