Talking with TED

I have a love-hate relationship with TED. If one can be a frenemy with an institution, it would be my frenemy. I keep hanging out with TED; I watch his videos and have his App on my phone and tablet. Yet I never come away quite happy with our “conversations.”

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design — since 1984, these conferences have brought together luminaries to talk about their work and their dreams for that work, with an emphasis on the dreams. The presentations tend to be more inspirational than educational; the effect they aim for in the audience is “Wow — this is cool. We should get to work on that.”

The folks at the ever amusing Stuff White People Like point at the the trouble with TED: in addition to inspiration, it also gives the illusion of erudition. It’s a great way to sound intellectual without the hard work of actually learning something. The poet Alexander Pope put the problem rather more eloquently:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Peter Diamandis: Abundance Is Our Future

Take, for example, a presentation by Peter Diamandis — Abundance is our future — and ask yourself, what have I really learned here?

The presentation goes through some statistics at breakneck speed but the core of the argument is this: The future is incredibly bright. Why? Technology will  get better and better faster and faster. Better technologies yield a better life. Woo-ho?!

Of course, that brief example doesn’t amount to a refutation — certainly technological progress is valuable and does tend to improve living conditions, and after all, in one 18-minute talk, what more can be said? This is true and precisely the problem. 18 minutes can get us worked up into contemplating possibilities, breathlessly imagining a bright future. A TED talk gives us just enough knowledge to “intoxicate the brain.”

The presenters themselves have, for the most part, access to the sobering remedy Pope recommended — “drinking largely again” through years of long study and labor in their fields, many of them have the humility of accomplishment and understand the difficulties of moving forward. They have gained, perhaps, some of the perspective Neil Armstrong had upon seeing earth from the moon:

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

Psalm 8 describes a similar insight:

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
What are humans that you are mindful of them,
mere mortals that you care for them?

Knowledge is a dangerous thing because learning deeply is wild and unpredictable. It changes our perspectives and turns our world upside down; it both confuses and clarifies. A little enthusiastic knowledge is a good beginning but it is not — or not yet — the great conversion of knowing.

On the first day of class, I give my best “TED talk” — an invitation to be fascinated by the “30,000-foot view” of the intellectual landscape we will spend the semester exploring in detail. A student once complained, as the semester moved along, that I was making simple things into complex things, adding more and more distinctions into what had been a very straightforward story. Such frustration is a necessary part of learning, since my TED-like talk at the beginning wasn’t completely true. It was only a glimpse of the journey ahead.

TED is a great first day of class, but it can’t replace the rest of the semester. So by all means, let’s get fascinated by the “ideas worth spreading” TED offers — always remembering that the real gift of knowledge isn’t the buzz of a cool idea, but the wonder and humility that come with true wisdom, and with hard work.

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