Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
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Thursday, February 28, 2008

BankrupTED


So, let me be a bit more blunt than I'd like to be. Do conferences like TED do more harm than good?

It's not just the fact that TED is just a wee bit pretentious.

The problem is simple. The underlying assumption is that we can help solve the world's big problems by putting a bunch of interesting people in a room and talking about stuff.

We can't.

In fact, exactly the opposite is true. The way we can solve the world's problems by involving the people who are suffering as an essential part of a living, evolving solution.

By making them part of the DNA.

That's not an argument: it's an economic fact. It's why guys like Muhammad Yunus change the world and win Nobel Prizes.

So TED - I think, just maybe, that what you're doing is even more damaging than mere elitism.

You're putting forth a new colonialism for the 21st century, a strange hybrid of techno-neo-hippie-colonialism.

But you've left out the most vital parts of those philosophies; the premises of your thinking are still the same: we're better than you, we can solve your problems, let us help you (instead of involve you).

Economic history, of course, has been a harsh judge of this approach. We know how it ends up: creating even more misery than went before. It's helping societies build the right DNA that fuels growth.

And that's exactly why, though TED is sexy, it's also kind of intellectually bankrupt: it's actively helping stop new DNA from happening.

Let me put it even more sharply. There have been gatherings like TED for hundreds of years. But the vast majority of the world continues to live in bone-crushing poverty, misery, and fear.

Think about that for a second.

That's an existence proof the size of the Milky Way that stuff like TED isn't part of the answer - it's part of the problem. It's a negative equilibrium: all that great thinking is directed to the place where it's least productive.

***

NB - Guys, I'm enjoying the debate, but note that I am not "bashing" TED. Nor do I think it's just wankery. I enjoy watching the talks. But I'm not sure it does more good than harm.

Let me put it another way. Conferences are one way to organize and manage stuff - a kind of DNA.

When the stakes are low - a conference for media deal-making or something - that's fine.

But when you get lots of brilliant people in one room, surely there's a way to organize it so more value is created than just lots of interesting talks. Surely there's a way to amplify the productivity of conferences like TED - because right now, it ain't too high.

Yes, there are pros to TED. But we have to measure more than pros and cons: we have to think about opportunity cost as well. That's what I mean by least productive.

The problem is that the very people whose problems desperately need solving the most - are always excluded by the DNA of orthodox conferences.

-- umair // 1:16 PM // 24 comments


Comments:

We also think we will change the World by posting each day on a blog.

We won't.

TED IS elitist. So is Foo Camp. So is having a computer...

The key with anything is to use any event as a tool. We don't take it on whole as any one answer.

We don't think anything can solve the Worlds problems other than the ending of the Human Race to Whereever - which is what is slowly slowly happening...

Sylvi & Michael :)
// Anonymous tweetip // 2:14 PM
 

hey guys,

i have to disagree a bit.

you missed the point. it's not just elitism, it's a deeper set of assumptions.

as for blogging, i think it has very definitely changed the world for the better, viz, the decline of mass media, etc.

thx for the comment.
// Blogger umair // 2:20 PM
 

"you missed the point. it's not just elitism, it's a deeper set of assumptions. "

We may have missed your point from your frame of reference. You miss TED's point from their frame of reference. TED misses the point of CO2 and people traveling to be in one room...

So many points!

:)
// Anonymous tweetip // 2:40 PM
 

Could TED help to bring people together who in turn go away and do something together (involving those who are in need)?

