Is TED Primarily About Assuaging The Egos of the Super Rich?

TED opted not to air the Nick Hanauer video below in which he talks about the problems with income inequality. Hanauer’s camp caused a big stir by getting word out that this was a talk “that TED doesn’t want you to see”.

TED does not release the videos of all their talks online. But Alex Pareene thinks that this video was not going to be promoted in either case because it did not fit with a biased and unadmitted worldview that he accuses TED’s organizers and primary audience of sharing.

Pareene characterizes the average TED Talk as involving four common tropes:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees.

Pareene’s specific explanation of how Hanauer went off this script to TED’s dismay follows shortly after:

Because TED is for, and by, unbelievably rich people, they tiptoe around questions of the justness of a society that rewards TED attendees so much for what usually amounts to a series of lucky breaks. Anderson says he declined to promote the Hanauer talk because it was “mediocre” (that has never once stopped TED before, but we needn’t get too deep into that), but an email from Anderson to Hanauer on the decision was more a critique of Hanauer’s thesis than a criticism of his performance. Anderson cited, specifically, his concern that “a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted” by the argument that multimillionaire executives hire more employees only as a “last resort.” (The entire recent history of the fixation on short-term returns, obsession with “efficiency,”  and “streamlining” of most American corporations escaped the notice of Mr. Anderson, apparently.) I can’t imagine this line-by-line response to all the points raised in a TED Talk happening for an “expert” on any subject other than the general uselessness and self-importance of self-proclaimed millionaire “job creators.”

He then goes on to attack Anderson for using rhetoric of avoiding “partisanship” as justification for steering away from promoting ideas like Hanauer’s.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • asonge

    I always found the sentiment that TED was making the world a better place kinda laughable. That said, most presentations by a lot of scholars are pretty crappy, so I see nothing wrong with a place that celebrates polished (if perhaps flashy) presentations on nerdy topics that run a mile wide and an inch deep. I don’t think the consequence of TED’s patronage for presenters from academia is all that harmful as much as it fails to achieve a high standard of good. Some of the good ideas and/or presentations that they promote would’ve not gotten the level of attention and dissemination if TED didn’t promote them. This isn’t exactly money that these attendees/members will miss very much, and it seems to be doing some good even if that good isn’t directly part of the aim of the organizers, though it does seems iffy to see that a talk with mild political implications was seen as potentially offensive and possibly buried for that reason.

  • mepmep09

    [I was looking for commentary here at FTB on Alain De Botton's recent book, since I just heard him on public radio. I'll comment on that in one of your posts relevant to that author.]

    On the matter of TED talks, I don’t think they are inherently in the service of the wealthy and powerful, although they can certainly be corrupted by those forces – as can about anything created by our species – and perhaps are in the process of being co-opted that way (I honestly don’t know). I’ve seen only a few TED talks, but I very much liked most of what I saw; I’ll remain grateful for having the name Temple Grandin brought to my attention, even if perhaps she overgeneralizes from her own successful struggle with adversity.

    But at its worst, I agree with business journalist Felix Salmon regarding TED (excerpt starts about 2/5 down my screen, a few paragraphs from the end of Mr. Salmon’s text):

    In any case, it’s clear that theatrical events are bad places to look for unvarnished truth. And in the set of “theatrical events” I absolutely include things like TED talks. Many people have asked, of the hilarious TED 2012 autotune remix, whether it’s parody or not. The answer is that it’s not parody at all. Rather, it’s the work of someone who has been entranced by TED’s theater, and who hasn’t yet woken up to realize that statements like “we can change the world if we defy the impossible” are less stirring than they are just plain stupid.

    Real life is messy. And as a general rule, the more theatrical the story you hear, and the more it divides the world into goodies vs baddies, the less reliable that story is going to be.

    I assume this is basically the same complaint Barbara Ehrenreich makes in her book Bright-sided. I hope TED isn’t going the way of Davos and Aspen, but maybe that is the natural tendency of such things, and if so, requires active and properly motivated concern on the part of forum owners to stay on track. But I don’t know what motivates the guy who runs TED; who knows where it will go?

    And in general, being the kind of creatures we seem to be, I’ve always assumed most of us need at least a few strands of hope and ‘positivity’ to get us through those rough patches in life. It’s when one bases major decisions and initiatives on Polyannish thinking that big trouble arises.

  • Danny

    While I think TED is getting a little self-congratulatory, I think that the particular talks used by the article to support its position are cherry-picked to do so. There’s plenty of talks that are featured on the site right now (even talks in their higher-quality rated categories) that say these same things, that aren’t simply glossing over of complex issues, and/or provide deep, information driven solutions. It also relies on an assumption that all technocratic solutions are bad solutions (as if data-driven mathematical and technological solutions are always ‘pie in the sky’ kind of thinking) and it seems to ignore the important place the 10-minute TED talk occupies in a larger context with a voting populace – it’s an easy way to entertain and educate people on important issues and provide guidance. A TED talk on climate science isn’t there to help educate other climate scientists or people who regularly follow climate science journals, it’s there to educate people who do not follow climate science closely and need an authority with data to lay out what’s important. It’s a policy brief, not a lecture.

    While Anderson is being disingenuous, the talk itself isn’t anything new and is covered by several other people in recent economic studies about inequality. The speaker should be on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC saying these things, not trying to get TED to host a five minute speech from him that repeats things that bigger speakers with data-graphs showing relevant data have already said.