TEDification versus Edification

The magical thinking and many contradictions of the TED Talks — and the implicit threats to design and education.

Top left: Buckminster Fuller. [Image via Wikimedia]. Top right: TED stage. Bottom left: Russell Brand, 2013. Bottom right: Steward Brand lecturing at TED, 2013.

I. TED is the new counterculture.

Stewart Brand, meet Russell Brand: Two provocateurs of conferences and consciences to which the design disciplines might pay heed. Readers in the United States are likely familiar with Stewart Brand; he is the intellectual entrepreneur who in the mid-1960s dropped acid and thus had revealed to him a vision of a Buckminster Fuller-inspired new globalism, and who then enshrined this vision in the epochal Whole Earth Catalog. U.S. readers may be less familiar with Russell Brand; he is the comedian from the United Kingdom who by his own admission drank a tad too much before addressing the recent GQ awards ceremony in London, prompting him to deliver, to a cringing audience, revelations about the event’s sponsors and attendees and the parlous state of the entire world. We would not need to pay any more attention to this stunt, except that Russell Brand has followed up with a series of coruscating interviews (in one of which he gleefully trounces the U.K.’s leading political interviewer, Jeremy Paxman 1) and op-ed pieces, culminating in an essay for the highbrow, left-leaning weekly The New Statesman in which he asks: “Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?”

R. Brand hitches up anarchism, Marxism and socialism to Fullerine Design Science with the same dogged determination with which S. Brand unhitched Fullerine Design Science from the doctrines of the radical left in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Buckminster Fuller,” opines Russell Brand in the same New Statesman piece, “outlines what ought be our collective objectives succinctly: ‘to make the world work for 100 per cent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone.'” A worthy goal, well worth emphasizing; and indeed this very goal — to make the world work for 100 per cent of humanity in the shortest possible time — has already been pressed, unremittingly, by Technology Entertainment Design, a.k.a. TED, the conferencing juggernaut whose very first meeting, in Monterey, California, in 1984, was addressed by Stewart Brand. And it is still being pressed today; three decades on, Brand can again be found at TED, as he was this past spring, shirtless, wrestling its delegates in the sort of show worthy of his younger incarnations as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters or as an organizer of New Games — a form of New Age role-play designed to simulate new modes of social interaction that would have diverted Russell Brand’s “coming revolution” into a competition fought with inflatable balls and floppy swords. 2

Clearly we live in an era of counterculture lite, although its two main divisions — Californian and European — are sparring as if the old stakes were on the table (perhaps they are). Designers have a utopian gene, as Rem Koolhaas has joked, and we have here two utopias from which to choose. Do designers believe that neoliberal technological civilization is fundamentally okay, needing only adjustment through problem solving and the pragmatic excision of glitches from the world’s operating code? Or do they believe that neoliberal technological civilization is fundamentally wrong, and that new glitches ought to be introduced into the code in order to make the world strange once again? Right or Left? Evolution or Revolution? Californian Pranksterism (S. Brand) or European Situationism (R. Brand)? Or to frame the choice in terms of their grown-up versions: TED or Occupy? I caricature the dilemma, of course, but then again what we are now witnessing is a battle of caricatures; you can see this in the way both sides duel, for instance, over a caricatured legacy of Richard Buckminster Fuller, and his caricature of the world as a lovable whole, nurtured by silver-bullet design.

Left: Russell Brand, GQ awards ceremony. Right: New Statesman issue, guest-edited by Russell Brand.

II. “This is a magnificent project for humankind.”

We are living through the era of the TED Talk, much like an earlier generation lived through the era of the World’s Fair, wondrous about our new world in the making. On public radio coast to coast you can listen to the TED Radio Hour — my local NPR affiliate has handed over its prime lunch-hour time slot to the show — and the TED business model of talks and conferences is being adapted to other media as revenue from advertising declines. The star thinker who is able to draw a handsomely paying audience and attract a colossal online following has become a desirable model for enterprising university chancellors, and ambitious authors seek to leverage their books with meme-worthy summaries. Cue the cameras, and you have up to eighteen minutes to sermonize upon an Idea Worth Spreading: hail to the TEDification of thought and discourse!

The increasing resemblance of society and its spaces to a theme park was referred to in the 1990s as Disneyfication. I see TEDification as the nerdy neighbor of Disneyfication — much the way that right next door to the Magic Kingdom the Disney Company built EPCOT, its middlebrow celebration of innovation housed in a geodesic Spaceship Earth as corporate interests hovered in the anteroom. From its origins in Cold War interdisciplinarity to its flowering under neoliberalism, TEDification endows capitalism, globalization and their diverse technologies with a credible spiritual and ethical mission, just as the art of the Renaissance lent to the ruthless bankers of the Italian city states an enduring moral sheen, or the endowing of libraries turned robber barons into the guardians of the common culture. 3 If, in the last decades of the old millennium, advanced capitalist culture was notably Yuppie — upstart, ironic, urbane, individualist, ephemeral, acquisitive, postmodern — then by contrast our new millennial capitalism is high-minded, analytical, transcendent, universalist, gregarious, reformist, wishing to instill belief in the great arcs of history, destiny and crowds, determinedly congregating would-be converts at the nodal sites of globalization.

