TED is kind of a big deal these days. The format is pretty simple, you get X amount of time to talk (from 5 to 18 minutes I believe, depending on the event and venue), you have to beat out other presenters to get that space, you have an audience, they film it, and you may or may not become an internet sensation because you were so brilliant in your concise and exciting presentation. It costs money to sit in the audience, and those on the stage are very “staged” – very rehearsed, made up, props ready, everything just so so that the spotlight is on whatever edutainment is about to knock our socks off. Well, sit down, there is a rumble of discontent among those following TED talks.
Nick Hanauer is a venture capitalist that did a short TED talk which can be found here. His man point was that taxing the rich benefits most people in a society (including the rich), and that the meme of the rich as “job creators” is completely false, it belongs to the buying power of the middle class. This idea isn’t brand spankin’ new, but it is short and simple to understand. News organizations in the MSM pick up Frank Luntz’s “job creator” meme and attach it to the wealthy without skipping a beat. It is refreshing to have someone call out this new invented and presumed correct term, and actually call it into question – something our daily news rarely does. Hanauer didn’t just call out the term “job creator” as being attributed to the wrong class of people, he also called out the language – “creator”. I agree with Hanauer, the word “creator” is in there for a very real reason – it harkens to the Creator and gives a nod to the wealthy class that they are god like or god approved, in their benevolence to the rest of us.
TED curator, Chris Anderson, apparently did not like the talk and did not choose to post it online. Nick Hanauer was quite disappointed and has cried, “censorship”. Because of the hubub created over the internet about this video, Anderson has decided to post the video and explain himself. Here are a couple of snips posted on nationaljournal.com, from the TED curator in an email to Hanauer about why his speech wasn’t chosen:
“An ordinary consumer is more of a job creator than a capitalist.” …really? as an ex entrepreneur who agrees with your overall stance, I don’t think that statement is literally true. There are numerous jobs that exist because of the imagination, energy and risk-taking of individual capitalists or entrepreneurs such as you. An typical ordinary consumer might on average contribute to the creation of one job (but probably not more than one, because the numbers don’t then add up.)…
But even if the talk was rated a home run, we couldn’t release it, because it would be unquestionably regarded as out and out political. We’re in the middle of an election year in the US. Your argument comes down firmly on the side of one party. And you even reference that at the start of the talk. TED is nonpartisan and is fighting a constant battle with TEDx organizers to respect that principle.
So the reasoning behind the choice to not post is pretty mixed up. In the first quote, it is clear that Anderson personally has an issue with the content of the talk. He refers to the ratings that the audience gave the talk as “mediocre” (even though audience response on film seems enthusiastic). He also makes the argument that the talk is too partisan in an election year (even though in the speech, he accuses Repubs and Dems of falling into the same “job creator” meme). Perhaps Anderson shouldn’t have defended his decision because his logic of defense, undermines the point he is trying to make. More importantly, it has really called out the elitism of TED and the demarcation line between the masses and the privileged few who get to #1 present at TED talks through whatever insider mechanisms, #2 attend TED talks through considerable personal spending money and/or commercial backing, #3 utilize the ideas at TED talks.
One of the earlier TED talks I saw online was about Aimee Mullins, a double amputee that did a talk a while back about people’s perceptions of amputees and prosthetics. Aimee seems to be doing quite well. She had her legs amputated at the age of one due to a birth defect, and is quite nimble and athletic on her prosthetics. She has lots of stories of breaking through the cultural stigma of being an amputee, no doubt her life has had unique challenges, but also no doubt that her white color, blond hair, conventional beauty, athletic prowess, and access to great
health care prosthetics (so that she “passes” as a “normal”) helps her. While I congratulate Aimee for her success and even applaud her work at getting the prosthetic industry to step up to the task of making better prosthetics, watching her on stage does not give me warm fuzzies.
Aimee’s talk makes me think of all of the other amputees I’ve seen in my life. I’m sure that some have been walking around without my knowledge that they are amputees, but I’ve seen many that have nothing but stumps and old wheelchairs. Diabetes makes for a lot of amputees – especially those too poor to live near healthy food systems or too uninformed about the role diet plays in their health, many more amputations happen because of a lack of health care and early intervention on preventable ailments, still more happen due to work related injuries that are not covered or compensated for.
Aimee is an elite athlete. After her TED talk she became a model, an actress, an author, a motivational speaker, and she’s had companies clamoring to give her the niftiest prosthetics in existence. Again, congratulations to Aimee, but it is hard to see how she has furthered society in terms of getting good ideas to needy people. I see a pile of prosthetics going where she goes- she can decide on a pair of legs based on her outfit choice, height desired, even species she wants to mimic (like cheetah) – and I can’t help but think of families that cannot afford even one prosthesis, or even the co-pay for one prosthesis. The truest part of Aimee’s recent talk here, is the line where she says, “Lucky for me…”.
TED is elite that way. It is ultimately about widgets – and the brilliant ideas you can have when you have the luxury of money and time to spend contemplating niftier widgets. If ideas that cross political boundaries, that encroach on the real world that the masses live in real time, then it’s time to just call a spade a spade and quit pretending that the ideas are for everyone. Until these nifty widgets start addressing the broader impact of the desperate needs of human kind, you can expect more push back like that of Nick Hanauer and those that want to hear what he has to say. Ignoring the elephant in the room (ok, pun intended) of income disparity and our national moral ethic will not make the issue go away.
Just as Chris Anderson has a right to curate (whether that includes “censoring” I’ll leave to your own discretion), Hanauer has the right to make the fuss that he made. He has a right to associate himself, make plans, and stand up for what he wants. I find it very interesting that two winners of the capitalist game – two pseudo deities as is defined by Hanauer in his talk – are vying for position and not accustomed to backing down – and not liking it because their normal god-like control is in question. A venture capitalist is having a marketplace-of-ideas struggle with someone who is capitalizing on the marketplace of ideas. Ironically the venture capitalist is on the side of the masses and is perhaps quite shocked at the common treatment – the elitist rhetoric – he received.
TED could be a venue for greatness, right now the greatness is still mostly measured in stuff. Even if the emphasis is not on stuff, the implications or grease for the machine is mired in privilege, money, status, celebrity, consumption, and widget creation – all the same old mechanisms that keep the privileged TED supporters safely cradled in their familiar surroundings. There are non-commercial ideas, but even talks that espouse the usefullness of a year’s sabbatical are – let’s face it – for a privileged few in our society, and presume that you are in a class that can take a year off without pay.
The concept of TED is a bit sanctimonious, the speakers are instantly elevated to “expert” or “celebrity” status, and TED is all about buzz. Whether these ideas are hurtful or helpful to society at large is left up to a very human, subjective person. It smacks of the anointed giving their blessings on the newly anointed. When the ideas are more socially connected to other classes and don’t use up additional precious resources, the ideas have better and more widely inspirational staying power.
Good for Hannauer I say. We need to hear opinions that question our memes; terms like “job creators” really do stick in the national psyche. Poor form for Anderson: his lack of professionalism, credibility, taste, and motivations are in question for him and TED. Being afraid of stepping on toes, offending others, or discussing potentially partisan ideas are hardly part of a marketplace of ideas. They claim to be about “Ideas Worth Spreading”, perhaps they tag on a line about what kind of ideas they’d like to spread to whom.