TED as a genre, but for who?

As some might know TED, the popular technological innovation and inspirational speech-think-tank, is coming to Vancouver. TED will move from Long Beach, California to bring their popular conference to Vancouver for two years. As the Vancouver Sun has said this is a huge economic boon for the city. Where else do you have 1,200 of the smartest and brightest people in the world congregate in one city for a week? Not only will these people spend their money on restaurants and hotels, but they (the smartest in their respective fields) will share ideas and strategies to solve and address some of the world’s countless problems. Not only is that a good thing for society, but as a viewer TED talks are immensely pleasurable to watch. They open our minds to new ideas to new problems that we didn’t even know existed. Also our very own astronaut Chris Hadfield will be there! And Bill Gates !!!!

However, spurred by this article, I want to challenge and explore the idea of TED as an elitist form of narrative that favours the wealthy, the white, or those who try to be. If this may seem like a big jump for you, let me back peddle a little and show you my framework before proceeding on.

The article linked above talks about how TED 2014 is not a conference for you in me even thought it is happening in our city. Unlike the popular TEDx events which are local based talks, this conference is an international one with no direct connections to the city. Most participants will be from the USA. While yes they will live stream the talks all across the city, it would have been nicer to have been able to actually engage with these smart people because low and behold one of us may have an idea worth spreading (see what I did there). If brains didn’t stop you from apply to go to TED than the price tag surely did. It costs $7,500 for an exclusive TED2014, not to mention the essay as well. A final observation I’ve made from TED is the speaker line up for the week. To put it bluntly if you don’t fall into the categories or white or rich you won’t be a speaker at TED. Most of the speakers are white people and the people who aren’t are usually rich. This is particularly evident by the opening day lineup which consist entirely of white guys.

So what do these observations mean to my original point of TED being an exclusive genre that only a few of access to. The fact that the only way of engaging with the speakers is of a role of being a viewer indicates to me that it is an exclusive genre. A genre where the privileged of the world (weather that be in gender, “race,” or class) tout to us their great ideas. The mission statement of TED is:

TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. On TED.com, we’re building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers — and a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other, both online and at TED and TEDx events around the world, all year long.

As we have seen their “community of curious souls” are not us regular folk but those who cater to the privileges western societies idealize. I’d like to cite the case of William Kamkwamba. He is a rare example of someone from a “poor” country delivering a TED talk. Additionally he is highlighted because he is returning to TED 2014 in the “All Stars” category to give another talk. His original talk “How I harnessed the wind” was about how he was able invented a wind turbine in his village to generate electricity for the struggling community, thereby liberating them from their internal poverty. As one of the only African people to be featured at TED 2014 and in the “All Stars Panel,” it is interesting to understand how his story completely coincides with the western theme of triumph where he is able to overcome his struggles and becomes empowered. We can see that while yes he is different in the TED lineup because of his origins, his life narrative completely compliments western values. So in his case we can see how he is tokenized to be representative of the West in Africa and as a way for TED to pat itself on the back for including a person of colour in their very white lineup. We can connect this idea to Jewani and Young in their discussion of “Zones of Degeneracy” and “Zones of Respectability”(900) where the dominant force seeks to bring degenerate bodies (in this case black bodies) into the zones of respectability by emphasizing their “virtuous” characteristics (in this case the fact that he is an innovator- a very western value). By excluding different people and people with different ideas TED is not living up to it’s mandate.

In summary, because of the lack of participation, emphasis on wealth, and lack of diversity (and when it is there it isn’t that diverse) I believe that TED has become a genre of elitism that excludes everyone else except the top 1,200 of the world from discussing world ideas.

I’d like to provide a counter narrative to TED which is the BIL “unconference” where regular people sign up the day of to give talks. It is completely free event which actually encourages people from various groups to participate. It follows TED around the world to give participants an alternative from the top down “TED Talk.”

So comment bellow. Do you think TED is an elitist convention why or why not?

3 thoughts on “TED as a genre, but for who?

  1. Hey Niklas,

    What a fun read! I have never really put much thought into TED being an “elitist” convention because I didn’t have any other type of conference to compare to. It seems as though TED is world renown, and depended on as a trusted source of information. It is crazy to think that throughout the years of high school and now university that almost every teacher/professor will share a TED video to their class at some point. It is interesting to think that TED has no competition… just like the Google search engine there is no comparison. So I think you bring up a great point in which we the audience/consumer do not realize that the lectures TED feeds us may in fact have strong western influence that is imposing itself on global scale. Maybe it it elitist, or perhaps within its own category or genre its the only type of its kind and there is little room for other types of conferences or TEDs to emerge to provide different perspectives. Super interesting!

  2. This brings me back to 11th grade watching TED talks in my English class! I remember thinking they were all so smart and “with it” with their elevated diction and next-level powerpoints. I thought nothing of their privilege or the esteem they already possessed to be able to be there, wherever the TED was, spewing knowledge. I can remember only 3 of the 12+ TED talks we watched that year, and of the 3 of them only one appeared to not com from an academic background: it was about food desserts and localized food production. What does this say? Well, aside from being people of an elite community, is it valid to assume their subject matter is also elitist and is tied to a higher degree of research and presentation? Yes, the accumulation of decades of data and its transformation into a super-prezi is impressive and necessary for academia, but what about addressing issues that exist beyond that, globally even? TED caters to a privileged community, but does that have to mean that their subject matter must be equally narrow?

  3. Hey Niklas,
    I really liked how you brought this issue to light. I would like to connect your ideas to what we have learned in Geography. When I heard that the TED conference were coming to Vancouver, I was very excited. Not the fact that the conference was actually happening in Vancouver, but the fact that Vancouver had been chosen (and within Canada, it being chosen instead of Toronto,Vancouver’s all time rival, made it even more triumphant..sorry Niklas haha) It felt as if Vancouver was finally recognized as a World City; what Dr. Edgington and Dr. Ley consider as the rich cities in the world which shape global flows. But the fact that TED Talks particularly evoked this patriotism is something to look at. As you outlined, the TED Talk is an elitist convention and I completely agree. And thus, to be recognized, and identify as a World City; to have the power to influence the ideas of the world, we still need elitism and dominance. While many speakers discuss about world issues such as poverty and inequality in the world, I imagine what participation in the TED Talks does is in fact reinforces the inequality and marginalization of minorities and those with less economic power.
    Although TED tries to be a “global community”, like you mention, the speakers are still “complimenting” and reinforcing “western values”, and which I believe it confirms the idea that to be recognized and make an impact in the world, we still need to abide by the values of the West. (Sorry for the long post!)

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