Pop academia is nothing new, but it has found itself a particularly presentable and versatile format with TED Talks, which positions itself as a forum for both highbrow, traditional academia as well as left-field story telling. With savvy marketing, a list of speakers including Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, and broad shareable appeal, TED is unquestionably a cultural phenomenon. Its videos have more than a billion views worldwide. And despite criticism for its faux-intellectual jargon, sycophantic crowds, and stating the bloody obvious, the inner workings of the organisation seem to have mostly escaped attention.
Much of this is to do with access, or the lack thereof. Their conferences are on a strictly invite-only basis, audience participation requires an $8,000 annual membership, and their talks are predominantly delivered by white men from Silicon Valley (women make up only 27 per cent of the talks posted online). The institution and the culture it fosters borders on the cult-like, where videos on their website can be rated as ‘magical’, ‘inspirational’, and ‘jaw-dropping’, and standing ovations seem almost compulsory. Mannerisms and cadences in speech dress every sentence as profoundly life-changing. Such cult-like behaviour becomes more problematic when the relationship between its speakers and the organisation seems to be exploitative and controlling. TED ‘fellow’ and chef Eddie Huang described his own conference experience as a “fucking Scientology summer camp”, where all speakers are required to network with other speakers and possible investors, attend TED talks and its after events for 12 to 15 hours a day on a strict schedule.
All fellows are also required stay in motels and hotels around the conference with another speaker as a roommate. After not being allowed by the organisation to stay with his girlfriend for one night on his birthday, and travelling up to Long Beach for a few hours, Huang was stripped of his fellowship. More importantly, no speakers are paid, and Eddie Huang’s talk was never published on official TED channels. When one of the biggest incentives for being a fellow is having online exposure under the TED brand, it’s a clear issue when there is no guarantee for what is essentially a volunteer having his own talk published.
While they might run with the motto of “ideas worth spreading”, TED still reserves the final say on whether your idea deserves to be spread or not.
Others have also been barred from speaking again, with Cambridge biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake lecture on the “orthodoxy” of sciences and Graham Hancock’s talk on psychedelic drugs were banished to what Hancock termed as a “naughty corner” on the TED website. Comedian Sarah Silverman was more famously barred after a bizarre talk that mocked the speaking style common to TED. It is fair to criticise and challenge Sheldrake or Hancock’s talks on the basis of scientific validity, but when compared to talks like Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s (which claimed bacteria could incorporate Arsenic into their DNA, despite the paper her talk was based off failing under peer-review) there seems to be some sort of agenda at work here.
The censorship of Sarah Silverman’s talk (described by curator Chris Anderson as “god-awful”) taps into a deeper problem that TED has with its insularity and infallibility. It’s not just problems with access either; there are no Q&A sessions after talks, there are recommended guidelines for participants regarding applause, and comments on their website are heavily moderated.
When considering that TED’s parent company positions itself as non-profit when annual memberships cost in their thousands and speakers are paid nothing, the organisation’s lack of transparency becomes more pressing. There is no doubt that TED is hugely influential, and that many of its speakers are indeed inspirational and that some of its stories are indeed jaw-dropping, but the elevation of poorly researched talks combined with a very apparent agenda does not mix well. Bringing together some of the best minds in the world shouldn’t have to constitute a self-promoting and self-labelled elite.