Is It Possible to Be Elitist in a Good Way? The Organizers of TED Would Like You to Think So
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Talks can be risqué (Cindy Gallop might be the first TED speaker to use the phrase "Cum on my face" in her discussion of how porn has distorted younger generations' views of sex), but not too risqué. The comedian Sarah Silverman was panned this year by even Chris Anderson who publicly voiced his displeasure. Her raunchy routine, which is not available online, involved repeated use of the word "retarded" in an attempt to satirize Sarah Palin and politically correct culture, as well as a song about penises. (TED2010 attendees report that only about half the audience in the room "got it" -- the half that missed Silverman's point booed or withheld applause.)
In any case, these kinds of talks are the exception, not the rule, as tech continues to dominate. Because the conference has placed a historical emphasis on technology, and because tech continues to be the most lectured-about topic, critics say the preeminence of technology may be TED's weakest link.
David Morris, vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is among these. "There's a presumption in TED that technology is almost always going to improve our lives and that is a presumption over which there has been much debate over the past thousands of years," Morris says. "There could be serious shortcomings in assuming technology will improve the world."
June Cohen says that while TED strives to stay at the forefront of what's happening in technology, and gives a platform to intriguing technological solutions to societal issues, it does not subscribe to the idea that technology can solve the world's problems. "We're actually champions of innovative, bottom-up solutions across the board," Cohen says.
While there are certainly examples of TED talks that extol low-tech, low-cost solutions to many world problems, such as Anupam Mishra's lecture on the socio-economic and environmental virtues of ancient water harvesting techniques, they are overshadowed by the numerous lectures that are more of the gee-whiz variety -- and the ones most likely to go viral -- like Jane McGonigal's lecture on how gaming can save the world. (Seriously: McGonigal argues that "reality is broken" and we have to make it function more like World of Warcraft.)
It would be interesting, Morris says, if TED hosted lectures that asked some of the harder questions about technological advancement. Such as: Who will benefit and who will control? And what is the impact of previous technologies?
But these questions have yet to be asked. Politics are also off the table, according to TED. Those ideas, it seems, are not worth spreading.
An earlier version of this article misidentified TED's curator, Chris Anderson, as the media entrepreneur. They are two different men.