This is my rant against TED, placebo politics, “innovation,” middlebrow megachurch infotainment, etc., given atTEDx San Diego at their invitation (thank you to Jack Abbott and Felena Hanson). It’s very difficult to do anything interesting within the format, and even this seems like far too much of a ‘TED talk’, especially to me. In California R&D World, TED (and TED-ism) is unfortunately a key forum for how people communicate with one another. It’s weird, inadequate and symptomatic, to be sure, but it is one of ‘our’ key public squares, however degraded and captured. Obviously any sane intellectual wouldn’t go near it. Perhaps that’s why I was (am) curious about what (if any) reverberation my very minor heresy might have: probably nothing, and at worse an alibi and vaccine for TED to warn off the malaise that stalks them? We’ll have to see. The text of the talk is below, and was also published as an Op-Ed by The Guardian.
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 passed 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 popularization. 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 in which a scientist (or an artist or philosopher or activist 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.
What is TED?
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 realization, 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?
I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time –and the audience’s time— dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.
Also, it just doesn’t work.
Recently there was a bit of a dust up when TED Global sent out a note to TEDx organizers asking them not to not book speakers whose work spans the paranormal, the conspiratorial, New Age “quantum neuroenergy,” etc: what is called Woo. Instead of these placebos, TEDx should instead curate talks that are imaginative but grounded in reality. In fairness, they took some heat, so their gesture should be acknowledged. A lot of people take TED very seriously, and might lend credence to specious ideas if stamped with TED credentials. “No” to placebo science and medicine.
But…the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine are placebo politics and placebo innovation. On this point, TED has a long ways to go.
Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011. You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here? Evangelical surfer Bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of Central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.
You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be skeptical. You should be as skeptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.
T and Technology
T - E - D. I’ll go through them each quickly.
So first Technology…
We hear that not only is change accelerating but that the pace of change is accelerating as well.
While this is true of computational carrying-capacity at a planetary level, at the same time—and in fact the two are connected—we are also in a moment of cultural de-acceleration.
We invest our energy in futuristic information technologies, including our cars, but drive them home to kitsch architecture copied from the 18th century. The future on offer is one in which everything changes, so long as everything stays the same. We’ll have Google Glass, but still also business casual.
This timidity is our path to the future? No, this is incredibly conservative, and there is no reason to think that more Gigaflops will inoculate us.
Because, if a problem is in fact endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore’s Law also serve to amplify what’s broken. It is more computation along the wrong curve, and I don’t think this is necessarily a triumph of reason.
Part of my work explores deep technocultural shifts, from post-humanism to the post-anthropocene, but TED’s version has too much faith in technology, and not nearly enough commitment to technology. It is placebo technoradicalism, toying with risk so as to re-affirm the comfortable.
So our machines get smarter and we get stupider. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Both can be much more intelligent. Another futurism is possible.
E and Economics
A better ‘E’ in TED would stand for Economics, and the need for, yes imagining and designing, different systems of valuation, exchange, accounting of transaction externalities, financing of coordinated planning, etc. Because States plus Markets, States versus Markets, these are insufficient models, and our conversation is stuck in Cold War gear.
Worse is when economics is debated like metaphysics, as if the reality of a system is merely a bad example of the ideal.
Communism in theory is an egalitarian utopia.
Actually existing Communism meant ecological devastation, government spying, crappy cars and gulags.
Capitalism in theory is rocket ships, nanomedicine, and Bono saving Africa.
Actually existing Capitalism means Walmart jobs, McMansions, people living in the sewers under Las Vegas, Ryan Seacrest…plus —ecological devastation, government spying, crappy public transportation and for-profit prisons.
Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?
The most recent centuries have seen extraordinary accomplishments in improving quality of life. The paradox is that the system we have now —whatever you want to call it— is in the short term what makes the amazing new technologies possible, but in the long run it is also what suppresses their full flowering. Another economic architecture is prerequisite.
D and Design
Instead of our designers prototyping the same “change agent for good” projects over and over again, and then wondering why they don’t get implemented at scale, perhaps we should resolve that design is not some magic answer. Design matters a lot, but for very different reasons. It’s easy to get enthusiastic about design because, like talking about the future, it is more polite than referring to white elephants in the room..
Phones, drones and genomes, that’s what we do here in San Diego and La Jolla. In addition to the other insanely great things these technologies do, they are the basis of NSA spying, flying robots killing people, and the wholesale privatization of biological life itself. That’s also what we do.
The potential for these technologies are both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, and to make them serve good futures, design as “innovation” just isn’t a strong enough idea by itself. We need to talk more about design as “immunization,” actively preventing certain potential “innovations” that we do not want from happening.
As for one simple take away… I don’t have one simple take away, one magic idea. That’s kind of the point. I will say that if and when the key problems facing our species were to be solved, then perhaps many of us in this room would be out of work (and perhaps in jail).
But it’s not as though there is a shortage of topics for serious discussion. We need a deeper conversation about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and Cloud Feudalism (and toward that, a queer history of computer science and Alan Turing’s birthday as holiday!)
I would like new maps of the world, ones not based on settler colonialism, legacy genomes and bronze age myths, but instead on something more… scalable.
TED today is not that.
Problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be re-arranged and re-programmed. It’s not true.
“Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.
One TED speaker said recently, “If you remove this boundary, …the only boundary left is our imagination.” Wrong.
If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration,” it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of de-mystification and re-conceptualization: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.
At a societal level, the bottom line is if we invest things that make us feel good but which don’t work, and don’t invest things that don’t make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems.
In this case the placebo is worse than ineffective, it’s harmful. It’s diverts your interest, enthusiasm and outrage until it’s absorbed 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.