Of course, maybe the real question is has TED made this happen already?
// OpenID Riaz Kanani // 3:33 PM
 

wow talking bad about TED, a new low at this blog. i think you're trying to get controversy attention with your blog post, which makes me wonder, should i respect you anymore?

it is one thing to point out different scenarios at which the TED conference is NOT contributing, which i beg to differ, but to go ahead and conclude that the conference is intellectually bankrupt is absurd! How are you intellectually prosperous and beneficial to talk about others the conference???

how's TED doing it's job perfectly, well simple, it's giving unique and intelligent ideas an opportunity to voice their opinions, share and get feedback to improve. first phase of making change is to get new ideas out there to the public,...
// Blogger Bamdad // 5:35 PM
 

bamdad,

the point is that the *premise* of the conference is intellectually bankrupt, not that the participants are.

see the difference?

as for controversy - no, i'm not just saying it. check the archives.

tweetip,

that's an interesting answer.

the problem is that not all frames are equally valid. it's no use framing a conference about changing the world from the pov of the best off.

the frame of reference of the *worst off* is the one that ted (or the rest of us) should consider, if it wants to create the most (or any) value.

thx for the comments.
// Blogger umair // 6:01 PM
 

Think Chris Anderson has done a good job of opening up TED's presentations to the web to make the inspiration available to the masses.

If Ted's mission is to solve issues then maybe it's failing. If it's mission is to raise awareness and generate dialogue, which is what I believe its mission is, then its succeeding.

Sure, some of the speakers at TED have been the elite, maybe even most. But TED has had the former Finance minister of Nigeria, penny-less village based entrepreneurs who built renewable energy windmills for their village, and other people who are making a real difference speak. Don't think that's elitism, think thats inclusive and a good thing.
// Anonymous Farhan Lalji // 6:19 PM
 

hey farhan,

i agree.

but again, the point isn't the speakers.

guys, elitism in speakers is so *not* the problem i am trying to highlight.

the problem is dna - whether simple awareness is the most productive use of said speakers' output (esp in a world of cheap info).

thx for the comment.
// Blogger umair // 6:24 PM
 

I fully agree with your basic argument that there's a foolishness and arrogance in thinking that outsiders can solve the problems of the world through *just* a conference, without involving the people suffering. But you know it's already a giant step beyond people not caring about the greater problems or vigorously creating them.

Perhaps we should examine the pros of TED before bashing it so one-sidedly. One might argue that you're creating a straw man by suggesting that people believe TED itself is the thing doing all the good in the world. I've never attended TED and certainly couldn't afford to. However I've watched a few great videos on their website where they freely run presentations from past TED events.

Some of these videos have presented amazing ideas from people who have changed the world by involving those who suffer in the solution.

For example, Bill Strickland's presentation I found extremely inspiring and passed it along via my blog and to my circle of peers.

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/209

Just because the ultimate answers may lie at a different end of the process, doesn't mean there's no value in sharing great ideas and stories whether in a closed conference or even more so on the open internet.

Or apply a simple change of perspective. The value of your blog to me is not (as per your comment) that it contributes "to the decline of mass media".

The value of your blog specifically (versus the rise of blogging in general) is the ideas it communicates to me and the method in which it does so.

For me, TED is just another point on the internet where I can receive grand, unique ideas. Ideas like the ones gleaned here that are capable of spreading and having impact. And that does have value.
// Blogger Rafi // 6:29 PM
 

I'm in agreement with Farhan. Frankly I don't care whether the purpose of TED is to save the world, give Robin Williams a stage to riff on, make a boatload of money for the organizers, or give the audience warm fuzzies because they're passing off awareness as decisive action.

TED, to me, servers as a consistently reliable place to get thought provoking ideas from which I can build on. TEDs value is that they have done the legwork to discover real gems - not just those with the best pr management but real intellectuals that, on my own, I'd never have run across. If you want to split hairs and separate the event impetus from the content then fine. But I respect the tremendous legwork that goes into finding that information. Yes, we live in an age of cheap info - something which is what makes TED valuable. Kudos to those that can distill information overload down to just those who are profound and interesting and let us shoulder surf on their findings.
// Anonymous Matthew Reinbold // 7:15 PM
 

I agree - I've been there. TED blows.

TED's mission is to make money for Chris - that and the emotional mastrubation for his followers and suckers who pay for TED (like me - but just once).

Does any elite TED invited attendee (not we paying hoi polloi) really need Chris's pulpit above the ones they alread have? Probably not.

Does any of these elite need TED to reach out and meet/collaborate with other TED elites. Probably not.