The largest of these nodes is the entire United States of America — TED reflects something of that uncritical American enthusiasm for technology traceable to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and the founding fathers. But TEDification seems to me to be as distinctive to the Bay Region of California as the Yuppie was characteristic of Tom Wolfe’s New York City. Indeed there is, I believe, an intellectual regionalism, an epistemology, grounded in the Bay Area, which makes a cult of connectivity — to nature, to one another — through such various means as science, innovation, systems thinking, anti-hierarchical organization, innovation and libertarianism. 4

New students of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley epistemology might begin by studying the TED Talk as a rhetorical technique. They’ll easily recognize the pattern:

1. Pollyanna-ish optimism. Every problem is an opportunity.

2. The really big picture. The indefatigable optimism comes from a focus on the long view, which has been the default for technologists since at least the distended timelines of Charles and Ray Eames’ 1960 exhibition Mathematica and the vertiginous zoom of their 1968–1977 movie Powers of Ten, both produced for IBM. “Every so often,” TED tells us, “it makes sense to come out of those trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole.” The spatial evocation of Stewart Brand’s initial plan for the Whole Earth Catalog, written during an airplane journey to California, is uncanny. It’s temporal, too — TED futurology can be seen as a nearer-term counterpart to Brand’s Long Now seminars, which approach history in chunks of 10,000 years. Consider, for instance, David Christian’s thrilling Big History, supported by Bill Gates and previewed at TED, which sees history as a continuum from the Big Bang forward. (The day I click onto Christian’s TED talk, one reviewer had written, with an enthusiasm typical of the TED consumer-acolyte: “This is a magnificent project for human kind. I’m happy to see such proactive support from the Gates family on this matter too. I hope we move forward developing this with everything we know about making this a comprehensive entity.” Another viewer compares it — favorably — to the Book of Genesis.) At TED, knowledge can seemingly be suspended in a space of magical thinking formed not by detailed and problematic social, historical or economic realities but instead by “ideas” — better yet counter-intuitive ideas — floating in the ether. Which might help to explain why TED’s format is somehow reminiscent of a white magic show; note too the absence of a lectern — one of the rules made by TED’s founder, Richard Saul Wurman — which serves to expose the speaker’s genital area and thus increase the vulnerability of the performance. 5

Left: Stewart Brand, Marin County, California, 1978. [Image by Larry Keenan] Right: Whole Earth Catalog, 1968.

3. The exception is the rule. In the big picture and the long view, detailed realities stand out only as elements of larger patterns or, better still, as exceptions instigating new patterns, new “disruptions.” (Again, the triumph of the counter-intuitive). The great ideas of civilization, the great thinkers, inventors, scientists, musicians, artists, etc., are not so much exceptional figures as models from which we can abstract the rules of innovation. Or, the probability of making lightning can be increased through the efforts of the crowd and the hive, through brainstorming and networking. Or, everyone can rise out of poverty and adversity, since we know that some rise out of poverty and adversity. And perhaps we’ve misunderstood the phenomenon of poverty entirely: its endurance is actually testament to the human spirit and creativity. Adversity is empowering, slums are prototypes of self-organization, and hence we can further enable the adaptation of fellow humans to their adversity. 6

4. We proceed with the work of this empowerment not dispassionately, like earlier generations in cultural ethnography and political science, but passionately. Passion has become the unimpeachable keyword of our times, a way to portray what might otherwise appear to be extreme self-preoccupation as actually serving the interests of others. (Contrast with compassion.) Some keynote instances: “We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better,” from Steve Jobs’s talk to Apple employees on his return to the ailing company in 1997. “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world,” from TED’s explanation of its mission. “I am driven by passion,” from a staff button in my local IKEA. Tears are possible in a TED Talk. The sight of a speaker crying appeals to our humanity, and in the sentimental moment we are all leveled, all part of the human crowd. Politics is thus rendered alien, government superseded. Power to the people; to passion, enterprise.

5. Every entity and every idea can, will and must be converted to data, and uploaded to the web. (Further enquiry will reveal that the history of computing, which is centered in the Bay Region, is exactly coincident with this latest stage in human evolution.)

6. Every successful TED Talk is an epiphany. The speaker is at once a charismatic guru and yet so self-effacing that she or he talks for us, through us. One of the origins of contemporary Californian epistemology, we can contend, is 19th-century New England Transcendentalism and its promise to affect a secular, spiritual, American union of humanity and nature, mediated by technology. (This geographical axis was reproduced in the late 20th-century by the shuttling of figures like S. Brand and MIT Media Lab founder and frequent TED Talker Nicholas Negroponte back and forth between the Bay Area and Cambridge, as the information revolution relocates American industry from coal-rich regions to regions with plentiful water and electric power.) Revived by the ’60s counterculture (and let’s recall that Buckminster Fuller’s great aunt was a prominent Transcendentalist), the atmosphere of Transcendentalism is noted when a post on The New Yorker website traces TED’s speaking business back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture circuiting. TED conference attendees often mention the atmosphere of old-time religion. The standing ovation has become practically obligatory. The Idea Worth Spreading is passed on; relinquished; made spirit. 7

7. Or maybe not, because the speaker at TED arrives as proprietor of a gizmo and leaves, should her or his talk be elevated to the TED website, as a freshly re-capitalized proprietor of a gizmo. Readers of this journal were recently reintroduced by Gabrielle Esperdy to Reyner Banham’s proposition that the proprietor of “The Great Gizmo” was a mythic pioneer: “‘The man who changed the face of America,’ Banham wrote in 1965, ‘had a gizmo, a gadget, a gimmick — in his hand, in his back pocket, across the saddle, on his hip, in the trailer, round his neck, on his head, deep in a hardened silo.'” “Almost half a century on,” Esperdy continues, “we prefer more nuanced portraits of frontier settlement and cold war brinksmanship, but Banham’s image remains deeply appealing, and it’s tempting to carry it forward into the present digital/machine age of iPhones and Google Glass … Banham understood that the gizmo’s true significance, and perhaps most lasting impact, had less to do with size and portability … than with the distributive culture the gizmo generated, and ultimately required … Which is why Banham calls the Sears Roebuck catalog ‘one of the great and basic documents of U.S. civilization.'” And now here, at TED, is Stewart Brand, the man who invented the Whole Earth Catalog, the very first Bay Area-Silicon Valley gizmo to distribute gizmos, which was indeed inspired by the Sears Roebuck catalog. “Banham understood that it wasn’t enough to study the gizmos themselves,” Esperdy reminds us, “nor was it enough to study their transformative effects, whether social, economic or technological. For Banham, it was also necessary to study the networks in which the gizmos existed.” TED is thus a gizmo gizmo.

