orgtheory.net

playing seinfeld for a moment

For anyone not at AOM, a Sunday afternoon question that has been bugging me lately: what is up with this TEDTalks phenomenon?

TED logo, from http://www.ted.com

Any theories? Is this the second coming/Hollywoodization of popular 19th and early 20th century adult education movements like the Lyceum, Chautauqua, and Forum movements, or the democratization of elite retreats like Bohemian Grove and Sun Valley, kin to the Aspen Ideas Festival and Renaissance Weekend? Or both, or something else entirely (possibly the next step in Fred Turner’s story)?

Written by carolinewlee

August 8, 2010 at 9:12 pm

25 Responses

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  1. This blog has gotten pretty bad in the last half year or so. I don’t say this because of this post in particular, but unless you guys are just writing for yourselves, like an in-group discussion and have little aspiration to interest outside readers, you better think of some better post topics.

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    Rick James

    August 9, 2010 at 2:31 am

  2. Isn’t there always a market for popularization of scientific research? Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, etc. I always thought TED talks were more of the same. The modern twist is that you can broadcast them at very low cost.

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    fabiorojas

    August 9, 2010 at 2:44 am

  3. The videos are free, but is it “popularization” if you have to apply to attend the conference and registration costs from $2200-$3750 for two of the recent conferences listed? What are the corporate sponsors– AT&T, GE, IBM, Intel, Liberty Mutual, etc.– getting out of it?

    Suggestions are welcome for topics, “Rick James”!

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    carolinewlee

    August 9, 2010 at 3:58 am

  4. When I saw Clifford Stoll’s performance I experienced it as a sort of unintentional parody of the whole TED project. Stoll may be brilliant (I don’t know) but in the context of his “18 minutes” he really just did a tired caricature of an “agile mind”. He didn’t play the part well, I thought, and I suspect that this has less to do with the agility of his mind than the constraints of the (theatrical) form.

    Sarah Silverman, however, appears to have done a more intentional parody, but we may never see it. She talked about it with Bill Maher.

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    Thomas

    August 9, 2010 at 11:43 am

  5. (I didn’t mean to embed that) how did that happen?

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    Thomas

    August 9, 2010 at 11:44 am

  6. Rick, you’re mistaken. We’ve always been writing for ourselves.

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    brayden king

    August 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm

  7. Clifford Stoll’s presentation style owes a LOT to Glenn Beck.

    I think one of the things I find odd, which relates to the conversation about Gladwell and academics’ supposed inability to explain their work to a popular audience (don’t we do this for better or worse 3-9+ hours every week?), is the reverence for TED as a trusted producer of this very particular style of 18-minute inspirational insight. The reaction to Silverman by the organizers reveals not just how rigid the script for “outside the box” thinking is, but how much organizers and audiences take for granted that scientists, entertainers, etc. will do a Jim Collins/Randy Pausch on their own material “for” TED. I think in response to the question “what were the organizers thinking when they invited her?” that they were probably just making the same assumption about her that they make on a regular basis about all the other speakers who agree to present.

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    carolinewlee

    August 9, 2010 at 2:02 pm

  8. Those things have the form of a good sermon, wherein a story is told, a hidden truth is revealed to the audience, a moral lesson is drawn therefrom, and everyone goes home feeling like they’re hanging with the people who are Saved.

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    Kieran

    August 9, 2010 at 4:44 pm

  9. This interview with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, however, strikes me a serious use of the constraints. Maybe that’s just because Assange’s authority (within his domain) is so unimpeachable. Maybe the interview form takes care of the “entertainment aspect”.

    He presents some well-chosen examples. But in a very matter of fact way, with no “performance”. We could argue about how studied his manner is, but after seeing him in various media situations, and reading some of his older blog posts, my sense is that he is just practicing a great deal of restraint.

    I think TED here just become another media platform, and a pretty neutral one.

    So the TED phenomenon has to be studied by looking at a great many presentations and by comparing what people say at TED with what they say in other media.

    Gladwell has of course also done TED, and here I think the form and the ideas sort of deserve each other.

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    Thomas

    August 9, 2010 at 6:06 pm

  10. (I think I now understand the principle: a youtube link at the bottom of a comment is automatically embedded… I guess that’s a feature of wordpress?)

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    Thomas

    August 9, 2010 at 6:08 pm

  11. For sure, compelling content can be delivered within the constraints. But as someone who studies the commercialization of deliberation, I have to say I’m more interested in the packaging of these talks– the first and last 30 seconds of exploding light bulbs and dramatically-scored branding of TED as an inspirational lifestyle– than in whether Gladwell actually performs up to the expectations of the brand, which he does, of course.

    “Once a year, 1000 remarkable people gather in Monterey, California to exchange something of incalculable value/Their ideas/What happens there has never been shared/ …until now,” Gladwell’s “inspired thinking” is “shared with you by BMW The Ultimate Driving Machine Where great ideas live on,” “What if great ideas weren’t cherished? What if they carried no importance? Or held no value? There is a place where artistic vision is protected” etc. In case you didn’t get it, an Ansel Adams print is lying in the rain and Fallingwater gets the wrecking ball. Thank goodness we have corporate Germany to protect America’s 20th-century masterpieces!

