The Cult of TED Harms Lectures

For a brief moment I am pleased with myself: I have managed to think of yet another snappy title for my next talk. But part of me always raises the question: Was it too snappy? Am I trying too hard? Should I really be entertaining?

The question as to whether a lecture should be entertaining is a thorny one. If I am boring then I shall send my audience to sleep and nothing will be learned. But if I am entertaining then all that will be remembered is a moderately funny guy talking about something to do with copyright. Everything is balance.

It wasn’t always this way. Audiences, even academic audiences, have begun to expect to be challenged less than before. The skill of sitting and listening actively for hours is disappearing rapidly. Some try to blame it on our gadgets – but I don’t think that’s right. The gadgets are simply the symptom of what is wrong. It is because we are bored that we reach for our gadgets, not the other way around.

The problem is that audiences have begun to believe that the pinnacle of lecturing is something close to the TED talk. It’s a pithy 15 minutes with “take homes” and “solutions” to real live “problems”. Where those who are presented as suffering from a problem are almost immediately presented with a happy solution. It’s basically a sit-com where all the worlds problems must be resolved in between some neatly packaged marketing (preferably barely noticeable product placement).

The love of TED (and its ilk) is almost universal but there are some interesting detractors on the horizon. I really like the brutal comment from Nassim Taleb in Black Swan, where he describes TED as the “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.”

Or what about Benjamin Bratton’s anti-TED TED talk which questions “why the bright futures of so many TED talks don’t come true?”, Benjamin Bratton rips the concept and organization apart:

“TED of course stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design.’ To me, TED stands for ‘Middle-brow, Megachurch Infotainment’.

Thomas Frank wrote an article in Salon entitled TED Talks Are Lying To You where he argued that TED is basically an example of the repetition of norms of the attempt to sell the dream of monetizing creativity.

In Why I’m not a TEDx Speaker Frank Swain addresses primarily the economic issues of TED. His beef is that they despite charging around $6000 dollars the speakers are unpayed and so are many of the auxiliary staff.  His criticism is that their idea is not novel (talking on stage) and what they essentially do is brand other peoples ideas as theirs. Not stealing, but branding. “And within that manifesto, TED pushes the philosophy that there is value in ideas, but not value in delivering them.”

Returning to Bratton he wrote We need to talk about TED in about the problem with TED’s oversimplification of issues:

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think.

Of course there is a place for the entertainment of TEDs but the problem is that their underlying philosophy must not be questioned by anyone. What we end up with is a system that does not question the content but is immediately prepared to belittle a talk that is not “kick-ass” or “mind-blowing”. With TED entertainment is king, criticism is seen as small-minded bitterness and the business model is self-congratulatory. This is what cults are like. Martin Robbins The Trouble With TED Talks describes it as a cult-like phenomenon and realizes why it is the way it is:

Ultimately, the TED phenomenon only makes sense when you realise that it’s all about the audience. TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place. People join for much the same reason they join societies like Mensa: it gives them a chance to label themselves part of an intellectual elite. That intelligence is optional, and you need to be rich and well-connected to get into the conferences and the exclusive fringe parties and events that accompany them, simply adds to the irresistible allure. TED’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Ideas worth spreading’, it should be: ‘Ego worth paying for’.

And far away from the epicenter, everyday lecturers are pressured into being entertaining for fear of not living up to the nonsensical goals created by an organization that is not about education. University students expect entertainment and are less than happy when they have their values or ideas challenged. They have seen the TED, they want their ego’s stroked and opinions valued over any dry facts that are presented.

Instead of lusting after TED, universities should do what they have always done best: Apply critical thinking, ask annoying hard questions and reward rigor and method over entertainment and customer satisfaction.

Why Nobody Cites Your Articles

Most academics will know that papers are produced and not read. The whole academic publishing system is geared to the production, and not the consumption, of text. The off-the-cuff sad joke used to be that only 8 people would ever read your work (and that included the reviewers and your mother). But it’s actually sadder than that. Lokman I Meho begins The Rise and Rise of Citation Analysis with the chilling words:

It is a sobering fact that some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited. Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.

Hours of intense labor and scientific rigor to produce a text that nobody reads. It’s disheartening. This sad labor is not limited to academic work, there are unfortunately many fields were the output is of little or no consequence and has no impact on its surroundings. But this is a sad comfort for academia.