TED conference, Long Beach, California.

III. TED is, alas, about Design.

TED is about design. No? Oh, come on: TED has quietly fascinated our discipline for years. Before TED, we denizens of the studio and slide lecture owned the pitch and the PowerPoint, the need to get the student or the client to that revelatory Aha! moment. Dang, we were good at it, and with the advent of TED we wondered: Won’t I ever get invited? Aren’t I a rock star too? (I just received a memo recommending a speaker for our next departmental lecture series: “She definitely seems like the type to do a TED talk soon.”) Just how do they do that, anyway, without notes? (It’s edited. Coached. Memorized. Isn’t it? Or they do it with mirrors.) Heck, maybe the speakers really are on top of their game, though there’s a certain schadenfreude that does get you trawling for the lamest and most nonsensical of the TEDs. But most of all we have paid attention because it was TED that imported to the broader intellectual culture something of the promise of design. The promise of reinventing the world, hatching a plan, curating the future, generating enthusiasm for a better tomorrow in an era skeptical about the very idea of progress. The notion previously known as progress has been re-launched as adaptation, problem solving and innovation; progress without overt teleology, driven by human passion, and so rendered immune from questioning.

The Californian design legacy is thus not only artifactual — not only Case Study Houses, plywood chairs, skateboards — but also epistemological. An Eamesian and connective Californian design thinking — not despite but because of its very nebulousness — has become, following the cybernetic ’60s, a key strand in the late-modern history of design. And of course, that “D” in TED literally stands for us. TED’s Brain Trust is studded with people from the various disciplines of design, e.g., Don Norman, Stefan Sagmeister, Chee Pearlman (whose credential is simply “design guru”). TED’s founder, Richard Saul Wurman, was an architect — a student of Louis Kahn, no less, who claims to have invented the term “information architect.” Wurman seems to have conceived of TED as a more tech-savvy version of the Aspen Conferences of which he was an habitué. 8 Architect Nicholas Negroponte spoke at that first TED conference in 1984, a year before he founded the Media Lab (where he would be joined by his conference-mate Brand). And the mere half-dozen major projects funded by the TED Prize include the Open Architecture Network of the San Francisco-based group Architecture for Humanity. So we design folk have been riding the TED wave, even if unwittingly. Lately my own academic program has had to turn away students (we simply don’t have the resources to teach them all), no matter that the employment prospects for designers are dismal. The very fact that we’re being hit less hard than other longhair humanities programs seems to some extent due to the TED echo effect: we’re perceived as having answers to pressing problems and as possessing entrepreneurial spirit. TED is about design, then, although we might be embarrassed by the connection, and although we might in fact know, deep down, that its peppy, can-do, silver-bullet version of the discipline is a monstrous distortion that we need to disavow — and not as an act of retreat, but rather advance, even as we fret, alongside our colleagues elsewhere in the arts, the humanities, the sciences, about whether to accept that invitation to our local TEDx.

David Cameron, addressing TED, February 2010.

IV. TED isn’t easy to dismiss.

The thing about that TEDx invitation is that it promises not just minor fame but also outreach. It has a moral claim. The core value of TED, which we surely want to advance, is the evidence it furnishes of a general desire to understand things and to make things right; a general desire to attend to abiding problems, to “change the world.”

Sure, we might feel duty-bound to critique TED too. Yet the mantle of criticality — which would seem to be the stylistic nemesis or opposite of TED — is itself susceptible to critical send-up — to its own deconstruction as yet another rhetorical procedure. The devices of criticality, too, are by now familiar. They typically include a Frankfurt School density of prose; to defeat the perky vernacular of TEDification, to beat down the optimism of TED-Pollyanna, the critical perspective would aim to crush the reader with a lament for the passing of something called politics (which designers and design historians nonetheless usually decline to define — is it the Beltway? the Free Speech movement? faculty meetings?). Michel Foucault might be called to the stand as a witness against systems; an Ernst Blochian principle of revolutionary hope would be invoked to replaced the gee-whiz gizmo of TED.

The problem is that the critical stance has no inspirational, popular appeal, whereas TED’s techno-utopia has tons of inspirational, popular appeal. 9 Following the lead of the young Marx, Frankfurt School philosophers taught us to scour capitalist culture for traces of utopianism, and TED, one of the de rigueur salons of late capitalism, abounds with utopianism. 10  Optimism, magical thinking, exceptionalism, passion, epiphanies and gizmos. The Frankfurt School philosophers argued that it was the ascent of capitalist, technocratic instrumentality that led inexorably to our disenchantment with Nature, with Being. 11 But today TED-world mesmerizes, while political criticism mostly disenchants. TEDification is slaking the public thirst for a forum, for hope, knowledge, possibility. Somewhat like Rem Koolhaas accepted that the shopping mall was the nearest thing we have to a physical public space, so too we might acknowledge that TED is one of our closest approximations to a popular public sphere. (Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus, celebrated Koolhaas protégé, is a member of the TED Brain Trust.) In an era of fragmenting media, test-centric schooling and tuition-hiked higher education, TEDification proffers open-door, open-ended education to time-crunched citizens through the communication of mostly serious and interesting viewpoints. It’s a distant progeny of the Enlightenment public sphere, of the coffee house, the Chautauqua assembly, the public lecture, the newspaper editorial.

