Sunday, 13 July 2014

“TED Talks”? They’re like Oprah for academics and business gurus

I’m proud of how little I know. It’s taken me years to achieve it. I’ve skimmed my way through enough one line summaries, books for dummies, easy readers, infobites, factoids and hyperlinks to fuel me through an entire year’s worth of fatuous generalisations and dinner parties. I’m not widely read. I’m narrowly read. I read a bit, but mainly to avoid reading a lot. I cheat. Let’s face it, I’m obnoxious and opinionated enough at the best of times – imagine how insufferable actually knowing anything would have made me. 
So I guess I should like "TED" Talks, the Show-and-Tell sessions for wealthy business elites packed choc-a-full of every kind of McFact and ‘inspirational’ lightbulb idea you could imagine. They’re available on the web! They deal with complex subjects in less time than it takes to watch a kitten video! BUT, but...

Is it those standing ovations that remind me uncomfortably of a megachurch session? Am I the only one who finds that heavenly choir that starts and closes the videos a bit creepy? Is it just me that feels like I'm witnessing some kind of secular cult, Scientology for Smart Thinking readers? 

Doubtless it's a good thing to spread some new ideas around. But there's an agenda here. Ever seen a Ted talk that dared to criticise Twitter or Google? Or the Cult of Steve Jobs, or Apple's abusive labour practices in the far east? Or the ethics of speculative, seed-funded capitalism? 

For all its inclusive YouTube sheen the whole ‘TEDucation’ project is essentially a well-disguised auto-fellatio session for the pro-business / tech lobby, evangelical therapy for well-heeled businesspeople who like to applaud uplifting talks about using Google to reduce malaria in Lake Malawi then glide back to their hotel rooms in a haze of self-righteous tweets about really having learnt... well... something

Knowledge as junk food? iPod diplomacy? Worse than that. This is Oprah for academics and tech gurus.

In my opinion the best hope for democracy is stupidity
Whatever its pluses and minuses, there’s no denying that the knowledge base is flattened by the internet: humankind’s intellectual heritage becomes a sort of gigantic mental pancake – light and fluffy, but vast beyond comprehension. Buffeted by feeds and hyperlinks, the sum total of what we know starts to resemble a massively-multiplayer word association exercise. 

Take a famous name. Take Plato. Or Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. ‘Ah, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons,’ I hear you say. ‘That fascinating chronicle of two generations split between conservative tradition and revolutionary nihilism in nineteenth century Russia.’

Wrong! Fathers and Sons is actually: a memoir by Edmund Gosse; a 1970 song written and originally performed by British singer Cat Stevens; an album by Muddy Waters, released in 1969 on the Chess label, and featuring Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. & the M.G.'s and “Paul Butterfield” of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. 

Oh, and it’s also a chronicle of two generations split between conservative tradition and revolutionary nihilism in nineteenth century Russia. You see? We know a hell of a lot less about a hell of a lot more: not so much dumbing down as dumbing around. 
If we’ve done anything as a planet, it’s to develop a kind of all-embracing, inclusive ignorance, the kind of ignorance that anybody feels they can share in. In a world where we can never hope to understand a tenth of a thousandth of a millionth of all there is to know out there, our only defence against our yawning cosmic ignorance is factoids, Wikipedia articles and all the other McKnowledge. And yes, alright, Ted Talks. Humanity has finally made ignorance a tool that we can all share in. What could be more democratic than that?