Academic work is naturally limited and focused. If you want thousands of readers you are in the wrong job. Be happy that you are read and cited. If most articles are never read or cited then the fact that you are cited should be valued much more than it is. Also what about the cases where something is said in passing on social media? Shouldn’t that count for something? Probably not. How would a tenure committee value a tweet?

The real issue is that most articles that are produced are happily dumped into closed information silos. Academics are all too happy to sign away the rights to their articles to the publishers who promptly lock them away – in order to profit by steadily increasing the prices (serials crisis) they charge libraries to subscribe to the journals the academics need in order to publish more articles. The motivation for academics to participate in this system is that our careers are built on publishing in the “right” journals.

tshirtIn order to change this system the ways in which academic careers are determined need to be re-appraised. The production of knowledge and publication are important for science but this cannot mean that this production must be in the “right” journal. The appraisal of the scientific contribution cannot be tied to the brand name of a specific journal but must be about the article content.

In the meantime we must be more wary about handing away our rights, more careful to ensure that we can use and re-use our own texts. This requires strong academics and strong universities in order to stand up to the strong publishers. We must not let things like this happen:

Academic publisher Elsevier has been targeting open access websites and universities that are posting their own academic articles online with takedown notices for copyright infringement. (Wired Magazine, December 17, 2013)

Finally, by maintaining the rights to our own articles and by ensuring they are available to readers outside the academic sphere the knowledge in the articles can be spread beyond the narrow confines of the closed information silos. The knowledge in the articles might be read by more people and maybe, maybe, maybe be cited.

This University is Not a Handbag

Paul Campos wrote a thought provoking article comparing universities to luxury handbags using Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption”, the article begins:

If you happen to have $31,500 lying around, you could buy a Louis Vuitton PM Showgirl handbag. Or you could spend almost exactly the same sum to pay for one year’s worth of tuition (not including room and board) at an average American four-year private college.

He presents an interesting argument that the whole point of college degrees is that they are, like luxury handbags, valuable because they are unattainable for most of us. In addition to this they are important by signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good. See? Just like that ludicrously expensive handbag.

half skater half worker by Wrote CC BY

He gives an example from his own university:

The law school at which I teach provides a particularly striking example of this inversion of the normal laws of supply and demand. The school’s annual tuition increased from less than $5,000 in 1997 to more than $31,000 in 2011. This represented a 348 percent increase in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars… but the law school’s applications actually skyrocketed, from 1,846 in 1997 to 3,175 in 2011.

This is fascinating. But is it really correct? I’m sure the numbers are correct but is the interpretation (higher costs = more desirable) really true for academia? Take, for instance, Sweden. There are no tuition fees at Swedish universities so the ability to make them exclusive by price does not factor in to the equation. Often little or no additional social status is given to those who have studied at university. Swedish Statistics Yearbook of Educational Statistics (2012) has a table on page 270. The number of university entrants by sex and university/higher education institution in 2000/2001 was 72 118 and in 2009/2010 was 108 852. So despite the price of education remaining at zero the desirability of university education is on the increase. Or at least the number of people starting in university is increasing.

So if it isn’t about conspicuous consumption then what is it all about? There are several possible answers to this question. While I do like Campos argument about luxury and desirability. It doesn’t ring entirely true – maybe it’s specific to the US – or maybe there are other factors as to why higher education is desirable.

One obvious question is the number of young people. Are there simply more of them around? This should also be taken together with the question of whether there are acceptable jobs for young people to chose today? Is college “the only way out” because there is nothing else to do? In addition to this there is the expectations of peers and family – do more people expect young adults to go to college?

This latter point is connected to the parental expectations. If a parent has been to college then it is unsurprising that they would want their children to go to college. They have, after all, probably a positive experience of college. There is a myth that a college degree leads to education (a must see in this topic is Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms)

Along with this is the growing demand from employers that entry level employees have degrees. And not to forget the social explanations. In particular the struggle of most groups not to be working class and the ways in which the squeezed middle class struggles to maintain status markers. This last group may be the closest to the luxury handbag group, but the rest seem to fit uncomfortably in the bag.

This post naturally cannot answer the question in a nice and easy manner but I feel that it is an important topic for everyone in academia to ponder on. Why are we all here? Of course the professors are not there for the same reason as the students, but it is important that the overlap of reasons is wide enough to encompass each parts needs.

