The Generativity of the DissenTED

Curator's Note

TED elicits persistent and incisive criticism. A decade’s worth of converging technological, political, and economic factors – including Chris Anderson’s takeover, celebrity support and participation, and shareable platforms like YouTube – have facilitated TED’s widespread recognition. Alongside this popularity, criticism of TED has been threefold: first, TED’s model is both accessible and discriminatory, creating an irresolvable tension between exclusivity and inclusivity that invites accusations of elitism; second, TED’s reliance upon a broadcast model of communication – actualized through “short, powerful talks” that feature few speakers and many listeners – limits participation; and third, TED is foolish to believe that ideas alone can change the world, however spreadable and profound they may be. These critiques are succinctly highlighted in “Ducks Go Quack, Chickens Say Cluck,” the third episode of U.S. news satirist The Onion’s series of Onion Talks.

Why offer a non-TED Talk here? I’d like to suggest that criticism is the locus of TED’s generativity. In the Western world we maintain the idea, however problematically, that publics function democratically when they show potential to be generative of progress. There are varying definitions of efficacy. But we might agree, for argument’s sake, that to be effective is to produce. This is the heart of anti-TED sentiment: TED has not only failed to change the world, but it has also failed as an engine of representative democracy. What TED has produced, in addition to a great deal of elitist content, is critique. And there’s a lot of it. Is this criticism changing the world? Probably not. Does it qualify as “ideas worth spreading”? Maybe. If we shift our focus slightly, to look for efficacy outside the bounds of a cost-prohibitive conference and the hot air of talks, TED spreads. Not necessarily through world-changing ideas, but through content produced in response to the idea of world-changing ideas: satire, hundreds of blog posts like this one, think pieces, more satire, non-TED Talks, activism, responses to censorship, “High” Ted Talks, parody, protest, skepticism, the organization’s self-awareness, and zombie-led DED Talks

TED is not a conversation equalizer, but a conversation starter. TED’s audiences produce critiques, and that criticism generates (weak) publics. We have something to gain from sidelining TED in favor of greater attention to the social and cultural form of its publics' caustic critiques. 


I think another criticism that could be leveled at TED, and which is depicted with great humor in this particular video, is how the reliance on TED has created a very specific manner of public speaking. Because people (especially students and young, educated people) are accustomed to the way in which TED speakers act on stage and present information, this form has become standard. The heightened drama of "quack quack" and "cluck cluck" demonstrates just how this absurd and out of place this type of speaking can be.

Absolutely. And this has been the frame through which TED content has recently circulated - as a way of "learning" or "becoming" a better public speaker. I receive an email at least once a week that suggests I watch a curated list of TED Talks for this reason. The particular mode of articulation TED speakers are trained to offer in their presentations has been the subject of much criticism and can be placed under the umbrella of elitism for which TED receives the most flack. I would say that the critique of performance, public speaking, and arguably, its entertainment quality is yet another way we might see the circulation of TED as user-driven and not as democratic, per se, but as a popular, cultural form.

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