We need to talk about TED

TED Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 23.14.54v564

TED is huge, and hugely important. But over the space of a few recent weeks, the most coveted positions on the TED website have featured a US general, a US army captain, and a photojournalist who had been embedded with the US military. What happens if people get this new message from TED, that there is a single story being promoted that aligns with the Western military?


TED – an acronym for ‘technology’, ‘entertainment’, ‘design’ – has become enormously successful. Its main video feed, at ted.com, is updated every weekday with a new talk given by an expert in one of a myriad fields. For those of us interested in skepticism, its focus on research and evidence, combined with its huge audiences, is what makes TED so important.

Most TED talks are fascinating and inspiring. They deal with science and society, design, life, imagination, and there are very engaging sorties into the arts. I particularly like the TED videos I can share with my 11- and 9-year-olds – because it’s so important for all of us to be curious about the present and fascinated by our potential futures.

Recently, though, a serious issue has arisen within TED. It is possibly more visible to someone like myself, living in Dublin, than to someone in the US, TED’s home. I have already written about the problem in an article titled “Maybe you aren’t that much of a human – TED and the Western military.”  Here are just four recent indicators, taken from the main video feed, which is the most public face of TED:

Screen shot of the main TED video feed, 27 May 2014 at 18:50:47
Screen shot of the main TED video feed, 27 May 2014 at 18:50:47

The message is in what’s selected: For a week during May / June 2014, two of the seven videos on the home page of TED were titled “How to talk to veterans about the war” and “Why veterans miss war” (see screen shot above). In both cases, ‘veterans’ meant US personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The call to identify: The first of the talks just mentioned, “How to talk to veterans about the war,” was by a US army captain. He ends with:

“We signed up because we love this country we represent. We signed up because we believe in the idea and we believe in the people to our left and to our right. And the only thing we then ask is that “thank you for your service” needs to be more than just a quote break, that “thank you for your service” means honestly digging in to the people who have stepped up simply because they were asked to, and what that means for us not just now, not just during combat operations, but long after the last vehicle has left and after the last shot has been taken…These are the people who I served with, and these are the people who I honor. So thank you for your service.”

Stirring words, but also a call for the viewer to identify with one side – indeed, with one subset of one side, veterans – in armed conflicts the US is engaged in. It’s OK to do this on the TED stage.

Simon Sinek delivering his TED talk, “Why good leaders make you feel safe”; screen shot taken 2 June 2014 at 18:55:55
Simon Sinek delivering his TED talk, “Why good leaders make you feel safe”; screen shot

The military becomes a natural point of reference: A talk by a management theorist on leadership (“Why good leaders make you feel safe” by Simon Sinek, posted to the main feed towards the end of May 2014; see screen shot above) begins and ends with stories of bravery and sharing by US soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere. First sentence: “There’s a man by the name of Captain William Swenson who recently was awarded the congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009.”

The third video-feed screen on 27 May 2014 at 18:51:42. Stanley McChrystal, top-left, is a general in US intelligence.
The third TED video-feed screen on 27 May 2014 at 18:51:42. Stanley McChrystal, top-left, is a general in US intelligence.

Endorsed by TED: Posted earlier in May 2014 was a talk by Stanley McChrystal, a general in the US army (see screen shot above). He was described in TED’s intro as someone with “a remarkable record of achievement.”

To summarise, over the space of a few recent weeks, the most coveted positions on the TED website featured a US general, a US army captain, and a photojournalist who had been embedded with the US military. This is a message in itself. In my article I cite other cases, most of them recent, that I find problematic, and I go into the evidence in more detail. The first part of the title of the article itself, “Maybe you aren’t that much of a human,” is based on my realisation that for TED, going on the evidence of its main feed, the only victims of war are US soldiers returning home. PTSD and physical injury are indeed a terrible burden. But everyone else, it seems, can’t be that much of a victim of war. I stated in the article that “The current message from TED, apparently, is that if you’re not American, you can’t really be that much of a victim (but maybe you weren’t that much of a human either).”

Recently, when talks touch on conflicts in which the US is involved, the message at TED is a single story that dovetails with the aims of the Western military. But:

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the past structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali’. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another’. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali – how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”

This is from a  2009 TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The danger of a single story.” It is in TED’s playlist called “11 must-see TED Talks.” [transcribed by me from the video] Has the story at TED become dependent on power?

The reasons we should care about TED are, first, that it promotes science and critical thinking; second, that it is often brilliant; and third, that it has become so successful. 227 TEDx events took place in May of this year alone, and to date over 10,000 TED events have taken place (most of them ‘TEDx’ events). TED can reach a huge number of people. But what happens if those people get the extra message from many of TED’s recent main-feed talks – that there is a single story being promoted that aligns with the Western military? Many will turn away and seek out other sources of information. Those sources may be hostile not just to science and thinking, but to the ideas and freedoms that are everyone’s right.

This present article is a plea for skeptics in Ireland – and elsewhere – to try to get across to TED and others the dangers of TED’s current direction.

I imagine it is relatively easy for TED’s many viewers, particularly in the US, not to see what is happening at TED because this single story is woven into US culture at large. TED itself cannot be let off the hook. Either TED is not smart enough to see what it is doing, or what it is doing is deliberate – and we know that TED is the smartest of the smart.


Peter FitzGerald is a Dublin-based ex-researcher in Psychology, ex-editor, artist, and computer programmer since forever. He runs iCulture.

 

 

We need to talk about TED