TED Ideas Worth Spreading*

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What is the saying? — The best thing since sliced bread? It could be the skeptic in me, but anytime I hear people talking about something and how great it is, and it seems to have a cultish following, it raises my skepticism.

Such is my impression of the movement known as TED. There is a lot of stuff that seems good and worthwhile, and even noble about the things they talk about and the things they do. But when so many people fall on the bandwagon the way I have seen it in certain circles, it begins to make me wonder.

For example, in one of my online master’s classes, I was part of a group that needed to put together a powerpoint presentation on a certain subject. We had much of the content together, but were looking for a good video clip to be an introductory tag. I came up with something related — a clip from an old movie, entertaining, humorous — but the rest of the group didn’t even seem to acknowledge my suggestion.

Instead they started obsessing about this TED talk clip someone had found. After all, as one said, “if it is TED, it has to be good.” But when I watched it I was bored to tears. I had Betsy watch it. She agreed. This great TED presentation was a fairly non-charismatic speaker doing a poor reading of his powerpoint presentation, instead of giving us something stimulating and interesting. And yet the other class members seemed to think it was “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

I’m not sure how we eventually decided not to use it. But we eventually went for something even shorter and hokily PC.

So what exactly is TED? I picked up the below description from its website:

Our organization

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

Our Mission: Spread ideas

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.

In fact, everything we do — from our TED Talks videos to the projects sparked by the TED Prize, from the global TEDx community to the TED-Ed lesson series — is driven by this goal: How can we best spread great ideas?

TED is owned by a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation. Our agenda is to make great ideas accessible and spark conversation.

I find it interesting to combine technology, entertainment and design. It isn’t a bad idea. And the goal to spread great ideas is worthy as well. If TED is truly an organization that brings people together to share and discuss ideas, to generate conversation and more great thoughts, then it should be promoted. And in many ways and places it is.

But like I discovered in my master’s class, there is a potential darker side to the group – or at least the way people use and perceive it. Being TED gives you an imprinture in some people’s minds. Being TED means it is the right idea. Some people are ready to believe, not discuss and consider, TED ideas.

TED can become a place for right think, a sort of group think, as people start reinforcing each other’s ideas instead of challenging them. If this type of mentality is allowed to continue it can be a place that forces out other ideas, and becomes a school of the “politically correct”, or perhaps “scientifically correct” thought.

“Scientifically correct” seems innocuous, until you do a study of science, and realize how often science has been wrong, and it took the persistence of one person or small group to show the error.

So, my challenge is, TED has a lot of great stuff, but don’t start treating TED talks as holy writ. Ideally the talks should encourage us to think, and to challenge their premises. They should advance our thinking, not curtail it.

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