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Monthly Archives: February 2012

TED: brand new shiny ideas for better living through science!!!

The New Inquiry has a great piece asking if TED has jumped the shark:

So many of the TED talks take on the form of those famous patent medicine tonic cure-all pitches of previous centuries, as though they must convince you not through the content of what’s being said but through the hyper-engaging style of the delivery. Each new “big idea” to “inspire the world” and “change everything” pitched from the TED stage reminds me of the swamp root and snake oil liniment being sold from a wagon a hundred years past. As Mike Bulajewski pointed out in a Tweet, “TED’s ‘revolutionary ideas’ mask capitalism as usual, giving it a narrative of progress and change.”

At TED, “everyone is Steve Jobs” and every idea is treated like an iPad. The conferences have come to resemble religious meetings and the TED talks techno-spiritual sermons, pushing an evangelical, cultish attitude toward “the new ideas that will change the world.” Everything becomes “magical” and “inspirational.” In just the top-ten most-viewed TED talks, we get the messages of “inspiration,” “astonishment,” “insight,” “mathmagic” and the “thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”! The ideas most popular are those that pander to a metaphysical, magical portrayal of the role of technology in the world.

There are consequences to having this style of discourse dominate how technology’s role in society is understood. Where are the voices critical of corporatism? Where is there space to reach larger publics without having to take on the role of a salesperson, preacher, or self-help guru? Academics, for instance, have largely surrendered the ground of mainstream conversations about technology to business folks in the TED atmosphere.

New York magazine makes a similar point in its long article on TED. It says:

The feeling that you may have just boarded a Scientology cruise ship is not accidental. It’s rooted partly in Silicon Valley’s ­techno-Rapturist soil, and partly in [Chris] Anderson’s own evangelical yearnings. Those invited to speak at TED are mailed an actual stone tablet engraved with “The TED Commandments.” (One is “Thou Shalt Not Sell From the Stage.”) June Cohen, who runs TED’s media operation, told an audience two years ago that her sister-in-law calls the TED Talk “a secular sermon.” The atheist Daniel Dennett suggested that TED could “replace” religion, observing that it “already, largely wittingly I think, adopted a lot of the key design features of good religions,” including giving away content.

I love TED talks, I love how they’re free, accessible, and have brought interesting ideas to millions of people. But these articles makes some valid points that needed to be made.

TED is a really interesting part of the Zeitgeist. It’s an expression of a culture which emerged in the 1990s, which has huge confidence and optimism in the power of social science and technology to improve the world instantly. It’s very much the Malcolm Gladwell view of the world, as expressed in books like The Tipping Point or Blink. It turns ideas into business pitches, and says, if you can’t express your idea in ten minutes, and make it sound shiny and new, your idea is not worth expressing.

I’m all for making ideas accessible, but what this basically means is we’re drowning in non-fiction social science books that should have remained as 15-minute TED talks. Careful academic work has been replaced by the over-hyped business pitch.

And TED has contributed to our culture’s chronic, deluded optimism in social science and tech. One example is Jane McGonigal’s TED talk: ‘Gaming can make a better world‘. This is a classic example of TED’s religious optimism in tech. McGonigal makes some nice points, but she seriously thinks gaming is going to solve our major global problems like climate change – and her optimism for this is based on one climate change game she devised. I’m sorry, but she’s still living in a 90s bubble of delusion. Gaming is not going to stop climate change.

TED talks often show a deep faith in measurements, data and statistics. The arch example is Hans Gosling’s talk on statistics, which is very entertaining, but for the TED audience it’s statistics-as-religious experience. It taps into their positivist faith in science: all we need to do is measure stuff, put it on a graph, observe the trends, then use this data to create a better world. We can even use such measurements to enhance global well-being (another popular TED talk is Nic Marks from the UK’s new economics foundation on well-being measurements).

Martin Seligman’s talk on Positive Psychology, again, is another example of TED’s deluded optimism in social science, and of how academic pysychology got drunk on the TED Kool-Aid and the $$$ that follow a TED talk. We can make the entire world more spiritually flourishing, thanks to the magic of science! We just measure it, find the tech that improves the data, then roll it out – and guess what folks, we already got our first seed funding. Woo-hoo!

We face some really serious problems: mass unemployment, an unjust economic system, a global population heading for nine billion, and a planet struggling to support us. But if you can’t get your idea into a neat ten minute business pitch with the word ‘new’ in it, that makes the audience feel good about themselves, then sorry pal, get off the stage. I just invented a new machine that can solve depression and do your ironing! How about that folks!!!