If you want to make the world better, ignore TED and Chris and get to work. If you like Chris's circle-jerk, there is a great little dive diner down the street from the Monterey Plaza where you can at least support the local economy.

TED - Meh.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 7:20 PM
 

fat people aren't much good at solving the problem of hunger, is what you are saying, but neither are starving people...

so then what?
// Blogger gregory // 7:38 PM
 

rafi,

i'm not arguing that ted should do "all the good in the world": just that it can do a lot more with the resources it marshals.

arranging talks is nice, but, again - what's the marginal value of that in a YouTube world? not much.

matthew,

i think that's a very good point.

anon,

that's pretty harsh, and i'm not sure if that's over the line or not, but i'll let it stand because its the only comment so far from an attendee - and the elites talking to elites point is a good one.

thx for the comments guys.

thx for the comments guys.
// Blogger umair // 7:57 PM
 

TED audiences always seem like a crowd of informmercial plants. Every single point each speaker makes is greeted with rapture and delight! I love the content and enjoy the speakers, but I agree with the tone (perhaps if not the delivery) of this critique.
// OpenID smith // 3:27 AM
 

Have you read the book Homo Sacer by Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher? (I just finished it). While I find his style irritating and repetitive, I think he provides some deep thinking that supports your thesis here.

He writes about biopolitics (following Arendt and Foucault) but takes it further than them, identifying the root of Western political practice and its result, which he calls "the camp". (Read concentration camp, refugee camp, etc.)

Homo sacer (the sacred man) lives bare (naked) life - outside law, yet still in relation to it as exception. They are always in relation to a power that no longer recognizes them as having agency. They are men who can be killed without it being homicide, but cannot be sacrificed.

"In the final analysis...humanitarian organizations...can only grasp human life in the figure of bare or sacred life, and therefore, despite themselves, maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight." (133)

"...the camp is the new, hidden regulator of the inscription of life in the order--or, rather, the sign of the system's inability to function without being transformed into lethal machine." (175)

The book and its ideas require a great deal of thought, but when I read your post about TED it immediately resonated. In this reading, TED doesn't address biopolitical issues, and is, in fact, in a compliance with the very system that causes the problems to begin with.

This doesn't necessarily make TED a bad thing. Raising awareness of issues is helpful. And yet, it will get nowhere in creating real change, which requires an entirely new political system (acc. to Agamben).

Personally, I am not entirely sure where I stand yet on Agamben's ideas; I need to think and read more. But I thought I'd offer up the source, as I think it might help your argument.
// Blogger Elizabeth // 8:57 AM
 

hey gregory,

nice way to put it - so we organize new ways for them to get together.

hey smith,

i agree, that's lame.

hey elizabeth,

that's a really, really, good comment.

thx for the comments guys.
// Blogger umair // 2:22 PM
 

I think you made several errors in the post. I don't want to bee too long and boring and i'll just make a super short list :)

1) Do you have any idea how hard is to reach some of the informations TED talks about without a collector like TED or similar ? I'm a researcher and i know how expensive is to have access to science literature (thousands of dollars a year) and apart for the money do you ever opened an index of some of the officials magazines in which researchers publish on ? Again thousands of articles each month !!!! How are you gonna pay those subscriptions ? And once you payd the access, from which article you would start ? Randomly ? Or you wonna spend three weeks for each subject you're interested in to discover which article that month worth your attention ?

2) Reaching information is a very complex and connected task. It's hard to explain in non technical words but the way your search for information is normally represented as a connected graph in which you follow a link you found in a previous source you were interested in. Now, it's shown that in this way you will never make "jumps" to other fields unless you find a hub. Informations hub are exactly what TED means, it's a collector you should use to make your own jumps in topics you would hardly meet without.

3) There is no way informations should be thought as dangerous. Never. Absolutely never. This way of thinking is the basis of several horrible errors we did in history. We have to be very responsible about this point, everyone has the duty to defend free information. There is no way at all a free source of information could be harmful or dangerous. Not having one more of this hubs, well that is a terrible event.

