Many years ago, the very distinguished experimental psychologist, George Miller, in a presidential address to the American Psychological Association, admonished the academics in his audience to “give psychology away.” What he meant, I think, was that we academics should not be doing our work, in bastions of privilege, supported by the public, indifferent to the needs of society. We should be asking, regularly, “how will my work make life better?” And to the extent that we have something to offer, we should be giving it away, not selling it.
Next week, the annual TED conference will occur, this year in Vancouver. Whenever I think about TED, I think about George Miller’s speech. TED, more than anything else I know of, is committed to giving ideas away. Each year, dozens of talented people from an incredibly wide area of fields give 18-minute talks about their work. It costs a small fortune to go to TED, but you don’t have to. Just days after the talks occur, they start appearing on the TED website, available to anyone on earth with an interest, inclination, and an internet connection. At this point, TED talks have been watched something like 2 billion times, by people all over the world. They have been translated into many languages. The TED conference itself has spawned hundreds of “mini-TEDs” (called TEDx), locally organized day-long events that mimic the TED style. These talks, too, have been made available to the world.
I will be attending TED this year, as I have twice before. When I was asked to speak the first time, a decade ago, I had never heard of TED. I went, gave my talk, was bowled over by many other talks, and had incredibly stimulating interactions with others in attendance—speakers and audience alike. Then it was over, an insignificant moment in the history of the world. Well, not quite over. A few months later, I was asked to sign a release so that TED could post my talk on the web. Of course, I said, thinking “who’s going to watch it.” This was the very beginning of TED’s web presence. And by now, nearly 7 million people have watched that talk.
A decade ago, I was asked to sign a release so that TED could post my talk on the web. Of course, I said, thinking “who’s going to watch it.” And by now, nearly 7 million people have watched that talk.
A few years later I was invited back to speak again. By then, TED had become almost a household word, at least among the highly educated and those aspiring to be educated, throughout the world. The talk I gave that year has been watched by about 2 million people.
Now, I’m going back again. This year, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, TED has invited back a bunch of past speakers, many of whom will complement the usual sessions of 18-minute talks with 5-minute mini-talks of their own. I can’t wait.
Of late, the extraordinary gift to the world that is TED has inspired a fair amount of criticism. Indeed, it seems that the more pervasive TED’s influence becomes, the more people criticize it. What are the criticisms? The talks oversimplify complex ideas. There is too much emphasis on performance, and not enough on substance. There seems to be a Panglossian attitude that anything that’s new is good. It’s too preachy, exhorting people of privilege and talent to ask themselves what they can do to make the world better, and by implication, downgrading those intellectual achievements that don’t have a good answer to this question.
I find these criticisms almost entirely misplaced. Do TED talks simplify? Of course they do. Any time you present work that has consumed you, perhaps for a decade, you simplify. This is true when you give an hour-long academic lecture to your peers. It is even more true when you give an 18-minute lecture to a general audience. But to simplify is good. It makes your work accessible to people who have not been obsessed with it, as you have. To simplify is not to oversimplify. Any college professor who does not simplify will be understood by no one. The trick is to simplify in a way that makes your work accessible without hiding the underlying complexity of the topic. It isn’t easy to do this well and people often miss the mark—in both directions. But the alternative is to have private conversations, in a private language, with the handful of people on earth who know your area of work as well as you do.
Do TED talks simplify? Of course they do. Any time you present work that has consumed you, perhaps for a decade, you simplify. The trick is to simplify in a way that makes your work accessible without hiding the underlying complexity of the topic.
I have a real concern about the dangers of too much simplification. Indeed, I published a piece in Slate a few months ago that suggested that the ability to devote effortful, sustained attention to difficult subjects is a skill acquired with practice, and if we cater to today’s short attention spans by making things too easily accessible to students, they won’t get that practice. I even mentioned TED talks in that piece. Giving students TED talks to watch instead of assigning book chapters and articles is a bad idea. But giving them TED talks in addition to book chapters and articles is not. It seems quite wrong headed to me to blame TED for the irresponsible efforts of college professors to make their courses popular by making the assigned work easy and entertaining.
Is TED Panglossian about the new? Well it certainly celebrates the new. But Al Gore’s devastating talk on global warming was hardly a celebration of the new. And there are plenty of talks like his, full of cautionary notes about what the new may bring in its wake. In my own case, both of my talks were more about the dangers of the new than about its opportunities.
Is TED preachy? Well, yes it is. But what’s wrong with that. Isn’t it nice to have an international forum that forces people to ask themselves what their responsibilities are to the world? Isn’t it nice to have a forum that expresses concern for things other than increasing ROI or shareholder value? I think it is a reflection of the deep cynicism of our time that people look upon efforts to improve lives in some way with suspicion rather than admiration. “What’s in it for her,” they wonder. There is no doubt that many TED speakers benefit from the exposure they get, but that doesn’t mean the enhanced exposure is their reason for speaking or for doing the work that they are speaking about.
I have to find a way to condense an idea I have been thinking about for 20 years into a 5-minute (5-minute!) mini-talk.
Finally, has TED started to focus too much on performance and not enough on substance? Here, I think there has been a subtle shift. TED has become a victim of its own popularity. Knowing the size and diversity of its online audience, TED really wants people to prepare talks that will be engaging and comprehensible. But even worse, knowing that if their talk “succeeds,” it will be watched by millions, no doubt influences presenters to put great effort into making their presentations into flawless performances. Many of the presenters are used to toiling away in almost complete obscurity. This is their big chance to be noticed.
So this is a problem, but it’s a small problem and one that is almost certainly fixable. One easy step would be for TED to stop publishing information about how many people watched each talk. Without that metric as a guide, the performative aspects of the presentations might be reduced. It’s nice to have that metric, but like any metric, it can end up distorting what people do instead of just measuring it. I’m reminded here of the U.S. News rankings of colleges. The various metrics the magazine used all had some plausibility, but when institutions discovered how influential the rankings were becoming, they started finding ways to game the metrics. They became more concerned with looking good than with being good.
Well, I can’t put it off any longer. I have to find a way to condense an idea I have been thinking about for 20 years into a 5-minute (5-minute!) mini-talk. Will I oversimplify the idea? Probably, yes. Will I be preachy? Most definitely, yes. Will I be giving a performance? I hope not so much. Will I be taking advantage of the opportunity to put an idea that I think is important for people to think about before an audience of (potentially) millions. You’re damn right I will. Better get to work.
Disclosure: Barry Schwartz is a member of The Psych Report Advisory Board.