TED: A virus worth spreading – THIS IS NOT A TEST #27 (transcript)

Published June 27, 2015

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It must be summer, because that horrible time and soul sucking trainwreck known as Big Brother showed up on my TV the other night. It didn’t show up uninvited, no, I look forward to it, as lame and cheesy and reality TV hokey as it is. because you can slap whatever you’d like on top of it, but at its core it’s still about a little group of people trying to survive by any means necessary. They don’t have anything at their disposal but their wits, so surviving means manipulating and plotting a multi-level strategy made up of moving parts that can unravel or disappear or explode at any time. It’s just people, sitting around figuring out how to get over on each other and I find that fascinating. Anything that shows human behavior, even in completely unnatural environments, I’m there. You got me. I’m a sucker for it. And you can see live cameras in the “house” 24 hours a day, which is where it can start to take over and ruin your summer. Hours every week down the drain, up until 3 a.m. because two people are talking alone in a room and you have to hear what they’re saying. That’s where the real show, the real experiment takes place. Not on the 2 or 3 hours they put on TV every week.

Are you laughing right now? At me? How dare you. Oh, you go camping in the summer? And hiking and to Mount Rushmore and Gettysburg and Dollywood? That’s lovely. It’s too hot to camp here in the summer. Summer is dead time. It’s perfect time to waste on TV. I get it, I remember being 10 years old and looking forward to summer, because school wasn’t where it was at, and summer was awesome. Yeah, I remember, but I’m not 10 years old anymore, and neither are you. Stop the frantic chase, the sad quest for “fun” all summer. Relax. You know, when you’re 80 years old and your ungrateful children are wheeling you around and feeding you cat food you aren’t going to fondly remember the time you drove across seven states and wrestled an alligator in each one. Forget fondly remembering it, you aren’t going to remember it at all, so why do it now. stay off the road. put that stupid four wheel big tire thing back into your second garage and lay down for a while. It’s summer, big deal. It’s just like any other three months of the year, only hotter. Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who think 80 degrees and blazing sun is “nice” weather. “Oh it’s so nice this weekend, we should go camping!”

Okay. TED – capital T, capital E, capital D – it stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. You’ve seen at least one video of a TED talk, they are everywhere. If you’ve seen more than one you might have thought, hmm, those felt pretty similar, no matter what was being talked about. That’s because the TED talk has become a weird little parody of itself, and everyone who gives one feels obligated to fit in to the TED mold. But if you haven’t ever seen a TED video and you don’t know what I’m talking about, TED is a conference. The first TED was put on by an architect in 1984, and it featured things like demonstrations of the first compact discs and Macintosh computer. And I suppose at that time it did seem like the worlds of technology, entertainment and design were converging and we were about to start something new. We did, sort of, and in 1990 they decided to make TED an annual thing. Now 25 years later TED is a big brand. Your mom links to TED talks on Facebook. They make her feel good.

If you wanted to sum up TED, the TEDdies would say that TED is all about “the power of ideas.” Well that’s a grand and noble thing. What TED is really is a conference, and I’ve talked about what conferences are around here before. They are little vacations for people with expense accounts. But you can feel good about going to TED, because TED is all about feeling good. Every TED talk is meant to make you feel like you’re a good person doing – or capable of doing – really good things. Everyone leaves TED feeling wonderful and inspired and superior. Well they probably feel that way walking in the door. Because you can’t just go to TED. TED has to want you. A few years ago I was sitting around with the vice president of the company I work for and we were talking about conferences that we had to go to that year and I said, “We should go to TED.” He thought that was a smashing idea so we looked it up. He said, “Oh man, tickets are $6,000,” but we decided that it would be worth it because TED is awesome, and it used to be held in our back yard, down in Long Beach and out in Palm Springs, so there wouldn’t be much in the way of travel expenses. So we dug a little deeper and found out that you had to be a member of TED to go to TED, and there was a two year waiting list for membership. And after that two years if you applied and they didn’t like the cut of your jib or the shape of your eyeglasses, no TED for you. So you can’t just join, you have to be accepted. So it probably goes without saying that I didn’t go to TED that year or any other year.

