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TED, Reconsidered

Posted on Dec 31, 2013

Ah, TED talks. They boast the veneer of prestige, the promise of innovation, and many have gone viral seemingly irrespective of the actual merit of their content. What gives?

UC San Diego professor and cultural critic Benjamin Bratton raises some provocative questions in this piece that takes a skeptical look, to say the least, at the self-help-inflected and tautological (e.g., What I’m about to say is extremely significant, because I say so and because you, eager audience, are in on it) subculture that in part gave rise to TED and that TED continues to build—one pithy line at a time.

The Guardian via BRATTON.INFO:

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 realisation, 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?

Addendum: TED stands for “technology, entertainment and design.” Here’s a link to the home page, which offers clips from talks on a smattering of topics, delivered by ambassadors from the cultural vanguard sporting headsets and slinging tag lines like: “The $80 prosthetic knee that’s changing lives,” “Invest in social change,” and “What I learned from Nelson Mandela.”

The site itself, meanwhile, sets the bar high in summing up its offerings: “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” You be the judge.

—Posted by Kasia Anderson


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