Is TED Really Spreading Ideas?

I know I’ve posted quite a few TED talks, and I’m an avid TED talk watcher. That’s why the headline “How TED Makes Ideas Smaller” on The Atlantic really caught my attention. How could this site that has only opened my mind and brought me inspiration be considered to make ideas smaller?

The article is an interesting read. The author says that TED claims to spread ideas (their catchphrase being “Ideas worth spreading”) but that these ideas are not just ideas, “they’re branded ideas.”

She talks of how we live in a world of networked knowledge, where our knowledge, ideas, even wisdom is breaking out of the confines of the printed book, and thinker’s brains, to be spread across the world in a hyper-connected online state. This means we are beginning to realize ideas take on a life of their own after they erupt from the inventor’s head. The idea that ideas should be contained, mass-produced and sold is a by-product of print technology. It’s a concept that has developed with the growth of print media and that before, ideas were “conversational and free-wheeling and collective”.

She even takes a stab at TED’s catchphrase, “ideas worth spreading” saying that the phrase itself implies that “spreading is itself a work of hierarchy and curation”.

The bottom line is that she is saying that the ideas in TED talks are the “cultural equivalent of a patent: a private claim to a public concept.” She says the ideas in TED talks aren’t presented as ideas; they’re presented as ideas by someone.

I think she’s being a bit harsh on my friend TED. Every troll on the Internet has his or her own ideas and concepts and beliefs on how the world should work. Everyone wants to have his or her say, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. The reason I love to watch TED talks, the reason I’m inspired by them and truly listen to them, is because they’re presented by someone. They have a real, knowledgeable face. They have a history.

A speaker lends authority to his or her speech. When a historian gets up and tells you about a historical event, you’re likely to listen to what he says closely. When an introvert stands up and talks about introverts, you listen to what they have to say about it. I don’t think of Susan Cain as someone who suddenly owns the idea of introversion being something that we should respect and allow for. I see her as the pump that pushes the water that is her idea out into the world, through the faucet that is the TED talk.

I don’t think TED talkers claim ownership of the ideas they come to the conference to present. They claim to have the passion and drive to push the idea out into the world and the desire to ask people to listen. I don’t think it’s fair to call the ideas that TED brings forth as “branded ideas”.

What do you think? Is TED a platform that constricts ideas because it merely facilitates the ownership of ideas? Or is it a channel for allowing ideas to flourish and grow across the world?

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11 Responses to Is TED Really Spreading Ideas?

  1. As another avid TED watcher, I disagree. Honestly I have yet not read the entire article on the Atlantic yet, but I don't watch TED videos so I can get inspired to do the SAME THING the talk is on. I watch TED videos to get inspired in general.

    As a design and artist, quite often the TED talks I watch have NOTHING to do with what I am working on or painting…. but they do get the gears to move. Something about watching an intelligent discourse of ideas, rather than just slapping the newest Micheal Bay movie in, helps to inspire and motivate my own creativity.

  2. I can see the viewpoint but I have to disagree. I watch TED to inspire new thought. There are no original ideas, innovation comes from remixing other ideas. In that way, I use them as a never ending supply of imagination and wonder. Once in a while I even do something productive with it.

  3. It's the way of the internet. People are petty and jealous and she is clearly just trying to strike down something good and gaining attention for herself in the process. TED is a stage for people to share experiences, show their art or technology and most importantly their ideas. It inspires and if she is to closed to understand that it's her loss but I fail to see why she should be given attention to attack one of the few really good things the internet has. Because lets face it TED without the free online videos is not TED.

  4. I can see those points as being valid. However like with many intelligent conversations and ideas the people who talk about and listen to those ideas are the people who embrace them. The people we all wish would listen to and understand the ideas for the most part unfortunately never will.
    TED though is a great convention because it allows the people with the money power and drive to get together and make the ideas they share a reality. That's the goal of the actual convention. The fact that they post all their speeches is just a plus to get us the little folk to know whats happening in the world. Long as the people with the power and resources use said power as we see in TED then TED is being a success.

  5. I have watched a few TED talks and I never, ever, felt like somebody was claiming ownership of an idea.

    It never felt like it was about the presenter in any way.
    I don't remember a single brand or even a presenter's name.

    Therefore, I disagree.

    Also – does TED actually claim to spread ideas? No – they list ideas; the audience does the spreading by sharing the videos with their friends, twitter, etc. The slogan is telling the truth.

  6. I think the author of the article is forgetting something about the way ideas were spread in the Good Ole Days. Why did Edison win in the battle with Tesla? Because Edison was a personable, charismatic fellow and Tesla was about as approachable as a porcupine with a cold. Regardless of either persons scientific merits, or lack, it takes a face to at least get the idea out there. People once it can be seen, then it can be run with. Also, identifying characteristics can help when concepts evolve. Named after the person, fairly or unfairly, means we can differentiate from previous incarnations.

  7. Actually, Edison was a manipulative, scheming, strong-arming, son of a bitch who set out to ruin Tesla. He was not a nice man. But, obviously he could act like one.

  8. The Atlantic article sounds like nonsense. The fact is that ideas are not "brandable" – TED presentations are subject to copyright law, and copyright does not cover ideas. Brands, by contrast, are regulated by trademark law, and aside from branding TED itself, the TED videos are (AFIAK) not directly promoting the goods and services of the presenters, but rather throwing up ideas for analysis and debate. If you go out any by a book by one of the presenters, that's indirect.

  9. I can honestly say i have watched every ted post that has been on here. i feel inspired. for myself, my daughter, and, every generation that I will never meet. thank you TED for helping me strive to be better, and to better the world for everyone present and future company included.