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UC San Diego Professor Slams TED Talks — In His Own TED Talk

UCSD professor Benjamin Bratton talks about why TED does not work.

UC San Diego visual arts professor Benjamin Bratton thinks TED Talks offer little more than "middlebrow megachurch infotainment." Photo Credit: Sean Dreilinger/Flickr
UC San Diego visual arts professor Benjamin Bratton thinks TED Talks offer little more than "middlebrow megachurch infotainment." Photo Credit: Sean Dreilinger/Flickr
Written by David Wagner/KPBS

TED Talks are exclusiveexpensive and reach an insane number of viewers online.

They've also provoked a ton of backlash. The conference of "ideas worth spreading" has been called "elitist," "cultish" and "a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity." One San Diego academic recently took the anti-TED gospel to those least likely to want to hear it: TED devotees.

"My TED Talk is not about my work, my new book, the usual spiel," UC San Diego visual arts professor Benjamin Bratton said, introducing his self-described "rant."

"It's about TED: what it is and why it doesn't work."

Bratton's full speech takes a scathing look at the inspirational style TED popularized and how it's given rise to "placebo politics."

In this case the placebo is not just ineffective, it's harmful. Because it takes your interest, energy, and outrage and diverts it into this black hole of affectation. Keep calm and carry on innovating. Is that the real message of TED? To me that’s not inspirational, it’s cynical. In the U.S. the right-wing has certain media channels that allow it to bracket reality. Other constituencies have TED.

Bratton also splashes some cold water on the face of San Diego's "phones, drones and genomes" economy:

In addition to all of the amazingly great things these technologies do, they are also the basis of NSA spying, flying robots killing people, and the wholesale privatization of biological life. That’s also what we do.

TEDx events like this gathering in San Diego are independently organized, meaning that speakers like Bratton aren't formally vetted by TED. They may give the kinds of people usually missing from official TED conferences a chance to speak. But they can also open up cracks for TED takedowns (and embarrassing love letters to Bono) to slip through.

The job of curating official TED events falls to Chris Anderson, who wrote a Guardian op-ed in response to Bratton's criticism. He agrees TED Talks aren't the most in-depth way to discuss the world's problems, but says they're not meant to be:

A TED talk is not a book. It is not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It can't be either of those things. Nor does it want to replace them. On the contrary, it wants to amplify them and bring news of their significance to a broader audience.

With viewers in the billions, TED talks have reached a very broad audience.

jack abbott January 11, 2014 at 05:09 PM
Consider that Benjamin chose the TEDxSanDiego event as his stage, that we encouraged him and gave him some gentle guidance, that he was treated with respect and treated us the same way. Remember, we posted this talk in our first round and that for the most part we've been applauded by folks who both agree and disagree with Bratton for allowing him on our stage. It's not the best talk we've had, nor is it really a TED talk in that he's trying to fit the format but has too much to say in that short time. We didn't coach him to the extent we normally would (and there are those who would say we did a bad coaching job) because we felt that would defeat the purpose and essentially be like censoring his message. In my opinion he actually validated what we do on the local level (even though we did have Jason Russel on our stage, although clearly he's got a problem with Malcolm Gladwell!). All that said, we applaud his courage and 100% agree that if passion and inspiration lead to passivity and a false sense of comfort ("no worries, we can fix it later") rather than action it means little or nothing. With nearly 200,000 views in the first week, I'd say the talk serves a purpose. I just got off the phone with a fellow organizer who at first blasted TEDxSanDiego and the talk simply because it hurt. It hurt a lot. After reflection he wanted us to know that he thought it was a good thing to do and shared it with his team. If we're not willing to allow critical looks at ourselves, we should crawl back into our caves.

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