The “TED Mode of Engagement”

Curator's Note

This 2006 TED talk by Stewart Brand, an intellectual celebrity famous for bridging San Francisco’s bohemian environmentalism with the burgeoning technologist/entrepreneurial climate of Silicon Valley (Turner, 2006), presents a novel reconsideration of urban poverty in an increasingly globalized society. Offering a concise version of theories popularized by neoliberal pundits like Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (1987), Brand argues that the real problem facing residents of low income communities is not substandard living conditions associated with endemic poverty but the inability of others to recognize and support resident’s everyday innovations. Unlike De Soto, though, Brand does not attempt to address how political and economic arrangements might be reconfigured to stimulate entrepreneurship and wealth creation in these areas. Instead, he offers a version of what I call the “TED mode of engagement” by pulling back from the specific examples to a sweeping celebration of innovation. More precisely, he “puts things in perspective” at 2:17 by turning to face an ambiguous map of the world with illuminated points representing the highest population concentrations. The “stars shining up” represent all of the creative squatters of the world.

Brand’s talk, one of the earliest TED Talks to be filmed and distributed, foreshadows many motifs that will come up again and again in subsequent TED and TEDx events. These include:

  • A substitution of metaphorical value (what we as the assumed audience can draw out of the example) for empirical value (engaging with the problem being posed by the example).
  • A collapse of geographical, cultural, or economic differences among spaces as the video bounces frame by frame from Mumbai to Rio de Janeiro to Nairobi.  
  • A recasting of macro-level issues like mass migration and endemic poverty in terms of individual choice (the “home-brew infrastructure” of squatter cities is much more appealing than sub-par living conditions in the countryside).  
  • A conflation of creativity engendered by situational necessity and “innovation”.

The motifs rehearsed in this talk are representative of a larger mode of engagement that decontextualizes social problems in order to offer ever more outrageous technological fixes. While it would be satisfying to look at how Brand and others paved the way for our current generation of technophilic clowns, it is more important to look at how this mode resonates with many “serious” contemporary discourses like the ever growing buzz around social entrepreneurship, Nicholas Negroponte’s new X Prize competition for the most outside the box technological solution, eBay founder Peter Thiel’s fellowship to reward young entrepreneurs for quitting college, and many, many more.


De Soto Polar, H. (1987). El Otro Sendero: La Revolución Informal. Lima: Editorial Oveja Negra.

Turner, F. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Thank you for distilling so many of the motifs of TED Talks by starting from the beginning. A lot of the points you bring up tie to the style critiques brought up in yesterday's post and comment discussions. TED is obsessed with social entrepreneurship and your description of how TED talks work to collapse spaces between far-flung locations is spot-on. It is through this collapsing that TED is able to motivate people to be more socially engaged, even though TED then stops and does not provide a way to become engaged. So many of the videos can lead to a righteous anger or a simple understanding in the viewer, but what would be much more effective is suggesting plausible and specific plans of action immediately at the end of every talk, to capitalize on the energy and motivation the talk provides.

Great post, Stuart. I wonder how "inspiration" as TED's primary affective mode is mixed in with these characteristics you discuss above? In terms of something like metaphorical value v. empirical value, I think about the testimonials of TED participants that circulate online, describing their "life-changing" experience or how difficult it was to ease back in to the "real world" after watching or attending a TED event. The word "inspiring" is thrown around A LOT and seems to be the fuel on which a lot of the decontextualization and macro-vagueness that you point out runs. Through a sort of affective containment, TED positions itself and its audience outside the realm of certain types of efficacy, in a sense letting everyone off the hook through careful attention to the construction of a particular mode of engagement.

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