‘Give us the self-control that springs / From discipline of outward things’

I went to church today, with my parents, to St Vedast, a Wren-designed chapel near St Paul’s in London. It was the second time I’d been to a church service voluntarily, as it were. The first was a few weeks ago, also in St Vedast. I’m not exactly a Christian, but I do believe in God, and I want to worship God among other people. And (hopefully I don’t sound too like Alain De Botton here) I love the culture of Christianity, the music, the churches, the stained glass windows, the psalms…and the close relationship between Christianity and Hellenistic philosophy. So I go to church occasionally, don’t take communion, and don’t say the whole of the creed. I don’t know if this makes me a complete imposter…I told one of the congregation after the service I was a ‘Unitarian’, which left me just as confused as him.

The service was the first Sunday of Lent. I like the way there’s a Christian calendar, a sense of the seasons of the spiritual life. We don’t have that in the Socratic tradition, which is pretty crap on things like rituals, hymns and customs. Anyway, the first hymn we sung was about Lent, and the words were written by St Gregory the Great in the seventh century AD. I mean, that’s pretty amazing. You’re singing a hymn written by Pope Gregory fourteen centuries ago! Its first verse is:

Give us the self-control that springs
From discipline of outward things
That fasting inward secretly
The soul may purely dwell with thee.

This made me think of the cultural practice of Lent as a way of developing self-control. Today we are very impressed with psychologists like Roy Baumeister who have developed a ‘science’ of self-control. Baumeister thinks there is a connection between self-control and glucose levels – if your self-control gets depleted, you may need a cookie or a Lucozade. Yeah, maybe…you don’t often see Jesus quaffing a Pepsi-Max, but who knows.

The ancients wouldn’t have thought of fasting and self-control in such biochemical terms. Gregory talks of ‘the fruits of penitence’. The early Christians, and the ancient Greeks, would have thought of fasting and self-control as increasing our spiritual capital, our reserves of spiritual strength. It’s not just glucose levels, it’s something we can’t yet measure, something invisible and ineffable but still very powerful.

One of the readings today was a rather beautiful passage from St Mark, about Jesus going into the wilderness:

‘And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.’

I love the line ‘and the angels ministered unto him’. There is Jesus, alone in the desert, in a barren wilderness, and the angels are ministering to him, as if he were at a banquet. It’s a beautiful image. And I think there’s a truth to it: there is a spiritual wealth that can grow from those tough years when we find ourselves in the wilderness. Sometimes, those difficult passages of our life, when we find ourselves externally the most bereft, alone and impoverished, are the periods of our life when we access the best ideas, the most creative projects, the deepest inner resources.

To take an example from my personal experience: my book which is finally being published this year was begun many years ago when I was pretty alone and unhappy. I don’t know if the book is good or bad, but I do know it grew out of those wilderness years. Often, when people become successful and are celebrated by their society, they actually do very little new or original work. Everything genuinely worthwhile they produced was produced when they were in the wilderness. It’s not a cast-iron rule, but it’s an interesting thing to think about if you find yourself in the wilderness. If you have the courage not to despair, the wilderness can be the place you find the greatest resources and the most interesting ideas.

By the by, that phrase, ‘and the angels ministered unto him’, reminds me of an older myth, the myth of Cupid and Psyche. When Psyche comes to Cupid’s castle, she sits at a table and is served food by invisible hands. The image appears again in the fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast, which evolved from the Cupid and Psyche myth. Beauty goes to face the Beast in his castle, she sacrifices herself to go into the wilderness and confront the Shadow, and the ‘fruit’ of this is that she achieves grace, spiritual wealth, the spiritual riches symbolised by Beauty being served by invisible hands:

When they sat down, invisible hands passed them things to eat and to drink, and they ate and drank to their heart’s content. And when they arose from the table it arose too and disappeared through the door as if it were being carried by invisible servants.

This phrase, ‘the invisible hand’, appears in Sophocles too, in the final scene of Oedipus at Colonus when Oedipus is carried up to heaven by ‘hands invisible’. Like Jesus, Oedipus has left his civilisation, gone into the wilderness and stripped down to his barest essence, and his reward is grace and spiritual wealth.

Then Adam Smith took the symbol from its religious context, and used it to mean the law of supply and demand in the consumer economy. Really, it means something much more mysterious and spiritual than that. It means there is an invisible economy, behind the material economy of money and goods, an invisible economy of spiritual wealth and spiritual debt. And if you give up goods in the outer economy, you gain riches in the inner economy, and the angels minister unto you. So the story goes, anyway – not that I know the first thing about sacrifice or self-control.

Before those lines about Jesus in the desert, the reading from St Mark told us:

‘And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him’.

This reminded me very much of this abduction scene from the sci-fi film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I happened to watch yesterday. It is an incredibly religious film, translated into the language of sci-fi, UFOs and aliens. It shows how we still use the myths and symbols of Judeo-Christian culture, even if we’re not aware of it (though I think Spielberg must have been aware of it).