The outlandish result of the earlier success of the Whole Earth Catalog and more lately of TED has been to re-enchant us with capitalist technocracy. “Once you start watching TED talks,” a New York Times reporter confessed, in that heady period when the talks were first webcast, “ordinary life falls away. The corridor from Silicon Alley to Valley seems to crackle … I love their greed for hope, their confidence in ingenuity, their organized but goofy ways of talking and thinking.” Capitalism is now the opium of the people; even throughout the dark days of the global financial crisis, millions of folks still clicked onto TED (check TED’s triumphal graph here. They’re benchmarking a billion hits).

The left counters with Occupy, the guru’s head mic swapped out for the crowd’s “mic check!” Occupy is in some strange way TED’s opposite number, likely courting similar audiences, and perhaps even some of the same self-appointed problem-solvers (including this author, before you ask), arrayed left to right but nevertheless upon a spectrum. If TED represents the neoliberal occupation of our imaginations, the Deleuzian romanticism of a self-organizing world, then Occupy is the new left equivalent. To the degree that Occupy encouraged the hope of a counterculture redux, a new era of vivid technicolor leftist politics, a revival of that post-’68 vanguard dream of a contingent, tactical, post-Marxist “intervention,” one can’t help but wonder whether it is TEDification that has overall gotten the better of the common culture: one of the valid worries regarding Occupy is that to date its chief success has been the glorious meme of “the 99%” — a formulation worthy of TED veteran Richard Dawkins himself — but that otherwise its outcomes were frail. As Russell Brand laments: “A potent and triumphant leftist movement, aside from the glorious Occupy rumble, is a faint, idealistic whisper from sepia rebels.”

Meanwhile TED bristles, in its breezy way, over the accusation that it too is merely a talking shop full of memes. One attendee has described the TED conference-bubble as a kind of “Temporary Autonomous Zone” — which was meant to be Occupy’s prerogative. TED and Occupy alike feed their followers’ craving for participation, for leadership, for a heuristic, in a world that seems to offer overwhelming complexity and endless choice but no real possibility of radical change. Each implies the importance of design in their respective attempts to arrange, or rearrange, the world’s resources and to effect new outcomes through discourse, connection, praxis.

Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, addressing TED. 

V. TED sells design hype back to design.

The particular danger of TEDification to the design disciplines, I think, is its core message that the chief obstacle to our discovering grand solutions to global problems — to achieving the grand design, to “making a comprehensive entity,” as that reviewer of Big History applauded — is our lack of sufficient connection. What we need, we’re told, is a seamless web of ideas, capital, products and data. Earlier I noted that TED has awarded one of its prizes to the digital Open Architecture Network created by Architecture for Humanity — a project that seems to presuppose that the problem of inadequate housing is at heart a problem of inadequate shared information. Thus the Open Architecture Network showcases over 10,000 — 10,000 — projects. It grants to design the moral high ground, and more, it claims design as politics.

“Architecture or Revolution. Revolution can be avoided.” So launches the Open Architecture Network manifesto, quoting the famous closing lines of Le Corbusier’s manifesto Vers une Architecture, of 1923. But then it audaciously opines:

Le Corbusier had it wrong. One billion people live in abject poverty. Four billion live in fragile but growing economies. One in seven people live in slum settlements. By 2020 it will be one in three. We don’t need to choose between architecture or revolution. What we need is an architectural revolution.

But the argument is false — Le Corbusier, too, believed in architectural revolution, in revolution by design. And here we might recall that he was notoriously willing to work for any “partner” interested in global re-organization; in similar fashion, nearly a century later, the Open Architecture Network enlists the “partnership” of such Bay Area corporations as Sun Microsystems, Hot Studio and AMD. This sort of underwriting of the Open Architecture Network can be construed — as any level-headed business analyst would tell us — as chump-change evidence of “corporate responsibility.” So I worry that the Open Architecture Network itself can be viewed as a form of corporate responsibility for a design discipline with deeper roots in consumer capitalism than it usually cares to acknowledge.

There’s a lot to admire about the OAN as a stage for speculative, well-meaning and beneficial work. But its rhetoric seems to me truly hazardous. Telling designers, mostly young and idealistic, that they are spearheading a social revolution through design: that’s pure TEDification. Or as one prominent TED speaker-critic put it recently: “Given TED’s disproportionate influence on a certain level of the global debate, it follows that the public at large also becomes more approving of technological solutions to problems that are not technological but political.” To expand upon Robert Reich’s analysis of “supercapitalism,” it seems clear that we cannot entrust the goals of social justice to corporations (whose overriding concerns are to make a profit and meet their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders) or by extension to a discipline dependent upon partnerships with corporations. (Which somehow simultaneously imagines itself to be operating autonomously.) Social justice is the task of democracy, as Reich argued; or perhaps the task of revolution (as Russell Brand envisions). 12

In this light, consider a recent TED Radio Hour during which the potential for a cogent, political examination of the role of design went unrecognized and was lost. The conversation was about Apple, whose entanglements in labor controversies in China have lately offered design educators a rare opportunity, outside the discursive safety of sustainability, to explore politics. 13 But TED shut the discussion the hell down. “Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods,” the Harvard-educated Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Chang tells Guy Raz, the host of TED Radio Hour. “They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills and to see the world.” Raz purports astonishment: “This is like so counter-intuitive. This is not what many of us have been led to believe.” “The workers,” Chang then reports about her interviewees in Dongguan, “… often had great difficulty explaining what exactly they did.” She is then able to cue up a vulgar liberalism on the back of a vulgar reading of Marx:

… Karl Marx saw this as the tragedy of capitalism — the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor. But like so many theories that Marx arrived at, sitting in the reading room of the British Museum, he got this one wrong. Just because a person spends her time making a piece of something, does not mean that she becomes that — a piece of something. What she does with the money she earns, what she learns in that place and how it changes her — these are the things that matter.

