TED and unrealistic expectations

Benjamin Bratton’s TED talk appears to be getting a lot of attention:

The Guardian also has a transcript.

It seems to me that Bratton’s talk can be summarized as, you’re all not thinking hard enough, not making real impacts, and allowing yourselves to be satisfied with too little.

I think Bratton has some good points.  Most of us would probably agree that there are a lot of facile feel-good TED talks.  I also think many of us would agree that there are some talks with profound insights.  The issue is that there would be a lot of disagreement about which talks fit into which category.

Most TED talks that I see come up on the web, I have no interest in.  I tend to pick and choose the ones that speak to my interests.  Usually my chosen ones focus on science, philosophy, history, or economics.  Many of these I disagree with.  But I’m struck by how many I find uninteresting or wrong that others see as profound, insightful, or inspiring.

I think part of the problem with Bratton’s talk is that he seems to assume there is one version of reality out there, a set of obviously beneficial strategies and tactics that we are too timid to pursue, and that we need to stop pussyfooting around and just get to it.  He seems to overlook the possibility that we often don’t agree on what those are.

What I think people like Bratton are overlooking, is the value in simply exploring diverse ideas.  TED isn’t into implementation of those ideas.  I don’t think they necessarily need to be to add value.

Are ideas themselves enough?  Absolutely not.  One part of the talk that I did very much agree with was that innovation isn’t just happy talk.  It involves having a competent understanding and working through the hard stuff.  As I said in a conversation earlier this week, to think outside of the box, you first have to understand what’s in the box and why it exists.

But I don’t see that as invalidating TED’s mission.  I think the people who are unhappy with TED fall into two categories.  There are those who are happy with their current understanding of things and resent exploration of broader or alternative understandings.  And those like Bratton, who seem to have had unrealistic expectations about what would happen from TED talks, and how soon it would happen.

TED isn’t the solution to the world’s problems.  Far from it.  But it, and other endeavors designed to facilitate the dissemination of ideas, are part of the solution.  Expecting it to be more than that is unfair and naive.

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