December 31, 2013
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The following is the text of a talk given at TEDx San Diego by Benjamin Bratton:
In our culture, talking about the future is sometimes a polite way of saying things about the present that would otherwise be rude or risky.
But have you ever wondered why so little of the future promised in TED talks actually happens? So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change. Are the ideas wrong? Or is the idea about what ideas can do all by themselves wrong?
I write about entanglements of technology and culture, how technologies enable the making of certain worlds, and at the same time how culture structures how those technologies will evolve, this way or that. It's where philosophy and design intersect.
So the conceptualization of possibilities is something that I take very seriously. That's why I, and many people, think it's way past time to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the intellectual viability of things like TED.
So my TED talk is not about my work or my new book – the usual spiel – but about TED itself, what it is and why it doesn't work.
The first reason is over-simplification.
To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.
Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling (and I'm a professor of visual arts here at UC San Diego so at the end of the day, I know really nothing about astrophysics). After the talk the sponsor said to him, "you know what, I'm gonna pass because I just don't feel inspired ... you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell."
At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?
Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularisation. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems – rather this is one of our most frightening problems.
So I ask the question: does TED epitomize a situation where if a scientist's work (or an artist's or philosopher's or activist's or whoever) is told that their work is not worthy of support, because the public doesn't feel good listening to them?
I submit that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilizational disaster.
So what is TED exactly?
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.
TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I'll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.
The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an "epiphimony" if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.
What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it's all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?