Friday, July 6, 2012

Tallking about TED: Nathan Heller's Listen and Learn (New Yorker)

The recent copy of the New Yorker has a fascinating, well-written article on video phenomenon known as the TED Talk(s). The first page is available here and Heller has a web-only introduction here. There's several points that Heller raises or makes that are worth noting.
The first is the extent to which the online videos are shot, using 8 cameras (p. 72),  and edited to create what is an almost entirely different experience from physically attending the event. This is not necessarily any different than the dichotomy between attending a professional sporting event and watching it on TV. The screen offers a much closer, if not better, view of the field in a very dynamic, almost constantly changing series of views that the producer feels best exemplifies the action on the playing surface. The video viewer benefits though from the dynamic views that the changing camera angles offer in a way that the physical attendee does not. However, physically attending allows one to be physically present, "I was there" for the event which grants a particular status (bragging rights) to the observer. I wonder if the TED talks would not be as successful w/o the audience just as the excitement/deflation of the observing physical crowd drives excitement levels at sporting events. The presence of the audience responding enthusiastically is necessary, note the reference to "more than half of Long Beach talks end in standing ovations" (p. 74). I would suggest that the audience response drives the emotional connection on the part of the viewer. Malcolm Gladwell's talk on spaghetti sauce or Ken Robinson's talk on education lack certain poignancy w/o the audience to respond in real-time.
Knowing that the edited versions are streamlined versions of what actually happens in a TED Talk raises, in my mind, some questions of what the purpose of the TED talk is. In conjunction with the editing is the inclusion of narrative over stats/data. Stories are way more interesting than graphs, hands-down. But stories can be left as vehicles unto themselves which is somewhat dangerous because the narrative emotional effect can reduce the story to a emotionally moving moment. Back to this in a second. Robert Krulwich delivered a commencement speech at Columbia University back in 2008 which the Radiolab podcast offered up as a short entitled Tell Me a Story. This is one of my favorite speeches as Krulwich makes an incredible simple argument for the discussion, in this case, of science as story. It's brilliant. He's addressing a rang of incredibly bright science students who are going to go home and when their relatives ask what they've been doing for the past four/five years and what are they going to do now, Krulwich suggests some sort of story to explain the fairly complex scientific thing that the students have been/will be working on. Not because the relatives are dumb but because well-told, well-formulated stories clarify where esoteric language. Krulwich's point being that if these graduates really want to help people get science they need to tell quality stories about that science to help the listeners connect with the ideas.
Which is probably what the point of the TED talk is, particularly the video version. It's a story that the viewer is supposed to connect with. But to do what? Feel good, make a change, submit their own application for a TED talk, play around with TEDEd to make their own version? What's the point of TED? Is it simply edu/infotainment or something more? Does it kick back to the Enlightenment principles of humanism and the cheering-on of what we have accomplished?
I think Heller addresses the most poignant, if unintentional, point of TED, as it currently stands.
"The TED talk is today a sentimental form. Once, searching for transport, people might have read Charles Dickens, rushed the dance floor, watched the Oscars, biked Mount Tamalpais, put on Rachmaninoff, put on the Smiths, played Frisbee, poured wine until someone started reciting "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond." Now there is TED. "I got all inspired and my hair stood on end and I got weepy-like and energized and enthused," wrote a participant in an online TED-discussion forum. (The talk that brought on such delirium was about education.) Debby Ruth, a Long Beach attendee, told me that she started going to TED after reaching a point in her life when "nothing excited me anymore"; she returns now for a yearly fix. TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel." (p. 73) (emphasis mine)
Perhaps the true contribution of the TED Talks is an excitement about ideas. Exiting ideas are good. Isaiah Berlin once stated that "an intellectual is a person who wants ideas to be as interesting as possible." I'm not convinced, however, that the goal of TED is an excitement about how interesting ideas can be, as opposed to a repackaging of that idea in an easily palatable, bite-sized tidbit. There is/can be a place for this type of interaction of ideas but the plastic-wrapped emotionalism of an exciting idea should not replace the messiness and struggling that a truly interesting idea requires.

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