I just watched the new PBS Special TED Talks Education, and it’s made me wonder if the TED phenomenon has, perhaps, gone as far as it can go.
In many respects, the growth of TED has mirrored our own growing interest in, well, ourselves. Although it technically started in 1984, TED didn’t really find its sea legs until the annual conference format began in 1990. And it didn’t really take off until it started posting videos of its talks online, in 2006.
One of those early videos introduced the world to a funny and insightful Englishman named Sir Ken Robinson. Ken’s clarity of thought, his humor, and his looseness combined to give us an emotionally powerful indictment of the Industrial model of schooling. The strength of that talk has turned Ken, rightly, into a global phenomenon (full disclosure: he’s a good friend).
But here’s the thing: when Ken was addressing that conference hall back in 2006, he wasn’t angling for a book deal. He had no illusions that his words might someday be played in small villages in Kenya, or across the giant television screens of Times Square. He was merely trying to share, in the spirit of TED’s founding, an idea worth spreading. And he did.
The problem is that now, anyone that gives a TED talk (further disclosure: I’ve given two) has in the back of their mind that they might become the next big thing. This has led to a flaw in most new talks — call it the Curse of Over-Curation. Every slide, every sentence, is rehearsed and revised to such a point that no room is left over for spontaneity and wit — the very things that made Ken’s first talk so powerful. As a result, shows like TED Talks Education feel less like a platform for ideas worth spreading, and more like the stage of a new reality show competition in which contestants are competing against each other to give the most inspiring speech.
When you think about it, that makes sense. After all, TED’s rise has coincided with the rise of reality television, and the lionization of the everyman celebrity. Survivor got the ball rolling in 2000. But the peak/nadir of the format began the same year Ken gave his famous talk — 2006 — with the debut of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County (now in its 8th season).
Now there are as many reality shows, with folks like you and me, as there are scripted ones, with folks very unlike you and me. Photographs of Snooki and Kim Kardashian are as important to Us Magazine as shots of Gwyneth Paltrow or Tom Cruise. And our society’s insatiable lust for celebrity has penetrated everything from teen motherhood to old celebrities wanting to recapture the glory of a time when everybody knew their name (no matter the cost).
Perhaps the format of this particular show — a special on Education — underscored the evanescence and incongruity of TED’s “sage on the stage” format. After all, we know a lot now about how people learn best (actively) and how problems best get solved (by groups, not individuals). Is giving a select group of people eighteen minutes to wow us with their presentation skills — and making the rest of us sit silently in the shadows — really the change we seek?
TED was a major player in expanding our collective sense of possibility, in elevating the power of ideas, and in providing people a platform to build and sustain an audience for their work. In its current form, it had a great run. And now it’s time for a reboot.
(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)