We then learn, for instance, that one of Chang’s interviewees left “her husband and children back in the village” so that she could “save enough money to buy a secondhand Buick for herself and an apartment for her parents.” Raz, apparently impressed, responds, “I mean, that’s social mobility. I mean, clearly she moved to a different class,” and wonders why, then, Apple consumers should feel any guilt at all. Chang seems equally puzzled. “I don’t know where that assumption of guilt comes from,” she says, and continues:

I mean, this is the global marketplace … Americans — Westerners — often well-meaning — feel a lot of guilt about all of the wealth that they have and this awareness that the people who’re making these products don’t have any kind of wealth. And sometimes it can be condescension. Like, assuming that those people who are very poor and ignorant … don’t have any thoughts and are only doing this because they have no choice. 14

The kooky background music that plays throughout the segment signifies just how counterintuitive all this must be for listeners, too. Capitalism watches from a distance; any suffering, alienation, incomprehensible work, any families left behind and villages abandoned — all these constitute but a momentary reference, a fleeting image, for the radio listener. And yet I find myself puzzled by my own counter-intuitive thoughts. For instance, is the homelessness that the Open Architecture Network endeavors to solve in one corner of the TED enterprise perhaps exacerbated by the labor migration — a.k.a., social mobility — espoused in another corner of the TED enterprise? And if so, is this not actually a brilliant instance of the coherence of the TED project, wherein solutions loop into problems as if through cybernetic feedback? Or is it evidence that the problems are intractable — but as such further justification for the cottage industry of TED problem-solving?

Meanwhile, back on the Radio Hour, pursuant of their Adam Smithian counter-intuition that America’s consumption of iPads is an unequivocal boon for Chinese workers, Chang and Raz overlook the inconvenient fact that some of their fellow “Americans — Westerners” can’t afford iPads or even previously-owned Buicks. So let’s suppose, for a moment, that this dispossessed crowd — not the benign and copacetic crowd that TEDification likes to “source” — is also a client for design. Let’s even suppose that actual revolution cannot be perpetually deferred by architectural revolution. And let’s also suppose that the relatively civilized behavior of Occupy’s flash-mob — with many of its followers drawn (I suspect) from somewhat TEDified demographics, deploying batteries of iPads and websites and geodesic domes and readings of Empire in the struggle for change — is someday replaced on our city streets and university campuses by the more riotous tactics of an old-school mob that cannot be preemptively imprisoned by an expanding penal industry, at least not in its entirety. Consider the London rioters of 2011, say, and their atavistic rage, which has been scrutinized by analysts looking for “causes” — and, in one tin-eared University College London TEDx Talk, for new mathematical-network techniques of police control — as though cause and control were relevant metrics for understanding the mood or mentality of a crowd with perilously little to measure or lose. Dissenters in England could tell you what caused those riots: Crap education, jobs, homes, prospects; budget sneakers and dated game consoles. Should Russell Brand’s old-school revolution come to pass, there would seem to be a real danger that design practitioners and educators — given our presence within the spectrum of TEDification — will get taken down with all the rest of the “creative class” and all the “partners” with which it hangs. 15 This is not a prediction; just a thought experiment, provoked by weighing up the competing utopias of the two Brands.

TED Talks Education, a special produced by TED, WNET, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

VI. Design education is a general education.

So we designers need to beware the culture of virtue and problem solving, the silver bullet of praxis and critique — precisely because these all come so naturally to design, and because the time seems so ripe, as we are egged on by TED, from the right, and by Occupy, from the left. The manifesto of the Open Architecture Network proposes design as the solution to such wicked and vertiginous problems as global homelessness; but by the same logic, such large ambition can be reversed to imply that designers were somehow responsible — that the housing shortage was caused by the wrong sort of design. To some extent, maybe it was. But isn’t it much likelier that the major causes of homelessness are political and economic? TEDification excites designers’ instincts for decency and utopianism; but there’s danger in believing the hype. From the Settlement Houses to the Seidlungen to the Projects to Hassan Fathy, we’ve been here before. (To borrow the phrase of an art historian colleague, creative types like to do “guilt as form.”)

But if design is not the solution to global problems, it is a way into understanding and coming to terms with global problems, and facing our complicity with their causes. Design education is a path back to political sentience. If any design crits end in standing ovations, I’ve yet to attend one. The usual atmosphere is the polar opposite of the TED Talk, and even the slickest crits terminate in the measured anarchy of the jury and intensive peer interrogation and the recounting of precedent and history and the anxiety about the next move. From all of which proceeds the sort of deliberation that coheres into possible courses of action. Knock yourself out with as much passion for science, technology and design as you can muster; but it will be in the slow, halting, buggy and back-and-forth encounters with your subject that deep learning will take place. Edification versus TEDification: design, to my mind, falls into the former. 16 And furthermore, it seems to me too important to be confined to design schools; it needs to be a form of general education available to students from anywhere on campus. Can design really proceed from the assumption that things are fundamentally okay? I would love to see every undergraduate do an actual design course as part of core curriculum, if only to discover just how hard it is — how many years it takes, how much determination — to achieve your problem-solving TED epiphany and the standing O. The exception is not the rule.