And that TED is elitist probably goes without saying too. TED is “the power of ideas” for rich people, apparently. But that’s not really the case either, since they put video of every TED talk up on line. Someone loves TED talks so much that they started and maintain a Google spreadsheet with every TED talk listed and described, with links to the videos – over 2,000 of them. I’ll post a link to it, you have to see it. But as anyone who goes to a conference for anything will tell you, all the action happens outside of the talks. That’s where you make connections and do all of the real conferencing. And most of that happens in or around a bar of some kind. But back to the talks, pretty much every TED talk you’ll ever hear follows the same formula. The speaker introduces themselves to you in some jokey, self-deprecating way, then talks about some horrible tragedy or conflict. Then they give you the “ah-ha” light bulb over the head moment when they figured out the answer to everything, which made them a better person, and they sum that revelation up in a catchy little tag line and repeat it over and over, and then the thing ends with the strong suggestion that now that you’ve heard this story/problem/solution you are a better person too.

If the speeches – sorry, talks, people don’t give speeches at TED – all followed that formula but the speakers were all unique that would be okay, but the problem is they are quite the opposite of unique. In fact, it appears as if every one of them has been indoctrinated and trained on how to behave and come across during their TED talk. They all use the same rhythm, the same cadence, the same patronizing audience manipulation. Which is why you can watch a TED talk and think, “That was great,” then watch another one and think, “Okay, that was great too,” but if you keep going and watch 20 TED talks, you’re either going to go jump off a cliff or ask yourself, “Are these people clones?” After a while they’re almost comical. You can predict what’s going to happen. No matter who is speaking and no matter what they’re speaking about. Listen though, it’s really not TED’s fault. Anything that goes on for two decades is bound to become a parody of itself eventually. Conferences, bands, TV shows, it’s just the way repetitive things go. Look at Comic-Con or the Rolling Stones. People still go to those things. And people still go to TED. They still love it and are inspired by it.

Inspired. Inspired to do what, I wonder? I wonder how many people walk out of TED and go quit their jobs and strap a tent to the top of their dune buggy and head out of town, inspired to help people. I can tell you how many: none. because if you quit your cool tech job they’d kick you out of TED and you wouldn’t be able to go next year. But yeah, inspiration. “I want to inspire people,” you hear that all the time. Everyone wants to inspire other people. But setting out to be inspirational is kind of like saying, “I’m going to go be president now.” That’s not how it works. You don’t become inspirational just because you want to. But no one thinks saying, “I want to inspire people” – you know, as your job – is insane anymore because they all want to do it. Everyone’s going to be an inspiration. It’s going to be great man, there won’t be any more problems in the world. Well, there will still be one problem, and that will be finding people to inspire. “Hey, hi, how are you, I want to inspire and delight you today!” “Oh, you do? But I was about to say the same thing to you! LOL LOL LOL!” “How about that girl over there? Let’s go inspire her together…hi!” “Oh, hi guys, hey, do you have a minute? I want to tell about what I did last summer and how you can make 300 children in the Sudan smarter and safer!” That’s right. That’s how it’s going to be. You didn’t think about that, did you? You figured you would be inspirational and everyone else would still be regular schlubs. Uh uh, no, everyone is going to be inspirational. You’re going to have to go to Ukraine or the south pole to spread your inspiration. Unless, you know, there’s already a TEDx happening at the south pole.

