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Scholars in the TEDifice:

Anxiety & Value in the “Ideas Economy”

Scholars in the TEDifice:

Anxiety & Value in the “Ideas Economy”


Imagine a linear spectrum populated by images of teachers. On one extreme, an archetypal professor hunkers over stacks of books (or petri dishes). On the other extreme, a speaker clad entirely in form-fitting black is illuminated by a spotlight, in front of a projection screen—the iconic TED image.

Which is more valuable? Which will blow your mind, advance knowledge, and generate results? These are live questions since Benjamin Bratton’s caustic op-ed (“We Need to Talk About TED”) went viral in early January. His critique has fired up Facebook, Twitter, Slate, and blogs galore. Bratton’s piece raises some good questions but also veers into excessive rhetoric and grandiose conclusions; TED curator Chris Anderson felt compelled to respond formally against some trumped-up charges (for example, that TED’s brand of “infotainment” betokens a specter of “civilizational disaster”).

Fellow scholars and university professors (among others) have shared, liked, and retweeted Bratton’s critique with a range of smug remarks.

Why?

Diagnosis

Here are some scholarly objections to TED: The ubiquity and power of the TED brand and network could facilitate intellectual superficiality. It could lead to the unholy Gladwellification of complexity, in which self-promoters foist trendy but reductionistic arguments on a fawning and uncritical global network. Some TED talks are great; others are mediocre or underwhelming. And is there any real-world follow-through?

But the deepest worry, I think, is that society could be duped into conflating any “idea worth exploring” with the sexiest, most of-the-moment topics that can be branded and sold by a speaker dressed like a cinematic ninja with a powerpoint presentation.

In this case, TED is a conveniently visible pressure point for scholars’ collective anxiety about branding, marketing, and the devaluation of rigorous, long-term research in a profit-driven global marketplace.

What to do?

Reminder: Research Isn’t Always Racy, and Value Is Not the Same as Profit

First and foremost, it is essential to resist the reduction of an idea’s “value” to its powerful venue (say, TED) or its popularity on social media or dinner-table conversations.

In the U.S., this anxiety is amplified by frustration over sequestered federal funding for scientific research, on the one hand, as well as increasing pressure on the humanities to be financially self-sustaining, on the other. If “ideas worth sharing” must be corseted into a contrived, constrained and self-justificatory format liked TED, then—frankly—most of us in the ecosystem of academic research and scholarship are doomed.

Granted, some scholarly research has cultural cachet or can be monetized—for example, psychological studies on the development of morality in infants, cutting-edge analysis of race and politics, concrete forms of political corruption, or the pursuit of neural mechanisms linked to Alzheimer’s. Fine.

But scholars know that not all ideas that have value are sexy. And we want to protect the freedom to research untimely or decidedly unsexy topics (witness the “LOL my thesis” self-parody on Tumblr).

For example, it’s worth considering whether Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei would have been invited to speak at TED by the political and economic elites of their day (it’s doubtful). For his part, Charles Darwin would have been debilitated by the mere suggestion of such a talk and would probably have delegated the task to limelight-loving Huxley.

So, no, of course TED does not mediate the veracity or value of scholarly research. But it is a powerful platform at the nexus of communication technologies, global capitalism, and institutions of higher learning. As such, TED is a pressure point that activates a multifaceted—and often latent—anxiety among twenty-first century scholars and intellectuals.

Again: What to do?

Critique, then Construct

Feel free to critique TED as a hegemonic purveyor of ideas. Until there is no breath left in your body, defend the value of musty archives, arcane languages, evolutionary studies of urban mice, and the search for exoplanets. Rage against the suggestion that the humanities should turn a profit in order to be valuable to society. When Congressional politicking disembowels federal funding for scientific research, protest.

But let’s do better, too. The “ideas economy,” for all its foibles, is an open system—not a closed one. For scholars with something constructive to say, I offer six insights for engaging our evolving digital-education-communications ecosystem.

6 Insights About New Media + Scholarship

1) Social media enables nerdliness to go viral like never before.

Yes, the internet replicates entrenched patterns of privilege and power. But it also has democratizing potential. At best, TED—like other amplification devices—demonstrates this emerging reality.

Have you seen Susan Cain’s TED talk on introversion, or Bratton’s Guardian op-ed described above? Both are examples of the virality of nerdliness. Less watched but stupendously nerdy resources abound (see, for example, some of my favorite science raps: on the pre-Higgs-discovery Large Hadron Collider, or Oakland seventh graders on Rosalind Franklin.)

2) There is pedagogical value in some public media, including TED.

I’m biased here: I created two lessons on fresh water for TED-Ed and found that the editing, fact-checking, animation and production process generated a satisfactory 4-minute product that communicates essential information about global fresh water scarcity to youths and lifelong learners. I happen to think that’s valuable as a teaching resource, though again, I’m biased. You tell me.

At best, TED’s variegated archives have pedagogical utility in classrooms or in flip-teaching. Yes, there are real limits: Flip teaching by video shouldn’t replace primary sources or classroom engagement. Mentorship happens in three dimensions, not two. Society remains desperately in need of critical analytical skills. But still, for some students, online resources can be a learning tool and even a gateway drug to important intellectual exploration.

3) Public media does not replace peer-review. Don’t conflate them.

Scholarly, peer-reviewed publications and conferences advance discourse among experts and prompt critical analysis of cutting-edge questions and methods. TED and its cohort communicate key issues and methods to non-experts. In each genre, improvements can always be made—that’s a given in anything pertaining to the intellectual life.

But to conflate the two genres is both reductionistic and silly. Let’s not make that category error.

4) New media work is not “selling out.” It’s public service.

Scholars who communicate with the public are sometimes viewed (derisively) as “popularizers” who have sold out. This is unfortunate.

How, exactly, is cloistering ideas in an ivory tower morally superior to attempting to communicate those ideas to the public? As teachers, we try to communicate convincingly, and with nuance, every day. New media, used strategically, can help to raise the caliber of public discourse.

Research should be evaluated on its research merits; public media work, on the merits of communicability and accuracy on a given question of current relevance. Doing the latter is not selling out on the former (see #3).

5) The self-promotion problem.

Scholars sometimes worry that public media engagement is narcissistic self-promotion. I get it.

But The OpEd Project shook the worry out of me with their “Who Narrates the World?” byline report (2012), which reveals that the majority of people who publish op-eds in major news outlets are white, Ivy League-educated males.

Those gentlemen are hardly representative of the U.S. public, much less global demographics. Nor are they the only source of ideas that matter. But, in the absence of robust and nuanced engagement by experts (i.e., us), those simplistic voices of the status quo will continue to dominate powerful media outlets. (Of the many examples, consider these pieces lending credulity to “conventional [read: racist] views” of biracial marriage and myopic moralizing about marijuana.)

In this light, sharing your knowledge is not an act of self-promotion. It is an act of resistance to the status quo. That is a public service (see #4).

6. Scale the TEDifice towards integrity.

The “ideas economy” should not live on TED alone.

But don’t let skepticism of TED as an arbiter of scholarly value inure you to the democratizing potential of new media or the question of scholars’ roles in the economy of ideas.

Twenty-first century education and communication are complex, fickle, rapidly evolving ecosystems suffused with uneven technological access and economic power. Good ideas must struggle to persist. So, if you can, dare to teach what you know through the venues available to you at a given time. Dare to try. It is harder—and more important—than you think.