Shortly before New Year's, I was reading The Guardian when I happened upon a great editorial that intelligently criticized the popular TED conferences. It turns out that it was written by an old L.A. acquaintance, Benjamin Bratton, who currently teaches at UCSD's visual arts program.
The piece, "We need to talk about TED," culled from Bratton's TEDx San Diego talk (below), was interesting on so many levels. But, prima facie, it put a smile on my face because its premise -- that TED's dumbed-down, pop-intellectual, Gladwellian talks weren't doing our already devolving culture any favors -- struck a personal chord.
Years back, I interviewed Bratton, who was then working on an interactive "living house" bio-architectural project, and when I found his language getting too oblique and heady, I prodded him to simplify his concepts so that a broader readership might enjoy the richness of his work. This is, on a small scale, like asking Stephen Hawking to make his discoveries more palatable for the mainstream (and those of us who got through a mere third of A Brief History of Time can attest to the fact that it doesn't really work).
According to Bratton, this doesn't work for TED either. Ideas worth spreading? Perhaps. But can you build the future with ideas and what has come of TED's attempts to do so? I can't help but recall a conversation I had with a ne'er-do-well trust funder who spent his days at home steeped in thought. I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. His response: "I like ideas. I like TED."
If that doesn't sum it up, Bratton does by infusing his own TEDx talk with a strong dose of realism. To paraphrase in my words: He says we need to get down to brass tacks and address the difficult questions of our times rather than just oohing and ahhing over technological innovation without truly examining its perils. (For more on this, check out Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget.)
"More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins," Bratton commands. And with such pithy bumper-sticker slogans that take an intelligent swipe at TED's newspeaky-intellectual culture, it turns out that I may have been wrong all those years back. Bratton has actually gotten pretty damn good at marrying heady intellectual ideas with pop-friendly sentiments -- and he does it without sacrificing depth and complexity.