Yeah, TEDx. Like anything that’s sufficiently successful and long-lasting, TED has branched out. Now they have TED Global and Ted’s distant cousin, TEDx. TEDx is people who want to be part of TED, but can’t, so they organize a meeting somewhere near them, get a licence from TED and viola! a new TEDx conference is born. If that sounds ridiculous, get this: almost 10 new TEDx events are planned or scheduled every day. Some of the big city TEDx things are pretty close in style and substance to the real TED, but since almost anyone can throw a TEDx bash, some of them are less than stellar. The Southern Kentucky Disabled Former Lesbians TEDx is going to be a little sad, that’s inevitable. And I just made that up, but if you looked you’d probably find a TEDx conference that’s pretty close to that. Not long ago I saw a video of one of these tiny regional TEDx talks and it was just sad. Watching people behaving as if they’re onstage at the real TED when they’re really in a room with 20 people in it and TEDx written on a whiteboard behind them – it just makes you feel sorry for them.

But the big TED conference videos, I think they are what gave an entire generation of kids the idea that design changes the world. Every 25 year old with a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud that they stole from the company they do freelance work for believes they are engaged in a noble pursuit that will make the world awesome. Really they’re designing websites and DJ flyers and takeout menus, but they are designers and they are totally changing the world by making that takeout menu so beautiful. Look at that font. You’ve never seen a font like that on a takeout menu – it’s revolutionary! But these kids are the spawn of TED. They are mainly privileged and their world of $10 letterpressed notecards and wearing rain boots in the office all day because they look so cool is the only world they are improving, and unfortunately it’s the only world most of them are interested in improving. Plenty of TED speakers talk about world issues and making things better for big parts of the world who don’t know or care what TED is and who have never seen a video, let alone a TED video, but when it’s all said and done it all seems a little bit colonial to me. Like the Spaniards giving the Indians Jesus and smallpox blankets.

I’m not saying to the kids, “Hey kids, you can’t change the world,” that’s not true, you can. But you have to take your head out of your own ass first, and stop taking selfies and masturbating in front of mirrors. If you want to change the world, change your world first. Then start changing the world around you. Real close to you. Work your way out from there. Be patient and persistent and one day you’ll be on stage at TED and everyone will love you. Did you know that is some people’s main goal in life, to give a TED talk? There’s a guy I’ve seen speak at a certain conference, a good guy and a decent speaker, but he’s obsessed with speaking at TED. He never will, I can see that, anyone can see that, but it’s something that he is planning for and preparing for and working toward. He’s writing about the “road to the most important speech of his life” and it’s sort of pathetic. Because if TED won’t even let you sit in the audience unless you pass muster, I imagine the speakers don’t just shoot an email to TED and say, “Hey, what’s up, I want to give a talk.” They have to find you, and they aren’t going to find you. And really, you don’t want them to. TED is a cult. Seriously, look at it. TED is the only path to knowledge, to awakening, to fulfillment! Okay, maybe it isn’t a cult. But it feels like a cult to me.

“Oh mjp, how can you say those things about TED! You’re just grudging and throwing shade because they wouldn’t let you in!” Maybe. Maybe that’s it. Maybe everything in the world that I’m critical of I’m really secretly jealous of. Yeah, maybe that’s it. I wouldn’t go to TED now if they gave me one of the $8,000 tickets. Yeah I know I said six grand before, but that was years ago. Now it’s more than $8,000. And I wouldn’t go to watch those robots make their robotic speeches. Fuck you TED, I just called them speeches! I’d rather lay on the floor and watch the Big Bother live feeds while my dog licks ice cream off my nose. How did ice cream get on my nose? I don’t know! But I’ll learn more watching that. I’ll be more entertained watching that, because at least those people aren’t following a script and pretending they like me. So I won’t go to TED to watch the speeches, but I will go to TED when they invite me to speak. And I think that’s right around the corner. I can feel it. In fact, I submit this episode of this podcast as my TED speech draft. And since a TED speech has to be 18 minutes, I guess this is all I have time to say.

Arrivaderci my peppered monkeys, my 18 minutes are up! Hey, next time we won’t have to work within the constraints of TED, I promise. Next time we’ll be free and do whatever we want and it won’t be inspirational or delightful. It will just be whatever this usually is.


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