Business, Society

TED, We Have a Problem

TED Vancouver

On March 19, 2014, Amanda Palmer hosted #NinjaVan at the Vogue Theatre. More info here:

“Ideas worth spreading”.

It’s tough to argue that TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design)’s slogan has never been more appropriate than today, as the massively popular series of conferences continues to become more prominent each and every year. As social media’s presence in our lives has grown in the last decade, so has TED, which wisely started offering their signature 18-minute talks online for free in 2006. Since then, TED Talks have been watched over a billion times. Not bad, considering it was founded in 1984 as a one-off event.

Today, TED’s history of speakers is long, diverse, and impressive. From JJ Abrams to Al Gore to Bill Gates to Sergey Brin and Larry Page, some of the world’s finest entertainers, scientists, world leaders, and business minds have contributed to the TED archives. As such, TED’s seems to be well on track towards achieving their mission statement, which begins with, “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other”.

To that end, TED is a brilliant concept that is unlike any other in human history. With globalization and technology making the world more connected every day, a janitor in India and a restaurant owner in Idaho can now both have the same unabated access to the musings of the founder of Microsoft. That statement alone should indicate that TED has unquestionably had a measurable impact on the world.

But while the impact has been unquestionable, has all of it been positive? That’s more questionable.


This year, TED’s main conference moved to my hometown of Vancouver. Although I, like many other residents of the city, wouldn’t be attending the conference in-person, something interesting was still available to us. Though we’d miss Ed Snowden appearing via robot and Boston Marathon bombing survivor Adrianne Haslet-Davis dancing on stage, performer Amanda Palmer announced that she would be hosting a free show called #NinjaVan, featuring TED speakers and other notable luminaries at the Vogue Theatre on March 19th.

The Vogue has a capacity of 1100 people. I was probably the 1150th person in line, so I didn’t end up making it in. Too bad. Still, before I departed, I noticed a sign with the words “#NinjaVan VIP line”. A few folks with TED conference badges were admitted through this line, after the venue had already reached capacity. The rest of us could do nothing but turn away and depart.

One of the primary criticisms of TED is access – specifically, who has it and who doesn’t. Despite the fact that TED Talks are available online for free, attending the conference in-person is next to impossible for most folks, since tickets for this year’s conference cost $7500 USD. Aside from that, prospective attendees had to go through an application process to get a ticket, which includes providing two references. All told, with TED growing more prominent in society in the last couple of years, what the conference seems to amount to these days is the affluent rubbing shoulders with the affluent.

With limited space and high overhead costs, one can understand why the tickets are priced so high. Still, the resulting economic and societal filtering seems to run contrary to TED’s mission statement of building a “community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other”. And yet, TED is right in line with the rising cost of university tuition fees and other conferences which charge hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of hearing someone “influential”. Indeed, TED seems to be following the pattern of society as a whole, where education is no longer considered a human right, but a commodity. Like most commodities, who can afford it and who needs it are not always one and the same.


In their 2012 year in review, TIME called Invisible Children, Inc.’s film Kony 2012 “the most viral video of all time”. Surely, it was virtually impossible as a Twitter or Facebook user in particular to escape mention of the film by those in your network. Now, aside from making Joseph Kony a household name, the film was criticized for being one of the early examples of Internet “slacktivism”, in that individuals who expressed outrage about the film’s content did not actually do anything constructive about the issue.

They may not be as viral as Kony 2012 was, but social media has undoubtedly played a large part in TED Talks garnering over a billion views as of 2012. “Ideas worth spreading” sounds about right. Yet, the problem is that TED has fostered a culture where the majority of those involved are spectators. Aside from the speakers, everyone else that “participates” in TED is essentially a mere observer. This isn’t necessarily bad, mind you – the way I look at life has definitely been impacted by some of my favorite TED Talks by speakers such as Simon Sinek or Daniel Pink.

However, as educational as TED Talks can be, they sometimes are no more practical than an article like “9 Weird Things Highly Successful People Do To Be More Creative”. Other times, they are simply rehashed ideas from one of the speaker’s books or blog posts. TED’s mission statement seems to imply that they value “engagement”, but in the world of “clickbait” headlines that we live in, TED Talks often become nothing more than ephemeral talking points over social media, quickly forgotten about once the next headline grabs our attention.

This notion of eschewing practicality for inspiration and prioritizing ideas over action is the same reason why TED seems to achieve visibility in the same way that Buzzfeed does. Professor Benjamin Bratton, in his criticism of TED, says that we need “more Copernicus, [and] less Tony Robbins”. In the world of social sharing that we live in, however, the presence of actionable inspiration is far less common than vague, feel-good touchpoints that we can all rally around. Indeed, while wading through the line at the #NinjaVan event the other night, I wondered to myself how many of the folks in line were only there because of this sort of “groupthink” mentality.


Although TED Talks and the variety of “self-improvement” articles that are popularly shared these days are not inherently bad (they can contain great insights that can be applied to one’s own life), it’s telling that TED’s slogan is not “actions worth spreading”. But what if it was? TED attracts some of the most brilliant and unique minds in every industry and specialization in the world. If the focus was instead on collaboration and applied problem solving, I can’t imagine how some progress couldn’t be made on real-world societal, economic, or scientific issues.

Beyond the TED Talks and various articles, one thing is clear: more than any greatly inspiring 18-minute lectures, what we need in today’s world is people who are willing to go beyond the initial stage of inspiration and roll up their sleeves to tackle the important and complex challenges that we face today and in the future. For those who are willing to try and are successful in doing so, these are the people who may just yet change the world for the better. Of course, not long after, they’ll no doubt be asked to speak at TED.


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