I’ve never been to TED, the $6,000 conference extravaganza that sells out every year. However, I’ve seen many different posts that either point to TED presentations or talk about how great TED is. So I was caught off guard by Umair Haque’s recent post at Bubblegeneration:
So, let me be a bit more blunt than I’d like to be. Do conferences like TED do more harm than good?
It’s not just the fact that TED is just a wee bit pretentious.
The problem is simple. The underlying assumption is that we can help solve the world’s big problems by putting a bunch of interesting people in a room and talking about stuff.
Intrigued I read on. It gets even more interesting a few sentences later:
Economic history, of course, has been a harsh judge of this approach. We know how it ends up: creating even more misery than went before. It’s helping societies build the right DNA that fuels growth.
And that’s exactly why, though TED is sexy, it’s also kind of intellectually bankrupt: it’s actively helping stop new DNA from happening.
Let me put it even more sharply. There have been gatherings like TED for hundreds of years. But the vast majority of the world continues to live in bone-crushing poverty, misery, and fear.
Think about that for a second.
Acknowledging the Gap
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m headed to two conferences, E-Tech and SXSW. I’m sure I’ll have a great time, see friends, and enjoy the presentations. I’m also realistic about what a conference can accomplish and the dependence upon the individual to act on what she learns. However, conferences like TED create the perception that something is happening by the very act of “putting a bunch of interesting people in a room and talking about stuff.”
Sometimes unknowingly, we get caught up in the discussion, forgetting that we’ve got to figure out a way to act. The discussion is so intriguing, however, that we tell ourselves that the talk will naturally progress to action because it’s so great. As Umair points out, such gatherings have happened for years and the world is still beset by the serious problems focused on at these events. Clearly, we need to do a better job of bridging the gap between talking and acting.
One Step at a Time
In simple terms, it’s the difference between talking about starting your own business and putting together a business plan. Then, it’s the difference between talking about the business plan and taking the plan to a bank to discuss financing. You can see how this plays out. Success isn’t even determined by whether you open the business but whether you keep acting on the ideas. Talk alone isn’t enough, but it is a starting point.
Umair added an update today, clarifying:
I am not “bashing” TED. Nor do I think it’s just wankery. I enjoy watching the talks. But I’m not sure it does more good than harm.
Let me put it another way. Conferences are one way to organize and manage stuff—a kind of DNA.
When the stakes are low – a conference for media deal-making or something—that’s fine.
But when you get lots of brilliant people in one room, surely there’s a way to organize it so more value is created than just lots of interesting talks. Surely there’s a way to amplify the productivity of conferences like TED – because right now, it ain’t too high…The problem is that the very people whose problems desperately need solving the most—are always excluded by the DNA of orthodox conferences.
I didn’t get the feeling that Umair’s intent was to bash TED, which some of the comments seem to believe. I think instead that he’s done a great job of analyzing the underlying value of events like TED. I’d love to see a comparison of historical TED talks compared to initiatives related to the subjects under discussion. Does TED contribute to the solution or distract from the problem? On an even bigger scale, when are we talking when we could be acting, hiding behind the belief that the talking is enough?