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.

How few is too few?

This is not really about the grains of wheat in the sorites paradox

Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap.

No this is a very practical question: Some time ago I agreed to give a guest lecture. At some point the course convener mentioned in passing that there were not many in the course. Today I received an email saying that the “group” would be as few as 3-4 undergrads. So as I sit drinking late night coffee, ignoring other pressing deadlines the question arises – exactly how few is too few students?

Naturally I threw myself on the wisdom of others and via twitter and facebook was informed of horror stories and depressed lecturers – as well as appeals to duty, a Latin quote (Tres faciunt collegium), social etiquette and the value of the few students who actually do show up. The latter included the quote “History is made up of those who show up” and a inspiring link to the tale of the Sex Pistols first gig.

Naturally, among the ones who do show up may be the amazing rare gem who inspires me and changes the world. Unfortunately years of lecturing show these are incredibly long odds and I probably would be better of playing the lottery.

So knowing this, why am I in the kitchen drinking late night coffee and warming up my slides by writing this post? I wish I knew. Some sort of protestant (actually atheist) work ethic – the show must go on.

At least two of the comments mentioned leaving the lecture hall depressed. From experience I am pretty sure this will be the personal result of lecturing to the empty(ish) hall. But then again this would probably fit nicely in with the protestant ethic (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).

Actually the best suggestion was not to cancel the lecture but turn it into a discussion. This is appealing except that since this is a basic theoretical lecture it will be just a lecture given sitting around a table in the cafeteria. Nice, but still depressing.

So back to the sorites paradox. If you remove one student from a lecture audience it’s still an audience. How many students must you remove for it no longer to be a valid audience?

From Words to Wordfeud: notes on a lecture

There is a strange idea that we are living in the information age and that this age is something bright, shiny and new. Now I don’t mean that we are not in the information age but my concern is the idea that information is something new and exciting.

When talking economics it may be true that we have been in the information age since the 1960s or 70s but this is not what people seem to mean when they use the term as an everyday concept.

“The idea is linked to the concept of a digital age or digital revolution, and carries the ramifications of a shift from traditional industry that the industrial revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on the manipulation of information, i.e., an information society.” Wikipedia

We have always been immersed in information. Information about which mushrooms are edible can be life or death knowledge but for most of us today its just trivia. However, we do not raise ourselves by trivializing their vital knowledge.

The lecture opened with a discussion of language and writing. Despite our interest and focus on writing it is relevant to remember that writing is “only” 6000 years old (Wikipedia). Which means we spent 190 000 years without writing. This means that we have evolved in speechless and oral environments. On that topic, check out the Gutenberg Parenthesis lecture by Thomas Pettitt where he explains:

… the way in which he uses the term the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that oral culture was in a way interrupted by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the roughly 500 years of print dominance; a dominance now being challenged in many ways by digital culture and the orality it embraces.

And in the same way as we have, through evolution, an interest in finding energy rich foods (high fat, high sugar) we have evolved to view stored information as scarce, important and valuable. Therefore, on an evolutionary scale, things like the Gutenberg press, telegraphs, telephones, fax machines, computers and the Internet are all recent history.

Therefore recent changes like the book and the Internet are still impacting the ways in which we act and react socially. Technology is both an agent and effect of change.

This was followed by an introduction to social media and a discussion to why it is seen as social. The argument here is that we now have an infrastructure to allow us to enact basic communication rights established 300 years ago. With the platforms available to us theoretical rights become inevitable practice. The technology is also challenging many of our legal, ethical, social, economic, political (etc) norms.

One aspect of social media is pretty obvious: Now that we have an endless supply of valuable and important information – we mainly focus on trivial stuff. Facts are a given. The comparison I make is that since we have evolved in information scarce environments we seem to be instinctively drawn to energy rich information. Entertainment and trivia is the fatty and sugary, calorie rich, version of information – the question is what do we do when we are moving towards information obesity?

I offered an example from my schooldays where the focus was on fact knowing. Questions like what is the capital of Burkina Faso (which when I went to school was called Upper Volta)? But is this useful knowledge when everyone has access to the source of information? Schools have been successful since they offered the promise of jobs once the students were done. Now the jobs are not guaranteed anymore and we have come to realize that the factory vision of schools were probably never successful.

On this theme I highly recommend the brilliant (and funny) Ted Talk by Ken Robinson called Do schools kill creativity?

He argues that we have no idea about what the future will bring and yet we are attempting to educate children to meet that future. One thing we should take home is that creating specialists is less than useful when we have no idea if that specialty is useful in the future. Another argument for the so-called “useless” humanities!

