ReligionSkepticism

The Quantified Church (of TED)

You may have heard about TED talks. They’re pretty popular amongst a certain sect. They appeal to people for a lot of reasons: they’re fun, flashy, and emotionally appealing. They feel really important, almost life-changing, in no small part because they’re aggressively branded as such. And above all, TED talks are short, typically requiring less than 15 minutes of your boring day to learn something that can feel revolutionary, inspiring, even religious. And yet, somehow, nearly 80% of TED speakers* (and over 90% of speakers on tech topics) over the past few years have been men. Just two of the 8 speakers in the program I watched this year (ironically titled “Disrupt!”) were women. (And some women-focused side projects haven’t been done all that well, as we’ve seen.)

The catholic church is popular. More than a billion people believe in it, or at least profess to. It’s been around for a long time. Its teachings, if sometimes bewildering, seem to inspire these billion or so people–men and women–who follow this church. And yet, by intention, 100% of popes have been men.

An unreasonable comparison to draw? TED has been likened to religion before; it certainly creates a cult of (sometimes great, sometimes shallow) ideas, perhaps in an attempt to elevate itself over our everyday cult of celebrity. As onetime TED speaker Evgeny Morozov put it, TED is “a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity.” Likewise, the catholic church is a place where ideas, too, take a backseat to celebrity–that of Jesus and, particularly, of the pope (not to mention his fancy hat).

Any scenario privileging the staging of ideas over the substance of them (and in our culture there are many) opens itself up to risks. In the case of TED, it’s risking being shallow; in the case of the church, it’s risking being dangerous. While TED has a somewhat outsized influence among a certain tech-focused crowd, and while it can touch on a sense of the religious, you probably can’t seriously claim that its tenets guides most people through everyday life, or that it has a significant impact on politics (although it may increasingly be on its way to doing so, which comes with its own dangers).

The church, however, has consistently had a direct and outsized impact on political decisions. Many types of special legal treatment, like tax breaks and insurance exemptions, are available for religious organizations, and time that could be spent making policies that really help people is instead wasted on creating policies that don’t hamper specific religious beliefs. While it’s always a good thing to protect individual freedoms, religion does not merit the time spend it receives in our political system. We may be on the verge of saying something similar about tech.

If the TED crowd, like the church, gets its way, strange things could be in store for our society. We’d all vote by smartphone (but what about those without smartphones?). We’d have pitch sessions to see which ideas get government funding (but what about those ideas whose proponents have been silenced?). We’d measure initiatives by popularity, not results (which isn’t to say that doesn’t already happen, just that more of the same with flashier tools isn’t the solution). The TED crowd is well-meaning, but they forget an important thing: not everyone is like them, and as a result technology is not necessarily the best or only solution to social problems.

This notion of “solutionism” is critiqued by Evgeny Morozov in his latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here. Reviewing that book, Tom Slee talks of “the com­mon assumptions, shared biases, and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic predil­ic­tions [that] give a cohe­sive­ness and homo­gene­ity” to the ideas and inventions, not of the catholic church, but of Silicon Valley. And indeed, there has long been a conspicuous and suspicious corporatism in the Valley. There is the idea that if you are not rich you did not succeed. That if you do not seek funding (and lots of it!) there is something wrong with you. That you should be getting rich first and giving away second, not simply trying to live your life thoughtfully. That you have to give up your life for your business–not create a business to build better lives. The idea that if you are not interested in money–or technology–there is something wrong with you has an interesting parallel with the idea that if you are not religious there is also something wrong with you. It’s just, ultimately, a different kind of religion.

Jake Porway recently described a NYC hackathon where the winners designed a bikepooling app and a farmer’s market inventory apps. Porway says, “These apps are great on their own, but they don’t truly solve the city’s sustainability problems. They solve the participants’ problems.” TED solves its particpants’ problems, too. It provides a way for members of the insider crowd to voice their opinion, and a way for members of the insider audience to feel inspired by “jaw-dropping, persuasive, courageous, ingenious, fascinating, inspiring, beautiful, funny, or informative” talks (seriously, those are the top adjectives used to describe TED talks). TED allows you to feel smart and feel like part of a solution–all without doing much of anything at all. You can log your entire life all you want, but if you never pause to think about what it means, what’s that logging worth?

A problem with TED, which the church also shares, is a lack of introspection (sound familiar?). Both privilege celebrity; both elevate ideas based on the forum in which they are purported (say something silly on the street? pshaw! say it from the pulpit–of TED or the church?–it’s gospel!) and based on who is doing the purporting, rather than the content of the ideas. If I tell you I can transform a wafer of bread into the body of christ, you scoff at me; when the pope does the transformation, people get in line. To take on a popular meme, if Bill Gates gives you a tablet, you yawn; if Steve Jobs does, you pony up $500. But if you question the pope or Jobs, look out.

For all the data discussed in TED talks, there’s surprisingly little self-reflection from the organization about what it’s become. Thomas Dolby told Amanda Palmer that “people at TED are getting sad that the talks are becoming stock, formulaic.” But are they doing anything about it? Of course not–that would ruin TED’s image of polished perfection. You also don’t see the organization boasting on its front page, for example, that about 80% of its speakers, 80% of its TED Prize winners, and 90% of its technology speakers (a full third of its Technology, Education, Design mantra!) are men*. I’m sure that everyone involved in TED would purport to favor gender equality. It’s too bad that claim doesn’t bear out in what the organization has supported most directly.

The most sinister–yet perhaps most valuable–side of all this might come if TED and the church joined forces. Can you imagine if the Quantified Self movement (critiqued, again, by Morozov, who points out the fallacy of assuming that efficiency always rules) were adopted by the church? Each member of the catholic church could be tracked by prayers made, premarital sex had, pregnancies terminated, church services attended, altarboys molested (and hey, while we’re at it, why not add in people disappeared?). This would undoubtedly be the fastest, most effective way ever devised to expose religious hypocrisy–which is a sure sign we’ll never, ever see it.

So: to save everything, click here?

*gender breakdown of TED talks based on a quick analysis of this TED talks spreadsheet from 2006 through 2012, focusing only on core TED events (no TEDx events)

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Kerry is a longtime skeptic and technology enthusiast, currently in recovery from too many years spent working in enterprise software. She still believes in the power of technology to do good, when used judiciously. Find her on Twitter or Google+.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m glad someone finally said this. In learning how to sell & lead people via my company, I’ve discovered that people are motivated to behave in certain ways when you frame it a certain way. And as you said, TED is framed as a collection of groundbreaking, world-changing ideas and you could throw any idea in there and have it be viewed as such. But a lot of the ideas presented at TED are bad, unrealistic, or low-quality.

    And I think it’s a great think to take some skepticism to TED so that it’s indeed NOT taken as immediate fact as religions are.

  2. I’ve never considered a TED talks anything more than a collection of entertaining abstracts. I probably watch four or five a year and if a TED talk gets me interested in a subject I’ll do more reading and poking around the topic. Aside from that I’ve pretty much had enough of inspiring speakers and damn near anyone whose clear goal in life is making lots of money or climbing their way to the top of their field. People who are interested and passionate about an idea, field of study, new concepts or who are creative, talented or good story tellers are far more interesting and usually much better company. And “polished perfection” looks increasingly banal and reminds me of church, car dealerships, and funeral homes the older I get. Sometimes I even wonder if TED talks were modeled on Schoolhouse Rock shorts because when it comes to math all you really need is a commercial break, a few songs, and Naughty Number Nine to tell you what’s up.

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