Edification is precisely the pedagogical mode threatened by TEDification, needless to say: witness the recent launch of TED Ed, which offers “lessons worth sharing,” typically framed as Otto Neurath-like graphical understandings of long-view historical breakthroughs. Meanwhile the TEDx conferences (which currently happen at the pace of one per day) push flushed provincial professors onto the dais, and TED provides a reliable platform for the advocates of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, those new storefronts of the entrepreneurial university, which will “enable a wave of innovation, because amazing talent can be found anywhere,” as one TED Talker claims. “Maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa.” Huh. Maybe. More likely, though, they will be found near that particular TED Talker’s home campus of Stanford. 17 TEDification is a deliciously elite form of egalitarianism, with tiers of membership that synchronize perfectly to make some more equal than others. (“Ah — I see that you obtained your Stanford degree online.”) As is the case with TED — where $7,500 is the starting price for a conference ticket — some of us are in the room as the ideas get spread, and some of us aren’t. Some of us get to ask the speaker questions and retain her as a contact or reference, perhaps for life; others get the video. (Eighteen minutes.) Some of us struggle in remote villages, others in well-equipped offices and universities — then enjoy the trope of participating in the life of the remote village in Africa as part of a global studio or lab.

My alma mater, the Open University in the U.K., used to mail students labs in boxes, part of the effort to dragnet working-class and female Britons (who’d been largely left out of higher education) into the middle class and the knowledge economy. Those boxes, I think I can safely say, were probably pretty pricey. But back then the Open University — a ’60s MOOC avant la lettre, a hybrid of broadcast programming and narrowcast seminars (including a course that rethought design as a degree program) — was an experiment in public-sponsored distance education hatched by an unabashedly socialist government. Whoa. Public. Socialist. Government. That sounds like so counter-intuitive, when we know that in the future we will have free information, organized freely and accessed through iPads, the manufacturer of which offers workers in South China the freedom of social mobility and a shot at a used GM sedan.

Everyone thinks his or her own vocation is a model; so here’s mine. I am propounding “edification”; read: an expensive and expansive advanced education, deeply subsidized — by what exactly, I will leave for another time, but it will probably involve progressive taxation — its reach expanding outward to crowds rather than the crowd-sourced, with online components at most understood as accompaniments to the physical classrooms and studios and labs, the real-time arguments and bubbling flasks and little scale models around which the back-and-forth that underpins deep learning can happen. Utopian? Somewhat, but I can at least plea that it has occurred in some real form (pace the Open University at its inception, or my employer the University of California during its Master Plan heyday), which is more than can be claimed for the prophecies of TEDification. (The truly free market, I sometimes have to remind myself as I try to understand the neoliberal imaginary, has never actually existed, anywhere. In which case neoliberalism is by definition utopian, too. Welcome, ye fellow visionaries, to the history of design!)

Left: Open University, Home Experiment Kit, ca. 1976. [Image via Open University.] Right: Coursera website, with listings of Massive Open Online Courses.

VII. My eighteen minutes are up — no standing ovation to follow.

It’s all too easy to hate on TED (to dip into the current parlance), especially when we can foresee it collapsing under the unbearable lightness of its being. After a mid-noughties honeymoon period for the re-launched and now webcast TED Talks, 18 critics started to probe more deeply and to question the accuracy and value of various TED-branded presentations, even as the franchise expanded to satisfy its voracious appetite for fresh content. 19 Some now accuse TED of resorting to censorship to satisfy its corporate sponsors. 20 The Onion has released the inevitable parodies (“no mind will be left unchanged”). Advocates for MOOCs are reeling after the recent admission of failure by one of its brashest for-profit Palo Alto pioneers, Udacity. And I categorically do not mean to impugn the brilliance, fortitude and motivations of TED speakers or of the builders of allied projects like the Open Architecture Network. For that matter, I regard the Whole Earth Catalog as a stone cold design classic, a combination of abstraction and Vorkurs rivaling that of the Bauhaus; Stewart Brand has done as much as anyone, over his long career, to restore the art of thought and discourse to a mass audience. And anyone who would disbelieve the magnitude and wonder of the digital and economic revolutions on which TED rolls would be a fool.

My real complaint is against the cultural comet of TEDification — the liquidation of thought into publicity and of ideas into a self-organizing shtick that is ultimately, when left to its own devices, against design and anti reason. The relentless epiphany of TEDification feels like so much white noise in a world containing chronic and systemic and multiplying problems. Of course techno-utopia has countless upsides, like the lovely MacBook on which I’m writing and the web over which I will distribute my words; not to mention a future in which the number of auto accidents will likely decrease because of the self-driving car now being developed by Udacity’s founder. But in the meantime I will receive the daily heartbreaking news from the frontlines of social work, where my wife spends her days; news about our failure as a society to ensure access to housing and education and health, news that is utterly predictable in everything except the awful, runaway details. (In the very capital of California, Sacramento, there’s a skid row on North B Street where dozens of men and women sleep outside in the cold, as my friend Sasha Abramsky, author of the new book The American Way of Poverty, noticed recently. “There are so many hungry people,” he says, about yet another neighborhood in Sacramento, “that thousands line up at the Food Bank in Oak Park for free turkeys in the days before Thanksgiving.” The city’s affordable housing ordinance is being gutted at the same time the city’s leaders are pushing for subsidies to build a new downtown sports arena. “By 2011, nearly 1 in 4 children were living in poverty in California (24.3%). That’s slightly more than 2 million children, by official measures,” reports the Public Poverty Institute of California.) TED is, in short, the latest incarnation of an old mode of holistic design thinking — a Second Machine Age Deutscher Werkbund, tacking rightwards, complete with programs for housing and alliances with “responsible” corporations. To naturalize it as an expression of design ideology is to blur the crucial separation we need to maintain between professional vocation and political citizenship, and thus also to devalue the discipline’s heuristic muscle.