I closed with four problems. (1) are we all stupid? Actually this should be that we are unaware of what is happening around us and this is happening to our detriment. Problem (2): we don’t know what we don’t know. This is important because earlier we may have relied on teachers and librarians to tell us what we should know. But this is not going to happen with the gatekeepers online as they have no interest in social enlightenment. Problem (3): There is a difference between who I want to be and who I am… Since online gatekeepers are interested in keeping us happy through personalization they will feed us with what we want (information obesity) rather than with what we may need. Problem (4): the gatekeepers are aware of this! Their advantage lies in our ignorance and/or interest in their abilities. There have always been gatekeepers but we usually knew their motives (good or evil)

An important role for educators is to enlighten us of the gatekeeper’s desires and motives of gatekeepers. I ended up with a depressing note: You don’t have to be unconscious to be without consciousness.

Stallman lecture in Göteborg

Next week its finally time for the annual FSCONS conference. This year is the fifth year running and it keeps getting better all the time. This year brings an additional bonus as  Richard Stallmanwill give  a presentation at Runan in Gothenburg the day before the conference begins “for real”

About the talk: Activities directed at including” more people in the use of digital technology are predicated on the assumption that such inclusion is invariably a good thing. It appears so, when judged solely by immediate practical convenience. However, if we also judge in terms of human rights, whether digital inclusion is good or bad depends on what kind of digital world we are to be included in. If we wish to work towards digital inclusion as a goal, it behooves us to make sure it is the good kind.


Boyle Public Domain podcast

Here is an interesting podcast of James Boyle on his book The Public Domain (via BoingBoing)

Professor James Boyle describes how our culture, science and economic welfare all depend on the delicate balance between those ideas that are controlled and those that are free, between intellectual property and the public domain —the realm of material that everyone is free to use and share without permission or fee

Intellectual property laws have a significant impact on many important areas of human endeavour, including scientific innovation, digital creativity, cultural access and free speech. And so Boyle argues that, just as every informed citizen needs to know at least something about the environment or civil rights, every citizen in the information age should also have an understanding of intellectual property law.

The Public Domain: enclosing the commons of the mind

MP3 Link

Boyle in Cambridge

James Boyle, author of The Public Domain, writes on Boing Boing:

Just a note to say that I am giving a lecture March 10 at 6pm at London’s RSA on my new book, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. The lecture hall is gorgeous — Cory has been a frequent speaker there — it has a fabulous series of paintings on the theme of “Progress” by James Barry, featuring earnest waistcoated men with theodolites and many scantily clad young women whose main hope appears to be that The Progress of Human Culture is going to give them something more substantial to wear than a precariously secured bedsheet. The mural is worth the price of admission alone (free but you must register). Following that I’ll be giving the first Arcadia Lecture at Cambridge on Cultural Agoraphobia and the Future of the Library March 12. Hope to see UK BB’ers at one of these events…
The Public Domain: enclosing the commons of the mind (Thanks, Jamie!)

Wish I could be there.

The blogger as social debater

On Friday I will be attending a meeting for green bloggers in Stockholm arranged by the Swedish green party (wanted to write Swedish greens but there was too much temptation for bad vegetable puns). During the meeting I will be giving a lecture on the role of the blogger as a social debater and I am looking forward to presenting some ideas on this topic.

Beyond the obvious short intro (minuscule) on what is a blog? and why is it different anyway? the question that must be addressed is whether or not the blogger has a role as a social debater? Naturally there are blogs that impact highly on the  broader social debate but many of these belong to individuals or groups who are naturally part of the social debate and in these cases the blog is simply a different technical platform. The easiest example of this is a politician with a blog where the technology does not really create the social debater but only provides an alternate platform.

In the latter category I also want to add corporate blogs which are basically (but not exclusively) marketing tools.

But then there are plenty of blogs which seem to have created new social debaters, individuals who previously had no voice now have been empowered (ugly word, but valuable concept) and enabled into presenting their views. The question here is – what is their social impact? The blog gives them voice but does this shape social change?

Then there are the blogs which have masses of hits but low social impact. Fashion blogs, sex blogs, voyeur blogs, athletes blogs etc etc these generate masses of hits but can a million hits be the same as a social debate?

Finally there are the mass of unread blogs highbrow, lowbrow, academic, quirky, personal, public, exhibitionist and therapeutic. It would be easy to attempt to claim unread = no social impact but these may be the potentially important social movers. From the unread backwaters of the internet ideas have spread before and therefore it is difficult to simply sweep aside the masses of unread bloggers as socially unimportant.

As I said I am really looking forward to Friday… and if you are in Stockholm why dont you drop in? Here is the invite on Facebook

The best laid plans…

So at the beginning of the New Year I decided to plan, or at least, organize myself. As soon as I managed to define a vague plan of action I got sciatic pains that prevented me from working for a longer period of 10 minutes at a time. Then, today on the first real day of work – feeling a bit better and ready for action I readied myself for an intense morning of writing only to be reminded that I was due to give a lecture (I had forgotten).

After the lecture and a foodless lunch break I was interviewed by a PhD student writing her thesis on PhD academic bloggers. The result of the lecture and sitting still during the interview was the return of lower back pain.

Eventually realizing it was time to give up attempts to work I left and went to the gym for a yoga class – a great way to fix the ache in my back. Very relaxing.

So despite the best laid plans no real amount of work was produced… ah well there is always tomorrow.