Behind the scenes of TED

Like many people, I watch the occasional TED talk, usually because someone else recommended it to me. From watching the talks, I had a vague idea that they were given at a conference of some kind but was not curious enough to try and find out what the conferences were about and who attended.

One good thing about the Nick Hanauer-TED dispute is that it has encouraged journalists to look behind the curtain of the TED machine and reveal what is behind it and who goes to them. It turns out that it is one of the rapidly proliferating set of exclusive gatherings, held at expensive resorts like Davos and Aspen. I wrote over a year ago about how these kinds of exclusive gatherings are the new means by which policy consensus is achieved by the new global elite.

To understand the phenomenon, it is useful to co-opt the language of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and split the world into alphas, betas, and the rest of us. The alphas are the world’s oligarchs, the people who really run the show. The betas are the upper-level politicians, professionals, celebrities, media types, and what used to be called in the old days ‘the intelligentsia’, who enjoy being seen occasionally with the alphas and fancy themselves to be major players in making important decisions but really are not. While Davos and Aspen attract many of the alphas, TED seems to cater more to the betas.

Alex Pareene has a good article on TED. Here are some highlights:

In case you’re unfamiliar with TED, it is a series of short lectures on a variety of subjects that stream on the Internet, for free. That’s it, really, or at least that is all that TED is to most of the people who have even heard of it. For an elite few, though, TED is something more: a lifestyle, an ethos, a bunch of overpriced networking events featuring live entertainment from smart and occasionally famous people.

At this point TED is a massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism, with multiple events worldwide, awards and grants to TED-certified high achievers, and a list of speakers that would cost a fortune if they didn’t agree to do it for free out of public-spiritedness.

Strip away the hype and you’re left with a reasonably good video podcast with delusions of grandeur. For most of the millions of people who watch TED videos at the office, it’s a middlebrow diversion and a source of factoids to use on your friends.

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • 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.

The people at Davos and in Aspen also think they’re saving the world, and the majority of them are also deeply involved in making it much worse for people who can’t afford to go to Davos and Aspen.

That sounds about right.

Commenter Winterwind provided a link to long article by Benjamin Wallace on the origins of TED and how it has acquired an almost cult following. In particular it addressed the question of who attends. Exclusivity in its attendees and secrecy about them seems to have been built in from the beginning and people who get to attend seem to see it as some kind of validation of their worth. These conferences are the intellectual form of gated communities, where you can be confident that the riff-raff will be kept out and the only people allowed in will be just like you and share your values.

Under its founder Richard Wurman, TED cost more than $3,000 to attend but it really expanded when it was bought by Chris Anderson.

Bemoaning that TED had become “so elitist,” Anderson moved the conference from Monterey to a much larger venue in Long Beach; at the same time, though, he doubled the price, quadrupling revenues while making the conference even more of a rich person’s game. Anderson also instituted a restrictive new door policy: Now you had to be invited or fill out a humiliating application soliciting proof that you were a TED-caliber human.

TED has not only cracked the Internet’s popularity code and established a preeminent status marker for the digital economy; it’s also a money machine, aggressively introducing premium pricing ($125,000 for “patron” privileges), brand extensions (TEDGlobal, TEDActive), and other new sources of revenue (TEDLive, a conference webcast), while taking in an estimated minimum of $23 million per conference.

In 2008, TED’s attendee list was leaked to Valleywag. Anderson implored site owner Nick Denton “as a decent person” to take it down; Denton, who probably doesn’t even consider himself a decent person, ignored the request and posted Anderson’s e-mail. The list was revealing. “If you look at it primatologically,” one TED attendee says, “it was originally designed like an eighteenth-­century salon, where the very smart and the very rich pretend they have something in common for a very short time. But now there’s a very small cohort of smart people and CEOs—alphas—and a huge panoply of betas: senior vice-presidents. What’s fascinating is how many betas are in the room.”

Both articles provide interesting insights into this new form of celebrity gathering.


  1. Desert Son, OM says

    Now I feel lousy that I’ve enjoyed a few of the TED presentations, though in light of the article I don’t think I was watching them with a particularly critical eye, and certainly didn’t know much about the culture and history behind them.

    Thanks, and thanks to Winterwind for the article.

    Still learning,


  2. Arthur says

    “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.”

    I saw Dan Dennet’s talk where he does this very thing and then there’s Richard Dawkins talk as well.

    This is good insight

  3. Craig M. says

    I’m a low-level beta with a Master’s degree making “$50,000-75,000” a year. Various TED talks appeal to my intellect, spirit, or compassion, rather than my status. I focus on the science and technology related talks, and I’ve enjoyed many, even though I realize that presenting science does not equate with being 100% right or accurate or Earth-shattering. Maybe one needs to really understand the background science to appreciate the talk and its potential benefits and its caveats. To dismiss all TED talks because of the hoity-toity audience members and organizers is ridiculous.

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