Supporting UIC Strikers

Today is the second day of the professors and adjunct professors strike at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The underlying reasons for the strike are described nicely here the press release from the union is here. But the basic part is the uncertain futures of the untenured & adjuncts and the low pay. Kevin Lyles writes:

Today, adjunct/part-time instructors “make up about 75 percent of ALL college instructors…” Many do not have health insurance.  “They work for low pay and under conditions that hinder their efforts to help students.”  Many of the lecturers at UIC are paid $30.000 a year.

From the European perspective it is almost strange to hear of Americans striking and particularly disheartening to hear of underpaid and uninsured university professors. Most of the time the information about the US universities is all about the impressive one: the ivy leagues and the overly endowed. We are often made envious of tales of funding and working conditions which do not exist in our reality.

The problem is that many large and small universities over here are not taking care of their main assets. It’s a story we are used to hearing all over the world. Universities are hiring more and more administrators at higher and higher salaries. These positions work to take the skill out of universities and attempt to bureaucratize teaching and research. More on this by Benjamin Ginsberg.

On the one hand, task of teaching and researching is farmed out to the lowest desperate bidder and on the other hand the universities attempt to charge as much as possible for their services. What is rarely considered in this strategy is the long term disintegration of a standard, reputation and trademark. Not to mention the damaging destruction of the knowledge based workers within the industry.

All academics should support the strikers. Tenured professors may be sitting pretty but they are part of the system of abuse and therefore responsible for their inaction in its decline. The untenured and the adjuncts must support it because they may be next  in the race to the bottom. On the other hand asking those who have the most precarious positions for support is difficult because they are vulnerable.

Students, parents and the rest of society should support the strike because this is a hollowing out of an important part of society. No matter whether you are attending university, sending someone to university or hiring someone from university the decline in the way in which we educate impacts all of us.

Punishing the public academic

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very good op-ed in the Sunday New York Times called Professors, We Need You! The text argued that academics were becoming less relevant in the public sphere. Kristof identifies two important, and closely related, realities as to why this may be so. First in the creation of academics:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

and then in the work environment:

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

While I agree with both I feel they both address, and simultaneously miss, the most important detail. The arguments could be seen as the way it is among a tight-knit group with a specialized interest and vocabulary. This could be doctors, lawyers or fly fishermen… all more or less unintelligible to the outsider.

But what is especially problematic with the academic system is the way in which work is rewarded. Public communication and social engagement are often praised to varying degrees but when it comes down to promotion, tenure, ranking or anything that controls the future of the individual academic – they don’t count.

In academia participating in a public debate is a hobby that does not benefit your situation at work. In the worst case something that an academic states in a public forum in order to bring her knowledge to the public can harm the individuals chances within academia. As an academic I will not be criticized for writing yet another obscure article – it’s expected and will count towards a promotion or other reward.

However, as an academic, if I participate in a public discussion and say something that is vague or simplistic I will be criticized from within academia. And if I say nothing wrong but appear in the public debate too much I will be seen as lacking in a serious mindset, chasing publicity and being shallow – and be criticized both from within and outside academia.

So when Kristof ends with his appeal for us not to “cloister yourselves like medieval monks” part of me agrees, despite the fact that this is not the advice I would give to a young Ph.D. student.

Addition 17 Feb: After writing this text a fascinating article appeared in The Telegraph which really serves as a sad example John Yudkin: the man who tried to warn us about sugar A British professor’s 1972 book about the dangers of sugar is now seen as prophetic. So why did it lead to the end of his career?

The article is fascinating on many levels. The problem of sugar is important but for the purposes of the academic participation discussion this longish quote shows the harm it could entail:

“Yudkin always maintained his equanimity, but Keys was a real a——-, who stooped to name-calling and character assassination,” says Lustig, speaking from New York, where he’s just recorded yet another television interview.

The British Sugar Bureau put out a press release dismissing Yudkin’s claims as “emotional assertions” and the World Sugar Research Organisation described his book as “science fiction”. When Yudkin sued, it printed a mealy-mouthed retraction, concluding: “Professor Yudkin recognises that we do not agree with [his] views and accepts that we are entitled to express our disagreement.”