The competing restatements of utopianism, R. versus S. Brand, remind us that if we follow Buckminster Fuller we can either end up in the neat, happy positivism of EPCOT, or we can be compelled to face the ideological and tactical limits of design which Fuller himself declined to acknowledge. If we choose the latter course, then maybe design will be saved from Design, and saved from the excesses of techno-utopian capitalism. Fuller, the Whole Earth Catalog, TED: maybe we can see these as successive invitations, as the capacity of each to change the world is exhausted, for the rest of us to generate some feedback, to get a hook into the conscience of techno-capitalism. Yes, its conscience; there is a risk of understating the altruism, the genuine wish to do good, that’s characterized Northern California culture through its various phases of liberal delirium (liberal progressive back in mid-century, more lately libertarian). 21 TED needs Occupy.

TED lays out the right path: popular access to advanced knowledge about big subjects. But the project has to be redirected as a process of enquiry rather than epiphany, requiring not only passion but also patience. Consider that one of the fundamental challenges for design is to confront what Horst Rittel described four decades ago as the wicked problem. For wicked problems there are no real solutions, only makeshift and contingent negotiation. “Dealing with wicked problems,” Rittel conceded, “is always political.” 22 The incessant waves of eighteen minutes of epiphanic techno-complexity are working to deny complexity — to deny the wickedness of wicked problems, to detach us from their political reality, to deny our limited ability to solve them and to encourage hubris where we need humility.

Deliberating and debating ideas — rather than “spreading” them — and struggling with ways to implement and substantiate them, with as many people in the room as possible, might ultimately be the sage response to the battle of the Brands; a tip of the hat to what Russell Brand, in that New Statesman article, described as the “spiritual revolution” that we now need as the natural successor to the industrial and technological revolutions. The ignition of R. Brand’s revolution will be, it seems, not gizmo but spirit, whatever that may be (presumably not TED’s horizon-sucking whoosh noises and in-flight magazine aesthetics). And in the deliberating and debating of ideas, the special role for design education will be to step away from the eighteen-minute dais, to return to the studio and classroom and show that things are not necessarily okay and/or becoming whole; to demonstrate that the interaction of things-in-the-world is complicated (or for the Marxists and environmentalists among us, all too simple) — and then to make the inevitable struggle enchanting, and helpful to political citizenship.

And if that struggle helps to turn design back to design, so too that same humility might help ensure that the arts, humanities and sciences remain the arts, humanities and sciences. Jeremy Paxman pressures Russell Brand to be a guru with a gizmo (Brand was receiving his GQ award for being an “Oracle,” after all) — to describe his revolutionary utopia, now, on the spot, because this is broadcast and we don’t even have eighteen minutes. Brand doesn’t take the bait, knowing instinctively the difference between his work as a professional entertainer, and ours as professional deliberators. “I’m here just to draw attention to a few ideas,” he says. “I just want to have a little bit of a laugh. I’m saying there are people with alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am.”

Author's Note

While I am entirely responsible for the opinions expressed in this essay, I gratefully acknowledge the insights I have received through conversations with Sasha Abramsky, Erin Dorn, Ari Kelman, Nancy Levinson, Kelly McDonald, Tim McNeil, Blake Stimson, Julie Sze, and Jan Wagstaff.

Editors' Note

For related content on Places Journal, see “Steve Jobs: Architect,” by Simon Sadler.

