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How TED was captured

TED talks have lost their pioneering spirit. Credit: TED

January 26, 2024 - 10:00am

The Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) organisation, once a pioneering platform for sharing revolutionary ideas during the late 2000s and early 2010s, has receded from public conversation in recent years. Yet the resignations this week of six TED fellows over the selection of billionaire Bill Ackman as a speaker at the upcoming TED conference in Vancouver signals a deeper malaise at the organisation.

This incident is not just about the selection of a controversial figure: it highlights a fundamental shift in the ethos of TED, which seems to have moved away from being an ostensibly neutral platform for major innovative ideas to one that churns out content. More TED Talks are being filmed and posted than ever before, and people are still shelling out thousands of dollars for seats at the conferences. Not surprisingly, it also serves as a marketing hub for certain privileged products. Three of the most-watched TED Talks in 2023 were about the “transformative” power of generative AI — great if that’s what you’re selling.

To be fair, there was a time when the organisation genuinely served as a beacon for innovative thinking and intellectual excitement. These were the years when TED was trying to live up to its motto of “ideas worth spreading”, with speakers ranging from Nobel laureates to inventors of life-changing technology. The TED stage was graced by luminaries such as Sir Ken Robinson, whose speech on how schools kill creativity remains one of the most viewed Talks of all time, profoundly influencing thoughts on education reform. Jill Bolte Taylor’s powerful narrative of her stroke and its aftermath offered a unique window into the human brain, captivating audiences worldwide.

However, signs of the impending shift were already emerging. As the platform grew in popularity, it became increasingly attractive for individuals and corporations seeking a prestigious stage to promote their brands or ideas, often without the vetting or depth that characterised the earlier Talks. While TED does not charge speakers to give their presentations, the costs associated with attending the conferences can be substantial, and there have been instances of linked events, like TEDx (independently organised TED events), during which controversies have arisen over pay-to-play schemes. 

Once hailed as a source of inspiration, TED Talks are increasingly viewed as platforms for self-aggrandising presentations that often lack detail and rigour. After all, memorable speakers such as Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes used the medium to pioneer a certain type of polished 20-minute pitch, light on content and big on unverified claims, now ubiquitous across corporate keynotes. Even interesting Talks from the platform’s heyday, such as Elon Musk’s conversation about tunnel-building in 2017, have borne little fruit regarding the products pitched or work completed.

Perhaps the most damning critique of TED’s current state came from the satirical approach of comedian Sam Hyde in his “2070 Paradigm Shift” TEDx Talk”. Hyde’s parody — filled with absurd and nonsensical predictions (“Due to the massive birth increase, we’re gonna have a shortage of milk
[so] we’re gonna have to genetically modify all humans, male and female, to lactate once a month”) — was a direct jab at the over-optimistic and sometimes baseless nature of many TED Talks. Performed nearly a decade ago, the spoof immediately resonated with an audience already fed up with a stale format, realising how few of the ideas it platformed were genuinely worth spreading.

TED’s current benighted state, marred by controversy and a perceived departure from its core values, suggests a need for introspection and even a renaissance of its original spirit. Only by returning to its early-1980s roots of fostering genuinely transformative discussions, free from the trappings of commercial and political biases, can TED hope to regain its status as a true incubator of ideas worth spreading. Until then, neither Bill Ackman nor anyone else is going to say anything remotely interesting, much less dangerous, on a TED stage. 


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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AC Harper
AC Harper
5 months ago

I used to watch TED in the early days and it was interesting, even exciting. In my opinion it has become a vehicle for self-agrandising people. It is no longer interesting or exciting.
Doomed by its own success perhaps?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
5 months ago

There’s the other staple; the therapy type confessional from a ‘brave’ person (the trans brigade are over-featured naturally) at the end of which the audience (as if on cue) gets to its feet and gives a group hug and teary ovation to the splurger.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
5 months ago

No doubt Ackerman will talk about the demise & degradation of higher education. The TED executives who quit clearly aren’t into mirrors.

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
5 months ago

The Coleman Hughes debacle exposed TED as more influenced by ideology than ideas.

TED: Ideology Worth Ignoring

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

My first thought too. I guess TED has become an institution now, and like all institutions, has been captured by progressive ideology.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
5 months ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

I thought Chris Anderson handled Coleman Hughes’s complaints well. Why do you call it a debacle?

Fernando B
Fernando B
5 months ago

Bill Ackman, in my opinion, has gone from strength to strength over the past few months. It’s telling how the moment he has decided to be more vocal about some of the hottest topics of the day the cancellation high priests have started their chanting.

Matt M
Matt M
5 months ago
Reply to  Fernando B

I just had a look at two of the TED Fellows who have resigned because of the association with him. They are the usual suspects!
Lucianne Walkowicz
Walkowicz is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.
On October 12, 2021, Walkowicz resigned[11] their position on NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee over the Agency’s terse response to concerns on the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope.
In April 2020 Walkowicz filed a trademark lawsuit against Mattel and one of its subsidiaries, American Girl.[18] The lawsuit alleges that the toy-maker stole Walkowicz’s likeness for the Luciana Vega astronaut doll.[19]
Sarah Sandman
Sandman is the founder and co-director of Brick x Brick, an art performance project that built human walls against Trump and misogyny from 2016-2020.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

You couldn’t make this stuff up. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a Viz comic.

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago

Anyone who hasn’t watched 2070 Paradigm Shift is doing their funny bone a great disservice.

Marc Manley
Marc Manley
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright
Michael Allen
Michael Allen
5 months ago

The TED talk format sometimes adds something extra, but most of them could be summarized in an article that could be digested in a fraction of the time. Also, they’re usually quite shallow. I’d rather just read.

Edward H
Edward H
5 months ago

The timing of this is quite amusing; I was just listening to a podcast with Chris Anderson (head of TED) last week in which he was defending TED from accusations of bias over the Coleman Hughes affair. This incident just goes to show how little his finger was on the pulse (giving him the benefit of the doubt that he actually believed what he was saying on the podcast…).

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
5 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

I followed the Coleman Hughes affair pretty closely. I thought Chris Anderson handled that well. Coleman Hughes’s main complaint was that his video wasn’t getting as many views as he wanted. That’s not TED’s fault.

Lewis Lorton
Lewis Lorton
5 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

My impression was that Coleman Hughes’ main complaint was that TED’s post-talk promotion of Hughes talk was atypically minimal and that was the cause of the minimal views.
Your explanation seems wrong.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
5 months ago

Obviously they need to diversify their offerings, institute tiers, like TED-science, TED-culture, also TED-premium etc.

starkbreath
starkbreath
5 months ago

Tireless Extrapolation of Dumbassery.

Tom K
Tom K
5 months ago

Not to mention the extent to which TED is focused on, as the Critical Drinker puts it, THE MESSAGE. Wokism is the default setting leading to a lot of tedious rubbish, speaker identity coming before subject matter quality time, after time.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
5 months ago

The best TED talk about TED talks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yo5cKRmJaf0

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
5 months ago

The fact that Carole Cadwalladr was allowed to give one tells you all you need to know about TED talks.