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Why TED Is a Massive, Money-Soaked Orgy of Self-Congratulatory Futurism

It has become an exclusive, expensive elite networking experience. Strip away the hype and you're left with a reasonably good video podcast with delusions of grandeur.

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The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

Look at  Jonathan Haidt’s talk on morality and its relation to political preference,  which Dave Weigel linked to as an example of a political TED talk.

It’s a very good TED talk, and a good précis on Haidt’s interesting work. It’s also full of dubious assertions that Haidt doesn’t really have time to support with relevant arguments or data (morality is an evolutionary adaption — that is, biological?), gross flattery of the audience (“This is an amazing group of people who are doing so much, using so much of their talent, their brilliance, their energy, their money, to make the world a better place, to fight — to fight wrongs, to solve problems”), and some decidedly flaky material on the superiority of Eastern religions. (There is, at least, no techno-utopianism to be found.)

And Haidt is talking about politics, or liberalism, in the way it’s commonly defined by the sort of liberal rich people who make up the majority of the media elite and the Hollywood elite and even the (more libertarian) Silicon Valley elite: “social liberalism.” He is talking about moral issues, and while economic issues are also moral, he does not mention social justice or economic redistributionism.

Because TED is for, and by, unbelievably rich people, they tiptoe around questions of the justness of a society that rewards TED attendees so much for what usually amounts to a series of lucky breaks. Anderson says he declined to promote the Hanauer talk because it was “mediocre” (that has never once stopped TED before, but we needn’t get too deep into that), but  an email from Anderson to Hanauer on the decision was more a critique of Hanauer’s thesis than a criticism of his performance. Anderson cited, specifically, his concern that “a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted” by the argument that multimillionaire executives hire more employees only as a “last resort.” (The entire recent history of the fixation on short-term returns, obsession with “efficiency,”  and “streamlining” of most American corporations escaped the notice of Mr. Anderson, apparently.) I can’t imagine this line-by-line response to all the points raised in a TED Talk happening for an “expert” on any subject other than the general uselessness and self-importance of self-proclaimed millionaire “job creators.”

On his blog, Anderson attempted to deflate the growing anti-TED outrage by saying that while he supported Hanauer’s “overall stance” (a claim belied by his email to Hanauer), the talk was not good enough to merit posting.

At TED we post one talk a day on our home page. We’re drawing from a pool of 250+ that we record at our own conferences each year and up to 10,000 recorded at the various TEDx events around the world, not to mention our other conference partners. Our policy is to post only talks that are truly special. And we try to steer clear of talks that are bound to descend into the same dismal partisan head-butting people can find every day elsewhere in the media.

The word “partisan” or variations on it appear three times in Anderson’s explanation. The words “Democrat” and “Republican” appear  only once in Hanauer’s talk, at the very beginning.

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