    In other words, I actually think that what is being sold is not the ideas or content at all, but the experience of having access to the kinds of inspirational ideas that will get you the high-status luxury vehicle and the well-roundedness to care about world peace and cloud computing over material things. Cf. Boltanski and Chiapello.

    I think Kieran is really on to something with the character of these events as shared quasi-religious experience. The vicarious chance to rub shoulders with Jeff Bezos and NOT talk about Amazon is the same opportunity motivating those “dinner with Warren Buffett” auctions for which investors will spend $2 million– and then brag about how they chatted about the importance of family. So the process of watching (and retweeting) TED ideas for their own self-consciously non-instrumental sake seems to me to be a highly-desirable form of (originally pretty regional?) conspicuous consumption that TED stumbled upon, and has recently done a remarkably good job of selling to a global audience.

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    carolinewlee

    August 9, 2010 at 7:11 pm

  12. I suppose even in the case of Assange, we could ask wether his ideas are really getting across, or whether we’re not being offered (sold, as you put it) a sort of intellectual role model.

    TED’s organizers understand that there’s no one model (no “platonic dish”, to use Gladwell’s term) but that if you present enough varieties you’ll build an audience. Assange is serious but not without humor, Stoll is silly but brilliant, Gladwell is light at heart but has high-minded ideals (sort of). Silverman, however, was, you know, “godawful”, probably because people couldn’t finally make sense of her that tidy generic way.

    I think the product that’s being sold here is a kind of off-the-rack intellectual personality, a set of mannerisms to imitate.

    PS. Again, my data set is still too small, but I noticed something that probably recurs in many presentations: both Gladwell and Stoll begin by presuming they were “supposed to” talk about one thing and then talking about another. We see that in academia too. It’s happened to me sometimes as host, and I always feel a mild bit of offense: normally the invite would have said: “You can talk about whatever you like, but might we suggest topic X (which you have been interested lately).” The speaker accepts and then says “Actually, I’m the completely wrong person for the topic…” Familiar stuff.

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    Thomas

    August 9, 2010 at 7:44 pm

  13. by “and then says” I mean “and then begins the talk with…”

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    Thomas

    August 9, 2010 at 7:45 pm

  14. >I think the product that’s being sold here is a kind of off-the-rack intellectual personality, a set of mannerisms to imitate.

    Indeed. It would be interesting to see the different consumption patterns in the in-person crowds (who experience all the talks in series together) versus online, where you can pick and choose among topics that interest you. I’d be really curious to see what the variety of stances were in tweets– how many included criticism vs. praise, for example.

    >I noticed something that probably recurs in many presentations: both Gladwell and Stoll begin by presuming they were “supposed to” talk about one thing and then talking about another. We see that in academia too.

    Too true! Sadly, I confess to being guilty of this. It’s an easy way to perk the audience up by injecting some subversiveness, real or imagined.

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    carolinewlee

    August 9, 2010 at 10:41 pm

  15. The effect is probably must stronger live. I’ve been looking at some of these presentations now, and some don’t really work as video at all. Liz Coleman is one example:

    Jill Tarter (SETI) is another

    Too scripted. Too at-the-lectern.

    I think RSA Animated Talks is on to something in this regard. Look what they’ve done with Zizek!

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    Thomas

    August 9, 2010 at 11:04 pm

  16. I am very surprised to see all of the anti-TED sentiment here. Unlike the previous discussion of Gladwell, many of the talks are actual academics presenting their research. Yes, it is often smarmy and presented as if every finding ever is a ground-breaking, inspirational contribution to the world, but it is hardly just popularizers and mountain climbers. The anti-popularizing sentiment seems to be veering dangerously close to knee-jerk elitism that is more about anger that the presentation style is insufficiently somber than anger about the ideas contained within.

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    Trey

    August 10, 2010 at 12:36 am

  17. It’s a particular format, with particular features. Having something critical to say about those features seems quite different from “anti-popularizing sentiment … veering dangerously close to knee-jerk elitism”. I mean, I’ve been writing a blog since 2003 for crying out loud.

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    Kieran

    August 10, 2010 at 1:16 am

  18. I thought you might have something to say about that comment.

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    Trey

    August 10, 2010 at 1:29 am

  19. Admittedly, these days I usually only answer questions from people with endowed chairs.

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    Kieran

    August 10, 2010 at 1:46 am

  20. Just to be clear about my own stakes in this, my concern is not with popularization, or with denigrating TED content en masse, but with the reasons behind the current vogue for this form of popularization. It’s not even more broadly with TED in particular, but with the trends of which TED is a part. I am curious that big name figures, or “mega-watt superstars” like GWB, etc., seem increasingly willing to do this kind of talk for independent organizations like TED and “Get Motivated!”.

