The TEDification of #HigherEd? Negotiating between the accessibly simple and the simplistically accessible

There’s a particularly incisive rehearsal in the Guardian of what has become a well established critique of TED. There’s a lot of this I agree with but I nonetheless find the general thrust of the argument really problematic:

So what is TED exactly?

Perhaps it’s the proposition that if we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change. But this is not true, and that’s the second problem.

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.

Also, it just doesn’t work.

Recently there was a bit of a dust up when TEDGobal sent out a note to TEDx organisers asking them not to not book speakers whose work spans the paranormal, the conspiratorial, new age “quantum neuroenergy”, etc: what is called woo. Instead of these placebos, TEDx should instead curate talks that are imaginative but grounded in reality.  In fairness, they took some heat, so their gesture should be acknowledged. A lot of people take TED very seriously, and might lend credence to specious ideas if stamped with TED credentials. “No” to placebo science and medicine.

But … the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine areplacebo politics and placebo innovation. On this point, TED has a long way to go.

Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011. You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here? Evangelical surfer bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.

You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be sceptical. You should be as sceptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.

Why do people watch TED videos? Why have so many millions of people watched this stuff if it’s so pathetically facile? Does this critique apply to things like the RSA Animate videos as well? Is the problem simply a 10 minute video? If not then where do we draw the line between the accessibly simple and the simplistically accessible?  I disagree with the analysis of how much harm the latter does but I don’t think it does an awful lot of good either. But I don’t think all TED falls into this latter category. I also worry that the former category, things which are made simple so as to be accessible, can sometimes be sneered at by people in a way that often fails to recognise the nature of their judgement.

Here are two examples of research communication being accessibly simple. I think they’re great:

There’s no reason why research communication online has to be simple or accessible. A lot of research blogging (including my own) falls into this category, in so far as that it’s work in progress and/or aimed towards people within the author’s own discipline. But I think the simple and accessible is important. When people worry about the TEDification of Higher Education, it’s obvious to me where they’re coming from. However their responses seems so rampantly pessimistic to me.

Unless you’re a technological determinist who thinks that intellectual culture is immediately debased by social media then there’s no reason to assume this simplification of complex ideas is an inexorable process. Sure, there are channel constraints but that’s true of any mode of communication (not least of all the 20 minute conference presentation). There are affordances as well and these are what excite me. Rather than worry about the heights of intellectual culture being dragged into the ‘infotainment’ swamp, we should be getting better at ensuring that doesn’t happen. It’s not that the risk doesn’t exist, it’s simply that this is the wrong conversation to be having. Instead we should be looking to successful examples of accessibly simple research communication (for instance philosophy bites) and learning from them. There’s also a much greater role which can be served, perhaps not by communications offices unfortunately, by universities in helping facilitate these kinds of projects. Though given Nigel Warburton left the OU because of institutional constraints on his activity, perhaps the institutional environment is less amenable to this then I tend to assume in my own more rampantly optimistic moments. That’s the conversation we should be having. And we will be, hopefully, at the end of January.

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