TED and the declining value of ideas
First published in the March/April issue of THIS Magazine.
The first time I watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on educational reform, I found myself nodding along vigorously. Yes! Schools do kill creativity! The system is broken! My kids can’t be shuttled through such a clearly flawed learning process! My anger was so consuming that I took that first big step toward making a real difference—I posted the video on Facebook. Unfortunately, that was also my last step toward making a real difference.
As terrible as that sounds, it’s not unusual. This is what we do. We learn about systemic problems, social injustice and general uncouthness, we get mad, we share it on the web, possibly adding an indignant statement. A few of our friends click “Like” and we all go about our day, a job well done. It would be easy to blame the internet, but this behaviour isn’t new. It’s called “narcotizing dysfunction” and researchers Paul F. Lazarfeld and Robert K. Merton identified it in the late 1940s. Basically, they discovered that by learning about a particular issue, we think we’re somehow helping. Because I saw—and shared!—a video about educational reform, I can sleep at night knowing I’ve done my part to reform education.
While TED has been around since 1984, it really started capturing mass attention in 2006 when it began posting its 18-minute talks online (Robinson’s video was one of the first and is currently the most popular). Last year, its growing collection of videos passed a billion views. The TED slogan is “Ideas worth spreading” and in this respect, it is wildly successful. But this success doesn’t come in spite of narcotizing dysfunction, it comes because of it. TED understands human nature better than we might realize. Organizers have said that the goal of TED “is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans,” as though our growing inability to focus on one thing for any amount of time was something to be accommodated instead of overcome. Even more tragically, the sizable audience a TED talk brings its presenter has led to 18-minute aphorisms competing for attention, often to sell books or future speaking gigs for big money. TED offers ideas packaged as Happy Meals and self-help masquerading as science. It’s a pseduo-intellectual Thunderdome where complex issues are reduced to pablum. The typical TED talk has become so ridiculous that when the Onion decided to parody them with a series of hilarious “Onion Talks,” the send-ups were so spot-on that although mostly insane, I wouldn’t be shocked to find out at least a few people couldn’t discern them from the real thing.
So in a world where ideas are pared to bite-size morsels and spoon fed via social networks, and people themselves aren’t really inclined to act on them anyway, what is the real-world value? What’s the point? The point is that ideas can and do matter. The world is a better place because people had ideas about equality and science and creativity. TED’s not wrong, some ideas are worth spreading (though I’d question whether or not TED is the best judge of just which ideas should be spread—they once had Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love deliver a talk on “genius”). But ideas require action to make a difference. If we care about something, clicking a “Share” button or a “Like” button is literally the least we can do and we shouldn’t be surprised to discover the world can’t be changed through the Facebook newsfeed.
I have two sons. I do legitimately care about the quality of their education. If I believe what Ken Robinson says, that the way we teach our kids is inherently and deeply flawed, I owe it to him, myself and especially my kids to offer more than just a token gesture.