Benjamin Bratton’s criticism underestimates the value of TED Talks: Absence of action does not diminish the power of ideas

By ELIZABETH EXTON ’17

Contributing Writer

Numerous institutions throughout the world host TEDTalks, diverse conferences where speakers introduce their innovations or share thoughts made to inspire critical thinking.  Despite the popularity of these talks, visual arts professor Benjamin Bratton bashed them in a recent TED talk, saying “TED Talks do not work.”

Initially, Bratton was going to talk about his research and his new book; however, he used the opportunity to share his thoughts on TED talks’ effectiveness. While his honesty is commendable and helps to generate discussion about how TED can make the most out of its platform, he clearly misunderstands TED’s purpose.

TED, or Technology, Entertainment, Design, is based on the “power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.” Words of motivational speakers can inspire important discussions and spark movements. Bratton, though, looks upon TED’s states purpose and interprets it as “If we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change.” Does he really think that these lecturers give talks thinking they are going to cure cancer or end world hunger? People do want to solve major problems, including world hunger and cancer, but they do so through giving advice, promoting growth and ultimately leading others.

For example, Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor, gave a TED talk titled “Your body language shapes who you are,” in which she talked about how people’s postures can affect how others view them. Her ultimate advice is that “you have to fake it until you make it.” A person might be shy and not have much self-confidence, but Cuddy convinces these people that they need to believe the opposite. Stand tall, smile and think you are the most powerful person in the room. Employers and others will be naturally more attracted to you. Scientific studies show that smiling makes you happier.

Cuddy wants her words to encourage those who hide themselves to come out of their shells to contribute their intelligent and wonderful ideas. Bratton may not define this as changing the world, but Cuddy’s words can change people’s lives by letting them know that their words are just as important as hers.

Bratton’s argument that TED has “too much faith in technology and not enough commitment to it” delves into a different topic. He questions how many technological projects proposed at TEDTalks actually get completed.

True, there are a lot of projects that have not been accomplished, but Bratton assumes that these projects don’t get accomplished because these project ideas are proposed just to entertain the audience. This supposition sadly neglects the fact that such projects take years to accomplish. Previous TED speakers such as Ed Boyden, who proposed a “light switch for neurons,” and Jack Andraka, who introduced a promising new way of screening for pancreatic cancer, both presented projects that require ongoing research, but TED realizes that Andraka and Boyden have dreams embedded in their innovations.

People’s new ideas might not be successful, but faith is important to bringing about success. The famous story of Thomas Edison failing to create a working lightbulb over 1,000 times before finally inventing one that worked validates this. TED commits to supporting a plethora of ideas but of course cannot guarantee the success of these ideas.

Bratton also made the assumption that TED doesn’t want to tackle hard issues. For example, the innovation of robots performing surgeries may seem amazing, but according to Bratton, TED is not willing to address that this innovation would also put people out of work. He says that TED needs to focus more on the “immunization of these innovations,” or presenting technology’s harmful side effects to prevent these harms from emerging. According to Bratton, TED obscures the public’s views on technology by only presenting its positive side.

In saying this, Bratton assumed that these TED Talks are purposely used as business pitches for benefactors in the audience and that TED is afraid of losing funding. TED obviously is not concerned with losing funding, and does not try to advance specific one-sided viewpoints. On the contrary, TED put Bratton’s talk on its YouTube page, garnering over 250,000 views.

Finally Bratton claimed that TED maintains a “keep calm and carry on” sentiment, but he clearly missed the point that TED encourages dialogue among people, believing that exploration of ideas can change the world. TEDTalks provide a forum for people to give advice to others. Dreams, creativity and curiosity have the power to revamp society. Through these talks, audience members are able to help the presenter in developing his or her innovations by sharing new ideas. While TED can improve, Bratton’s belief that “TED does not work,” ignores TED’s true mission.

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