The 'Golden Arches' of TED and the rise of the techno-humanists

Summary:The Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference has expanded around the world with local events, books, and prizes, but are all of its ideas worth spreading?

Foremski's Take: I've been to a lot of local TEDx conferences and I spoke at one in San Francisco (photo below) on the topic of activist media. I like many of the talks I've seen, even though the quality of some TEDx events can be uneven. I very much like the people that volunteer to create the local TEDx events.


However, I've been critical of the "Golden Arches of TED" approach that governs the licensing of the brand, best observed in the typical 17 minute TED presentation -- a formula and format that at times seems a parody of itself.

TEDx should be experimental...

I've written many times that TEDx should be allowed to experiment, and that "experimentation" should represent the "x" in TEDx, rather than the "x" of an X Factor - endless auditions in identical styles, all trending towards a monotonic mediocrity because there's nowhere else to go; there's no room to experiment, or to innovate.

Surely there's more than one format for sharing ideas? Shouldn't TED be more than just a well designed Powerpoint presentation?

Where are the TED conversations?

Another one of my peeves is that there's no engagement between speakers and audience, or audience with audience, offline and online.

There's no debate about the ideas presented. Each talk is a performance on a stage, usually in a large theater.

As the audience, we recieve the ideas in silence, from unquestionable experts; we're in the dark and largely invisible to the presenters, who are lit by powerful spotlights (top photo).

Sometimes the audience applauds, titters, often the audience gives a standing ovation -- but that's the extent of engagement between the podium and the seated.

It seems a wasted opportunity for moving good ideas forward, that there is only a theatrical performance, while hundreds of people sit so close to the action.

They attendees were willing to sacrifice much of their day to come to the TED events, they are motivated and interested in TED ideas, but they aren't allowed to contribute anything except their money, for a silent seat in a dark room.

I'm very hopeful that these wasted opportunities will become opportunities, to create a new TED, a better TED. I'm especially encouraged to see some of the local TEDx organizations shifting to smaller, salon-like events, where conversations are accorded as much space as the presentations, and where new ideas can be incubated.

McDonalds and TED...

As it expands its events, and moves into other areas such as books, podcasts, and prizes -- TED risks damaging the high quality of its brand if any of those ventures fail to meet the high standards associated with the TED brand. As many Fortune 1000 companies have discovered, It's not easy to maintain consistency at scale.

TED has no choice but to impose the same high standards of curation that it is known for, to TED Books, and in every single one of its ventures.

Protecting the TED brand from mediocrity is what comes with the territory, with the decision to grow global, and to franchise its organization.

It's a big job for McDonalds to ensure that its french fries taste the same everywhere. TED needs to do the same.

Tech, tech, tech, the Singularity countdown...

TED Books can be fixed but I don't think that the TED culture of apolitical, techno-optimist geek-philosophers, will ever change.

Mr Morozov rightly criticizes TED's decision to stay away from politics as a mistaken trust that technology alone, can solve big problems, without engaging any political process.

Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED's techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer.

This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED's preferred redeemers.


In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets.


And the gadgets do drop from the sky -- Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say "no" to MIT's (and TED's) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.

It's a fun read with important things said: Evgeny Morozov: The Naked And The TED | The New Republic

Topics: Great Debate


In May 2004, Tom Foremski became the first journalist to leave a major newspaper, the Financial Times, to become a full-time journalist blogger. He writes the popular news blog Silicon Valley Watcher--reporting on the business of Silicon Valley. Tom arrived in San Francisco in 1984, and has covered US technology markets for leading comput... Full Bio

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