Dec 30 2013

Dancing like infomercial hosts

It’s good to popularize; it’s good to convey specialized knowledge to a non-specialist public (which of course means a public full of people who specialize in other things) in a way that’s accessible without being predigested to the point that it’s just thin gruel that even Scrooge or Mr Wodehouse would have rejected.

It’s tricky. Benjamin Bratton says how it’s tricky.

To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.

Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling (and I’m a professor of visual arts here at UC San Diego so at the end of the day, I know really nothing about astrophysics). After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired …you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?

Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularisation. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems – rather this is one of our most frightening problems.

That. (My version of it is Alain de Botton, who makes people feel clever for reading him by dropping a lot of names, while avoiding substance as if it had the worst breath on five continents.)

For fans of the meta, it’s worth noting that this is itself a TED talk. Bratton is saying what’s wrong with TED in a TED talk.

So I ask the question: does TED epitomize a situation where a scientist’s work (or an artist’s or philosopher’s or activist’s or whoever) is told that their work is not worthy of support, because the public doesn’t feel good listening to them?

I submit that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilizational disaster.

And lousy astrophysics, I would guess.

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an “epiphimony” if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.

What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.

Are you sure you wouldn’t like a basin of nice thin gruel?




  1. 1
    Scr... Archivist

    Technology, Entertainment, Design

    I don’t see the word “science” in there at all. Funny that.

    Some might try to shoehorn it into “technology”. However, they are not the same thing. As I see it, technology usually happens once the engineers take scientific learning and apply it, and the business majors find a way to sell the engineers’ inventions. Even worse, the word “technology” itself seems to have been stripped down to mean merely “consumer electronics”, and not much else.

    This takes you straight to the Entertainment and the Design. Put it all together and it sounds a lot like “Marketing”, which puts you way across campus from sober Theory, Empiricism, and Dialogue about the universe as it is.

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    Are you sure you wouldn’t like a basin of nice thin gruel?

    Why do I feel like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>