Yudkin was “uninvited” to international conferences. Others he organised were cancelled at the last minute, after pressure from sponsors, including, on one occasion, Coca-Cola. When he did contribute, papers he gave attacking sugar were omitted from publications. The British Nutrition Foundation, one of whose sponsors was Tate & Lyle, never invited anyone from Yudkin’s internationally acclaimed department to sit on its committees. Even Queen Elizabeth College reneged on a promise to allow the professor to use its research facilities when he retired in 1970 (to write Pure, White and Deadly). Only after a letter from Yudkin’s solicitor was he offered a small room in a separate building.

How many academics could both have the energy and the interest to fight something like this?

Fake Books and Valuable Copies

There is something fascinating about book thieves and none are less fascinating than the Marino Massimo De Caro who was the former director of the State Library of Girolamini but is most infamous for his book thefts and forgeries. Apparently this self-taught bibliophile without a college degree managed to become director of the Girolamini Library through political connections and lobbying.
Once there he began sacking the library, occasionally replacing books with forgeries and sometimes merely destroying the records of their existence in the library.
The full extent of the losses is not known — the Girolamini Library lacks a complete catalog — but prosecutors, with some bombast, have compared it to the destruction of Dresden during World War II. In 2012, the authorities recovered more than a thousand library volumes that were found in a self-storage unit in Verona traced to Mr. De Caro.
(Rare Books Vanish, With a Librarian in the Plot, New York Times)
Not content with simply stealing books Mr De Caro also branched out into book forgery. The most famous case is Galileo’s book containing the earliest drawings of the moon.


These gorgeous works were unfortunately fakes…


…Like many forgers, De Caro acted out of a mixture of greed, envy, and a desire to prove himself to a field he felt did not recognize his talents (De Caro also forged a copy of Galileo’s 1606 Compasso to replace a stolen version). A college dropout, he “held an imperious grudge against people who had spent years studying in libraries,” writes Schmidle. Instead, De Caro had earned an honorary professorship by donating four Galileo editions (presumably genuine) and a chunk of meteorite to a private institution in Buenos Aires…

…De Caro and an accomplice artist aged several bottles of nineteenth-century ink to create the Galileo drawings, using the Florence Sheet as a guide for the seventeenth-century astronomer’s hand. After opening a bottle of red wine, he had his accomplice trace the outline of the moons with the foot of his wineglass. Then they baked the pages in his home oven to age them. It’s hard to believe De Caro’s fake survived scrutiny for over five years, until Wilding began to express his doubts in 2011…

(How a Book Thief Forged a Rare Edition of Galileo’s Scientific Work, and Almost Pulled it Off, Open Culture).

It’s a fascinating tale and it is particularly interesting after having a discussion on the value of books and their place in society and libraries. The value of a book as artifact is carried separately from the information within the book. The information in the book could be almost worthless and easily replicated but the actual replication of the physical format is what we desire.

Sun, Sand and GikII VIII

It’s GikII time.

When robots, drones, autonomous agents, Facebook stalking, teleportation, 3D printing, MMORPGS, science fiction, computer games and superhero justice are discussed within the realms of the law and LOL cats, you know the time for the annual GikII workshop has arrived! Yes it’s time for GikII VIII – and a time to immerse ourselves in debates about cutting-edge technology, popular culture and the law.

This year GikII will be “in sunny, golden-sandy Southern city of Bournemouth with its sparkling sea and almost California-like-but-not-quite atmosphere. It will be held on 16-17 September 2013”

All the info you need is over here.

Social Media for Coping with Grieving and Bereavement

My colleague Ylva and I are hoping to organize a panel at IR14 in Denver on the use of social media for coping with grieving and bereavement.

If you are interested in participating please send us your short paper. In order to put together the panel application we need your submission by 1 March, please email your work to us. We will then put together the panel and submit everything to the final deadline by 14 March.

Here are the instructions
SHORT PAPERS (individual or multi-author) – Minimum 1000 words, 1200 word maximum not including bibliography. Papers should include:
– Description/summary of the work’s intellectual merit with respect to its findings, its relation to extant research and its broader impacts.
– A description of the methodological approach or the theoretical underpinnings informing the research inquiry.
– Conclusions or discussion of findings.
– Bibliography of work cited.
– Submissions must adhere to the template for the conference.

Online instructions

We are also interested in gathering or joining a larger international network in this topic in order to carry out cross-cultural comparisons.

Ylva Hård af Segerstad

Mathias Klang