I quite often post talks from TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, I discover), since I use them quite often in class. They are interesting (usually) and brisk; they are accompanied by transcripts and can be associated with subtitles.
But taken together, the TED phenomenon has come in for some criticism, not least because they have become a paradigm for a certain sort of presentation – optimistic, broad-brush, plenty of wow! – which is, naturally enough, inappropriate in many non-TED contexts, such as scientists seeking investment funding for their research, but which has nevertheless bled into those contexts.
Benjamin Bratton, in an article in the Guardian relates a story of one astrophysicist who gave a talk to a potential donor and was told that is was not compelling enough and that he should be more like Malcolm Gladwell. In Bratton’s words, it is a wonderfully stupid expectation that “an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights!”.
I suspect the problem has something to do with the inertia in institutions. There is no question that any number of TED talks are interesting; there is also no expectation that they are supposed to represent a window into actual research, which is often dry and detailed rather than sensational (see here for a look at how too much TED talks is a bad thing).
But TED talks have been successful for a number of years now, and have come to be a platform for a certain sort of academic (or journalistic) notoriety. You could build a successful career of a sort on a handful of TED talks. And that means there is a norm to revert to. The successful TED talk is a paradigm for other successful TED talks. They should all, in essence, be more like Malcolm Gladwell. Pithy, insightful. And that, perhaps, is the problem. Insight should be hard won and provisional, not confectioned and feelgood.
I recently read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in behavioural economics, one of the best books I have come across in some time (and a lucid correction to the inept superficiality of Gladwell’s Blink! among other things); and I watched his TED talk (see below), and, interestingly, it is a little bit dull. I will continue to use TED in my lessons, and to watch the odd talk myself with interest. But I will also remember to tell my students to read the odd book.
Here anyway is the Kahneman – perhaps not so dull on a second glance after all.