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.
"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.