I'm for the information, free. I see information elitarism everyday at work, everyday someone publish something in a non free magazine, everyday we write our results in papers that cost 40 bucks every three pages we promote elitarism. And when i come back i i find some people built something free to promote the highest level of science and ask no money to distribute it well...i fell a little better ;)
// Anonymous Anonymous // 9:50 AM
 

I love TED.

Is the organization filled with the elite who are part of a larger political establishment that keeps the rest of the world disengaged?

Yes.

The world does not run by democratic vote nor thought. And thank goodness for that!

Yunus helped raise people out of the poverty cycle but it is foolhardy and false to think that they were the ones who built the banks, the telcos, etc. afterwards to support the community.

Yunus is part of the elite. The people who organized the poor were of the elite. The system that is currently in place came from the elite.

To think otherwise, to hope for otherwise, is to insist like Mao Zedong that the peasants ought to rule the planet and all of us will be the better for it.
// Anonymous Entrepreneur // 12:03 PM
 

anon,

you missed the points i was making unfortunately.

google scholar + yotube vs ted - who wins?

ted isn't about free information at all. the opportunity cost is very high: ted's monopoly over the value of that information.

entrepreneur,

actually, yunus is not part of the elite of economists. far from it. it took him decades to have his ideas taken seriously.

and, of course, microfinance is fundamentally and structurally democratizing.

thx for the comment.
// Blogger umair // 1:32 PM
 

It would be a shame if some of the better ideas that were hatched at TED never saw the light of day, but the fact remains that TED has a stellar record of achievement. Just watching Eric Rasmussen talk about the progress that InSTEDD has made in the past year gave me the shivers.

Any of you who saw me get up on stage and give a heartfelt thanks to Dean Kaman and TED know that in at least one case TED had a profound impact on someone's life. A practical not theoretical impact.

Even if it changes only one life for the better, isn't the event worth it?

It was for me.
// Anonymous Roger W. Farnsworth // 10:49 PM
 

"TED's mission is to make money for Chris"

Just to clarify. TED is owned by my 501(c)3 foundation and all the profits are reinvested in things like the TED Prize and distributing the talks free online. I don't take a salary.

Thanks for provoking an interesting conversation. It's one that we've been having ever since taking over the conference seven years ago. It *is* possible for a conference just to be a talking shop for the elite. We're determined that TED not be that and if you dug a little deeper you'd discover dozens of ways in which amazing new projects have come out of TED... not to mention the 15 million people who've benefited by viewing our talks online.
// Anonymous Chris Anderson // 4:00 PM
 

Bottom-up versus top-down solutionnizing

This is the distinction that you can come up with.

The difference between to the styles can be pictured easily with this image:

If everyone cleans up the room after staying there a while, the room doesn't get to dirty and the cleaning staff is quite happy to achieve a higher standard of cleaniness.

If no-one cleans up the room after passing bye, the room gets so dirty that even the cleaning staff is desperate about the chances of cleaning the room upto an acceptable level.

The same goes for security (everyone looks out /vs/ no-one), civilty (everyone is polite /vs/ no-one) and tolerance (everyone is tolerant /vs/ no-one).

No authority can dictate society, society is born with the effort put into it by individuals.

Society is an emerging level of individual behavior. Any chance of that behavior is a change of the society as a whole.
// Anonymous jansegers // 6:52 PM
 

Umair,

I think this is one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time. It gets people talking. It gets people thinking. It gets people arguing.

However, there is the merest scintilla of irony that it took a McGill-going, MBA-getting, same-air-as-Gary-Hamel-breathing consultant to come up with such a great idea.
// Anonymous Rob // 9:39 PM
 

Rob,

No the irony is that's your takeaway. Perhaps that's what it took for you to see the idea but that's a world apart from what it takes for someone to come up with the idea.

The idea that rich, overeducated people are mostly full of hot air would not necessarily be ground-breaking news to the poor and undereducated.
// Blogger Rafi // 10:09 PM
 
 

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