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2013 Spring Issue 3 (April 26, 2013)

The Consumerization of Ideas

April 28, 2013
By Stuart Urback

I think TED talks have become one of the silliest sideshows to happen to legitimate academic thought in the last half century. There, I said it.  I’m sure that one won’t win me many supporters but I think it’s true. I have watched, and loved, many different TED talks and I think some of them can be incredibly uplifting and inspiring, especially the ones that talk about serious issues facing our society.  But the reality is, TED talks don’t really care about any of the stuff they’re actually supporting.  It’s not a place where like minded people get together to, you know, do things. It’s a place where people go to talk about stuff.  And the point isn’t even to talk about substantial stuff. The point is to find something that sounds catchy, interesting, and then use it to promote the TED brand.

There can be substance to style, you can use advertisements, entertainments, and social mechanics to actually create media that helps move critical discussions forward. TED talks have a number of different things in common.  They are fabulous stories, with gripping humor, wit, and a soft touch that makes them feel larger than life.  But you know what they don’t have, any actual substance. What they do is they take some rather obvious fact of their field, like, say, putting narratives in a museum, that have been around for centuries, they spin it into something that makes it appear like they have come up with a completely new innovation and that they deserve loads of money and attention for doing so.

It’s an intellectual pony show. There aren’t any really challenging statements, and if there are it’s more tongue-in-cheek than actual challenge.  No one says, “I think things are seriously wrong, and I don’t know what to do,” they say, “Here’s this cute challenge, and because I am a genius, everything’s going to be okay.”  Figuring out how to educate people in museums (and in general) is a huge issue. It’s a big problem that people don’t know how to solve. There are tons of ways to think about it.  Terrorism is a huge issue, it’s multi-faceted and complex. It’s TOUGH.

And TED talks do this second thing, with a flippant smile and a cute laugh. They imply that their way is the only way. If you actually listen to most TED talks you’ll notice that there’s no room for counter-discussion, no implication of the potential to be wrong.  They poke fun at things like “academic disciplines” because they use “jargon” and precise vocabulary when it would all be so much simpler if everyone just spoke straightforward like they (the TED talks) did.  Academic disciplines do have a huge communication gap with each other and with the public, but TED talks are the sideshow, not the solution.

We need public intellectuals, people who are willing to challenge beliefs, governments, and the public, and then admit that they don’t have the answer. People who are brave enough to say, “This is a huge issue, and I don’t know where to start, but I could sure use help.” A favorite writer of mine, Ian Bogost, argued in a blog post last week, people in the Renaissance couldn’t have envisioned a capitalist market. They had no idea where things were headed. All they could do was make the changes to the problems and eventually the world shifted.

The world doesn’t just suddenly change once a beautiful idea comes along. More like the opposite. Ideas, especially beautiful ones, are easy.  They’re fun. The challenge is doing the work of shifting the world in a material, substantial way.

I love a beautiful narrative.  I even love a well-crafted advertisement. And I even think these types of things have their place in academia. But I think we need to be wary when they become the pinnacle goal for our academic achievements.  We need to be wary when we start moving our academic discourse to match them. TED talks should be “The Daily Show” of the academic world: funny and somewhat insightful, but not full of all that much real discussion. It’s just as scary when academia moves towards TED as it is when media starts moving towards “The Daily Show.”

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