  1. See also “Russell Brand vs. Jeremy Paxman: the full transcript,” Corrente.
  2. For more on Stewart Brand’s cultural entrepreneurship, such as the New Games, see Andrew Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007).
  3. On Cold War systems-driven interdisciplinarity, see, for instance, Pamela M. Lee, “Aesthetic Strategist: Albert Wohlstetter, the Cold War, and a Theory of Mid-Century Modernism,” October 138, Fall 2011, 15–36.
  4. See Simon Sadler, “An Architecture of the Whole,” Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 61, no. 4, 2008, 108-129, and “A Culture of Connection,” Boom: A Journal of California, vol. 2, number 1, 2012, 1–16. See also “Steve Jobs: Architect,” Places Journal, March 2013.
  5. TED was acquired by its current owner, or “curator,” the new media entrepreneur Chris Anderson, in 2001.
  6. See Iwan Baan, “Ingenious homes in unexpected places,” and also Stewart Brand’s TED Talk at Monterey, 2006, “What squatter cities can teach us,” clearly en route to his book Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary (New York: Penguin, 2010). In addition, from the TED Conference held in the U.K., in 2005, Carole Cadwalladr reports speakers agreeing that “Aid doesn’t work. At a debate on how the $50 billion for Africa agreed by the G8 nations ought to be spent, the single most applauded idea was that it should be given to the developed world in order to pay off French farmers etc and then abolish the trade tariffs.” See Cadwalladr, “What’s the big idea?,” The Observer, 23 July 2005.
  7. See Nathan Heller, “Listen And Learn,” The New Yorker, July 9, 2012. For more on the intellectual ancestry of Silicon Valley, see Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Benjamin Wallace, in “Those Fabulous Confabs,” New York, February 26, 2012, also recalls TED’s roots in the Bohemian Grove, which started in 1878 (“first mostly artists, now mostly Republicans”). George Gilder’s Telecosm annual conference, starting in California in the late 1990s, similarly found evangelical purpose in the information revolution.
  8. For a fine summary of TED’s history, see Wallace, “Those Fabulous Confabs.”
  9. See Felicity D. Scott, Architecture or Techno-Utopia (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).
  10. See too, in sad acknowledgement of its author’s passing, Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1983).
  11. See Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1944]).
  12. See Robert B. Reich, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life (New York: Knopf, 2007).
  13. The TED Radio Hour seems modeled on other public radio shows, notably This American Life and its sister program Planet Money. The segment on the TED Radio Hour I describe might then be imagined as a response to the bungled 2012 report on Apple by Mike Daisey for This American Life, whereas a nuanced exploration of how design and production connect to the complexities of the global economy can be found in Planet Money’s 2013 t-shirt project.
  14. Leslie T. Chang, “The Voices of China’s Workers.” For an accessible alternative perspective on migration within China and the complications of social mobility, see the documentary Last Train Home, 2009, directed by Lixin Fan.
  15. For more about the relationship between the creative class and what I am calling TEDification, see Thomas Frank, “TED Talks Are Lying To You,” Salon, October 13, 2013
  16. This passage was amended after publication to correct an error. We have removed a sentence that stated, falsely, that edifice and education have the same Latin root.
  17. For a fine report on MOOCs, see Nathan Heller, “Laptop U,” The New Yorker, May 20, 2013, 80-91.
  18. The decision, in 2006, to stream the talks on the Web has been pivotal to TED’s spectacular success. For examples of journalistic enthusiasm for TED, from about this time, see Carole Cadwalladr, “What’s the big idea?,” The Observer, and Virginia Heffernan, “Confessions of a TED Addict,” The New York Times Magazine, January 23, 2009.
  19. On the growing dependence of TED upon crowd-sourced content, see Nilofer Merchant, “When TED Lost Control of Its Crowd,” Harvard Business Review, April 2013. For examples of the growing skepticism around TED, see Carl Zimmer, “I Point To TED Talks and I Point to Kim Kardashian. That Is All.,” June 6, 2012, Download the Universe; Evgeny Morozov, “The Naked and the TED,” The New Republic, August 2, 2012; David Crotty, “To TED or Not to TED?,” October 18, 2013, the Scholarly Kitchen; Benjamin Bratton, “We need to talk about TED,” December 30, 2013, The Guardian; as well as Nathan Heller, “Listen And Learn,” The New Yorker, and Thomas Frank, “TED Talks Are Lying To You,” Salon, cited above.
  20. See, for instance, the complaint by Mike Adams, “TED aligns with Monsanto, halting any talks about GMOs, ‘food as medicine’ or natural healing,” September 18, 2013.
  21. For an excellent snapshot of Silicon Valley libertarianism, see George Packer, “Change the World,” The New Yorker, May 27, 2013, 44–55.
  22. Horst W. J. Rittel, “On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ Generations,” Bedrifts Økon, October 8, 1972.
Simon Sadler, “TEDification versus Edification,” Places Journal, January 2014. Accessed 28 Jan 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/140121

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Past Discussions View
  • 01.27.2014 at 16:49

    Thank you for this excellent article!

  • 01.29.2014 at 18:57

    How refreshing to see a critical article that is also supportive and thoughtful (not unusual on Places, but seemingly a lost art in many other venues). I'm glad for the recognition of the need to return to politics as a realm where real (and wicked) problems exist and can be debated and negotiated, if not "solved."

    Other gems:

    describing architecture as "discipline dependent upon partnerships with corporations. (Which somehow simultaneously imagines itself to be operating autonomously.)"


    "... an experiment in public-sponsored distance education hatched by an unabashedly socialist government. Whoa. Public. Socialist. Government. That sounds like so counter-intuitive, when we know that in the future we will have free information, organized freely and accessed through iPads, the manufacturer of which offers workers in South China the freedom of social mobility and a shot at a used GM sedan."

  • 01.31.2014 at 11:53

    What a great, great article. Nails it. The "intellectual regionalism" of Silicon Valley would be a great conference topic - say, at the Computer History Museum in San Jose?! How about it? And, of course, the author should do aTED talk. I will send this article to everyone I know.

  • 02.01.2014 at 05:58

    By far the best piece of broad-sweep cultural commentary I have read in a while. Silicon Valley ideology has such a tight grip, globally, on the (very) late capitalist business world I inhabit that it's rare to find someone with the vantage-point to put it in context or the critical framework and vocabulary to articulate a different perspective.

  • 02.16.2014 at 15:19

    It is nearly impossibly seductive to believe that as designers, we can solve major social problems with an end-run around the existing political and economic framework, so long as our designs are sufficiently brilliant.

    Yes, it's gratifying, but the real attraction is the momentary freedom from the absolutely crushing internalization of the intractability of power-sharing and the vanishing rarity of the popular will to back radical change. If you live in an advanced capitalist country, you probably have sufficient means to avoid contemplating these horrible realities and to live a comfortable life. Development isn't just about beelining toward material comfort, it's about finding immediate ways to be free of the horrible psychological toll of contemplating massive suffering.

    When the choice is between glorious techno-possibilities that don't require changes which we probably won't live to see, and the hard realization that most human beings throughout history do not get to see radical social change in their community during their lifetime, most people will choose glorious techno-bullshit, because something to put your faith and energy in is better than nothing, even if it's only loosely-tethered to reality.

    I know full well how pollyanna-ish the TED memes are, but I still find it very hard not to put my faith in them, because there's nothing else being articulated.

    I give time and money to environmental, labor and social justice organizations, but in nearly all major campaigns we are on the defensive and are consistently being driven further back.

    Techno-capitalism is winning hearts and minds because there is no widespread, reasonably well-articulated alternative, though R. Brand's recent editorship of the New Statesman is a glimmer.

    Critique does not win adherents to a movement, only a well-articulated vision for an alternative future does that. Clair Potter does a good job of outlining this argument in the fall issue of Jacobin.

    Social change happens when intellectuals become organizers spreading a well-articulated vision for radical change. TED can do this (albeit with major deemphasis on "radical"), while "edification", being fundamentally critique, cannot. Mass-edification as you envision could be a positive effect of a successful, radical social change, but it will never be a cause.