TED 2018: Soul-Searching at the Inspiration Assembly Line

Somewhere between my eighth and eighteenth turmeric lattes, I realized I was dangerously close to falling for TED. The annual conference, which gathers elite technologists, thought leaders, scientists, economists, futurists, visionaries, activists, physicists, poets, enthusiasts, academics, entertainers and billionaires has a binary reputation: For anyone who hasn’t been, it’s an object of easy mockery. For anyone who has, it’s a religion.

After five days in the garden of TED, downing blueberry mint kombucha, champagne gummy bears and green juice described as “good for when you feel like you’re being chased by a cheetah,” I had seen the light. The ideas felt exciting (flying cars! fluid democracies! arousal non-concordance!). The speakers elicited gasps of wonder, un-self-conscious giggles, or heavy sighs of righteous indignation. A workshop on the concept of awe actually inspired awe. At least four talks brought me to tears.

TED has a way of raising the stakes on every topic—no matter how tiny—to transformative, world-changing status. But as the world has begun to question the murky side effects of many of these groundbreaking innovations, the mind-blowing magic TED is known for can feel darker.

“No one is coming to the event in the frame of mind that all is well and easy in the land of technology,” TED Curator Chris Anderson said in a press call before the event. It was a sentiment that echoed throughout the conference. After VR pioneer Jaron Lanier’s wrapped up a talk criticizing Facebook and Google’s advertising-based “behavior modification empires,” Anderson pointed out that the same thing was happening to everyone in the room. On some level, he said, “we’re all in the behavior manipulation business. It’s what human interaction is about.”

It’s a well-honed formula. Try spending a week in a dark room while a river of eloquent speakers, one after another, deploy touching personal anecdotes and surprising revelations in meticulously crafted ten-minute emotional rollercoasters. It’s nearly impossible to avoid getting swept up. Poet Sarah Kay noted in a workshop that a week at TED can feel like “you’re a live wire of thoughts and feelings and emotions.” Singer Luke Sital-Singh, who crooned heartfelt songs Thursday evening, wore a nametag that read, “Ask me about making people cry.” Lanier, who followed a talk by a teacher who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, spent the first few minutes of his talk trying to compose himself. “Chris didn’t warn me the talk before me would bring me to tears,” he said, to warm applause.

The posivibes were apparent whenever a presenter lost their place, welled up with tears, or suffered a technical malfunction. Each time, the audience encouragingly applauded the speaker back from the brink. I wondered if there was anything we wouldn’t applaud for. The hiccups? A fart?

Between sessions, I tested out gentle criticisms with attendees. Didn’t some of these standing ovations seem planted by the speaker’s friends? And wasn’t the rush to stand up and applaud less about the brilliance of the speaker more a way of signaling exactly how much we care about [stopping fascists/ethical AI/extreme poverty in India]? Are these talks, and our applause, an empty substitute for real action—the equivalent of an “awareness-raising” ribbon? How many of the power brokers in the room have actually changed the way they do business as a result of something they heard in a TED talk? How many of the attendees cheering along to calls for environmental reform arrived by private jet? Didn’t it sometimes feel like socially conscious theater? Don’t get me wrong, the turmeric lattes were delicious, but wasn’t the preciousness of it all – the “tech playground” filled with robots, virtual statues, short story dispensers, selfies printed onto cookies, soundscape immersions, and Vitagene genetic analyses – a bit much?

A few attendees responded to my criticism with nods of solidarity; others called me a hater and a cynic. It mirrored the tech industry’s range of reactions to any sort of criticism for the last ten years. This is an industry that’s used to being applauded for changing the world, not being picked apart for it.

TED’s organizers have worked to combat knocks that it’s more about giving rich people a cool experience than enlightening the world. Initiatives like The Audacious Project, a $250 million charity fund, and the TED Fellows program, which provides resources to “visionaries” who are creating positive change in the world, deserve kudos. As does the way TED addressed its own #MeToo scandal, by announcing it to the conference, noting two past attendees had been disinvited, and reading a code of conduct aloud.

The conference allows attendees to voice criticisms in the form of one-minute rebuttals on the main stage. One responder applauded the racial diversity among attendees, but expressed disappointment in the prevalence of imagery and content that depicted the African diaspora as a population in need of help and charity. “If diversity was the invitation that got us here, inclusion is the hard work,” he said. Another criticized video game developer David Cage’s use of “adolescent male fantasies” in a game demo. A male responder criticized actress Tracee Ellis Ross’s impassioned description of female fury, saying it did not invite him into the conversation. A female responder later pointed out that, in fact, Ellis Ross had expressly invited men to the conversation. “He admitted he didn’t hear that part,” the responder said.

Some TED sessions were designed to make attendees uncomfortable. (Setting aside the event’s many creature comforts, like massages, bountiful organic snacks and sleek Steelcase furnishings.) Anderson told the audience to “embrace the discomfort” during the opening session titled “Doom. Gloom. Outrage. Uproar,” in which speakers advocated for feminism, gun rights, an open dialogue around race and free speech for scientists, and deleting our social media accounts. They elicited tears, standing ovations, and whooping cheers from the eager TED audience, except for the man next to me, who played solitaire on his iPad. Ellis Ross described a situation where a friend of hers felt fury toward a man who touched her without her consent. “I feel like this is the point in the room where all the men are getting a little uncomfortable,” she said. Solitaire man got up and walked out. Too much discomfort.

Many of the talks concluded with a host asking follow-up questions about the dangers of the technology demonstrated. Couldn’t the video editing tools shown by Dr. Supasorn Suwajanakornbe of Google Brain be used to spread extremely compelling disinformation, for example? Dolby Labs chief scientist Poppy Crum used tubes that measured carbon dioxide in the air to detect the level of fear in the room, declaring that technology would render the poker face “a thing of the past.” Woa. Couldn’t that be used against us? The presenters all expressed a desire to ensure the technology they were building would have a positive effect on society.

But the programming left some attendees I spoke with feeling depressed. The last two years of headlines have shown us what happens when powerful technology like social media gets abused by nefarious actors. It’s difficult to imagine the same thing won’t keep happening with each new breakthrough. James Bridle, a writer and TED speaker, outlined the difficult challenge the tech industry currently faces: “Any technological problems of any size and scale are political problems as well,” he said. “We can’t fix it just by changing the technology, but also society that is using [it].”

On TED’s final day, Anderson noted that he hoped attendees could embrace discomfort “and maybe occasionally still feel joy in what’s being achieved.”

“I don’t know,” he added. “We’re all still trying to do this.”

The TED Experience

  • This year, the conversation at TED centered on Facebook.

  • An oral history of how TED became a global think-fluencing phenomenon.

  • According to one TED talk, mind-reading technology might be on the horizon. But will that might chip away at what it means to be human.

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