    “Get Motivated!” may be a case of individuals paying for training that used to be done in the workplace, but the talks take place in stadiums and participation costs very little. In the case of TED, we have an organization that brings intellectual content to the masses, by giving them free online access to talks given in an elite setting very few could afford to attend, sponsored by blue chip companies. Given the history of the movements that I cite in the original post, and the low costs of digital recording and online broadcasting technologies, there are plenty of alternative ways for communities to access inspirational lectures by non-local people they want to hear, and for professors and others to deliver low cost content. Why this particular sponsorship/delivery model for adult education, with its blending of foundation world respectability, corporate responsibility, and Sun Valley elitism, has become so popular is what I find really interesting. The TED folks are explicitly aware of the whiff of elitism and have worked to develop scholarships, fellowships, etc.

    There’s plenty of room for TED talks in the world, but I am wondering what alternative formats and kinds of critiques we are leaving out when we let BMW and Chris Anderson decide what is inspirational and what ideas are worth protecting (and no, having the public vote online about who they want to give a TED talk doesn’t solve this particular problem!). So I guess I could be accused of being anti “elite/corporate popularization” when it purports to be more legitimately democratic than the alternatives. It annoys me that intellectuals have no problem making fun of Get Motivated! but think TED as a brand is groundbreaking, rigorous, and authentic, whether because it attracts people they respect or because the content is high quality.

    On another note, one sector of the deliberation industry I study specializes in “graphic recording” of presentations and group dialogues like that in the animated talk Thomas links to above. It’s pretty interesting to watch in real time.

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    carolinewlee

    August 10, 2010 at 2:27 am

  21. Trey, one of my current areas of interest (the field of sensemaking) has equated “style” with both theory (John Van Maanen) and method (Barbara Czarniawska). Kathleen Sutcliffe explicitly compares Gladwell’s “strong storytelling” with Weick’s. March’s new book argues that there is no “enormous difference” between fiction and social science in terms of “credibility” (specifically equating Chekhov and Weick in terms of their storytelling credentials).

    This is one of the reasons I worry about the growing enthusiasm among scientists for the popular impact of their ideas. In some areas of social science, in any case, this ambition has the power to affect research agendas and standards of inquiry. The good scientists becomes the “engaging” public speaker, not the careful scholar and thorough field worker. You can lose an argument in the journal literature but then win it on the TED stage. Once your peers come to respect your popular “success”, the style of the discipline changes, and you start reading in mainstream journals articles how excited a CEO or a popular audience was to hear your ideas. This becomes evidence for the quality of your ideas.

    It’s hard to argue with success.

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    Thomas

    August 10, 2010 at 6:56 am

  22. Another problem is the effect that “popularization” has on teaching. Students begin to think that the way they feel after hearing/reading Gladwell or (to bring in another dimension) watching a Michael Moore documentary indicates that they’ve learned something. Since few of their teachers make them feel that way, they conclude they are not learning anything in school. That teaching should get students “excited” about ideas is actually quite a pernicious idea. Teaching should help people understand things they’re already excited about. Likewise, research should not impress as many people as possible. It should improve the state of human knowledge.

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    Thomas

    August 10, 2010 at 8:07 am

  23. TED presents the seductive idea that all teaching could be broken into highly effective 20-minute chunks. On this view, our universities should be staffed by talented entertainers. I hope I’m wrong that this is the content of the phenomenon, of course.

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    Thomas

    August 10, 2010 at 8:10 am

  24. Much of the debate that is going on here is very much linked to the Gladwell phenomenon that was discussed earlier around here. It’s a very interesting debate.

    I personally think that there is not so much danger is TED stile talks. I personally think that is not bad to have great public speakers presenting their ideas in a pop-like style; according to me it provides an easy entry to some topic that otherwise people would not approach. I do watch TED speaks fairly often and sometimes I later deepen my understanding of the subject by buying books or by reading more on the web.

    I also disagree with the idea that teaching should only be about getting students to understand something they are already excited about. It happens to me fairly often that it is the professor who makes the difference in how much I liked on subject. If the professor is able to convey knowledge in a pleasent and somewhat entertaining way that MAKES the DIFFERENCE according to me!

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    Simone

    August 12, 2010 at 9:58 am

  25. I also think Kieran’s comment about the quasi-religious nature of TED is spot on. I too have enjoyed many of the talks over the years, such as they are, but I have always been struck by the implicit injunction to be positive and uncritical in the comments section. Bland cheer-leading invariably gets the coveted “thumbs up” and “good” TEDsters are rewarded with the charismata of “TEDcred” and high status within the group. Negative or critical comments get negative TEDscores and low status etc. A good recent example of the problems with TED that you guys might be interested in is Christakis talk on the hidden influence of social networks. The comments are more interesting than the talk!

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    maestrojon

    August 12, 2010 at 12:24 pm


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