By Stewart Killeen

TED- A word that has become synonymous with knowledge, technological advancement, and the belief in our capacity to bring to an end the suffering and social ills that currently blight many people’s lives and potentially threaten the lives of future generations.

Indeed, to better understand the impact and reach of the TED-Talk phenomenon, Martin Robbins of the New Statesmen suggests “replacing TED with GOD.”

However, TED’s missionary-sounding motto, ‘ideas worth spreading’, seems almost ironic given that it has, on several occasions, stirred up controversy by choosing to censor talks given by scientists and thinkers – Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake to name but a few – on topics that seek to challenge the dogmatic assumptions of materialism and scientism pervasive in our society today.

TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design, and it seeks to offer a platform through which the best of minds can offer creative and innovative solutions that have the potential, we are enthusiastically told, to solve many of the world’s greatest challenges and improve the lives of all.  
Of course, TED also showcases the best, and more humble perhaps, of ideas and solutions that seek to advance the scientific understanding of our reality and our place within it. In our increasingly information-driven and consumer-based lives, TED Talks have become a mainstay of popular culture, a seemingly reputable source of “awesome and inspirational” ideas.

More importantly however, they have become an icon that celebrates and enshrines the pursuit of knowledge, intellectual endeavour, the freedom of thought, and positive social change. But this infectious spread and success of TED talks, akin to those parasitic self-perpetuating memes  said to constitute the wealth and complexity of human culture, may have little to do with the charitable values and ambitions it claims to champion.
Indeed, in the extreme, the ministry of TED may even be complicit in creating some of the “frightening problems” for which it hopes to offer innovative and novel solutions.

The genius of TED lies not in its potential to transform the world or advance the scope  of our knowledge, but rather in its ability to appeal emotively to the viewer through a blend of “evangelical” delivery and pitch-like format. The “perfectly practised” retelling of a speaker’s heroic journey, combined with sleek camera-work and catchy sound-bites, serve to dazzle and move the viewer in a desired direction. This calculated and patterned style of presentation is “the language and tone of the pitch” and through its “sugary tone” and “positivist” delivery, seeks to hijack the sympathy of its viewers in the hope of procuring future investment.
Far from being the champion of greater understanding and social change, TED seeks to spread a narrow set of ideas that hinge ultimately on the aims of venture capitalists and technocrats. Indeed, TED’s initial decision to censor, and subsequently release after eyebrows were raised, a talk by Rick Hanauer entitled ‘Rich People Don’t Create Jobs’, is telling.

The implicit faith in a utilitarian conception of improvement and the celebration of the cult of creativity is conducive less to the ‘spread of ideas’ and more to the ‘preservation of ideas’ which ultimately seek to reduce our world and lives to a materialist conception, in which the analysis of cost-and-benefit plays the arbiter of value and meaning.

As one critic as remarked, “TED represents the disappearance of the last vestiges of any sense of shame that once accompanied self-commodification.”

TED embodies those transhumanist philosophies which aspire to the perfectibility of man, philosophies which, according to the philosopher John Gray, have their origin in the religious belief in the redemption of man. Such is the religiously inspired zeal of TED, with its particular faith in the potential for computational salvation, that it offers us thus dreams and hopes for betterment of our human condition while simultaneously incarnating the will of Mammon.

In a TED talk, perhaps ironically given by Professor of Visual Arts and Design Benjamin Bratton, we are warned of the potential dangers of this kind of “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”. Bratton highlights the threats to sound intellectual culture latent in the over-simplistic delivery of TED talk content. He draws our attention to the blind reverence accorded to design and innovation implicit in TED, reminding us that innovation may serve both good and bad purposes.
More insightfully (and more alarmingly), he unveils the great trick that is TED; with all its fidelity to scientific rigour, positivistic principles, and social change, TED is at best nothing more than “placebo science.”

TED has created a spectacle so mesmerising and anaesthetising that it offers a brief reprieve from the complexity and dilemma of human affairs. But the placebo on offer is ineffective, and worse still, may prove more harmful than beneficial- possibly even more of a threat than those homeopathic placebos regularly admonished by speakers most likely to grace the TED platform.

Indeed, as Bratton points out, the “corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine are placebo politics and placebo innovation.”
And the language and style of TED has been taking up in many domains of critical importance, in education, in law-making, and more worryingly even in politics. The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, in his exposition of ideological hegemony (the dominance of one social group over others), realised the significant and active role intellectuals and the institutions they belong to play in the diffusion of the values, beliefs, and morality of the ruling ideology.

Intellectuals lend authority to and legitimise the economic, political, and cultural regimes in which we live our lives. To this end TED endeavours to preserve and legitimise the arbitrary and undiscerning values of market capitalism and in the process offers the ineffectual “sugary” enticements of a placebo.