TEDX: Is the conversation about “our shared future” open to all?

I went to my first TEDX Salon in Santa Monica last night. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by too many academic conferences, but I was left with a lingering doubt — TED does glitz and crowd-pumping really well, but does it do substance?

Within five minutes of walking through the door, I was holding a gift bag from BulletProof Coffee. This is the faddy coffee/butter mixture (inspired by the yak fat espresso the CEO had on his travels) that supposedly offers a slow-burning caffeine buzz. The bag contained a foil pack of coffee and a bottle of ‘Brain Octane’ dietary supplement (complete with the usual FDA disclaimer), but I was more intrigued by their recommendation that I try the ‘negatively-charged’ chocolate to counter the effects of the free wine I was drinking. Hmm.

After a bit of awkward networking (I found a guy who knew cricket, and stuck with him), we sat down for the main event — videos of talks from the main TED conference in Vancouver, interspersed with discussion and some crowd work from the event’s organizers. We watched Elora Hardy talk about bamboo houses (and skyped with her live from Bali), the sociologist Alice Goffman on how we send some kids to college, and some to prison, and Colin Mangham evangelize the creative benefits of a walk in the woods.

There’s no doubting the creativity and passion that fuels each TED talk — these are interesting people, doing interesting things — but it seems like the focus is more on wide-eyed wonder than critical inquiry. Scratch beneath the beaming (sometimes over-earnest) surface and you encounter some awkward questions. Elora Hardy’s bamboo structures are magnificent, but they look quite luxurious. Who’s buying them and how much do they cost? Are her sustainable designs accessible to communities in Indonesia that could benefit from them? As for Goffman, her talk is impassioned (or perhaps emotive), and her message obviously resonates — we’ve set some communities up to fail from the get-go, but there’s some controversy around her at the moment, with allegations that she got a little too involved during her fieldwork in Philadelphia, and that some of her claims don’t hold up to scrutiny. I haven’t had time to really dig in and see if that’s fair, and her type of research is always going to ruffle feathers.

Goffman’s talk sparked a discussion about privilege (the Santa Monica audience was pretty well-heeled), but everyone who got up on stage to share seemed to be working in a pitch as well. There was the “entrepeneur and ex-MySpace developer” who related an anecdote about an ex-girlfriend’s brush with the law, and an acting coach who just happened to mention that she “offered private lessons”. At this point, the intellectual air seemed a little thin, and polluted with self-promotion.

I’m not looking to disparage the efforts of those who put the event together — it was staffed by a team of dedicated volunteers, and it’s hard not to get a little wrapped up in the buzz- but just to ask some questions that I’m not sure were adequately addressed. TED undoubtedly offers a prominent space for public intellectual engagement, but it needs to be careful about falling prey to faddishness, self-congratulation, and even elitism. The most off-putting aspect was having to be vetted and invited before being able to buy a ticket — if TED is really serious about having a conversation about “our shared future”, as the TEDX SM organizer John Bates claimed, then shouldn’t that conversation be open to all?

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