An In-depth Look at TED

September 16th, 2016

A recent story in the “American Chronicles” segment of the New Yorker gives us a look into the world of TED (not the recently released film starring a potty-mouthed plush toy and the actor formerly known as Marky Mark), the rapidly expanding industry built around a fringe “Ideas Conference,” whose acronym stands for Technology/Entertainment/Design.

TED began in California nearly 30 years ago—an amalgam of research lectures, technology demonstrations, and arts performances. A consortium of variegated style with vaulting intent, the TED platform emerges an intellectual forum for the digital age where the self-styled world stages change. In his article, Mr. Heller describes it as home to the best and brightest (and most wealthy) creative communities in America. Admission to the flagship conference in Long Beach, CA, reportedly starts at $7,500 (hotel, transportation, incidentals not included) and tickets are sold solely by invitation, or through an elaborate application process requiring essays and references. People who know TED these days frequently know it best from “TED Talks,” a series of Internet lecture videos that has received more than $800 million views to date. Its format has begun to infiltrate other media, as well, marked by an e-book imprint and an e-reader app. Abroad, “TEDx” events run at a global rate of about five per day, in 133 countries.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker segment follows TED presenter Lior Zoref, an Israeli Ph.D. student who aims to deliver a crowd-sourced thesis in concert with a lecture on the idea that a group of networked minds can shape a better product than an individual imagination. Using his blog and social media (Facebook and Twitter) to field questions, suggestions and potential subjects for his presentation, Mr. Zoref is armed with materials from which he will shape his flash opus, the crux in this case being a live ox named Teddy.

While characteristically fringe, the TED conference content is also closely governed, its curators vigilant about an editorial process that begins with the concept, an eye for material that’s new and counterintuitive given a thrust of theatrics. The talks receive a final polish from TED chiefs of staff, jointly. The high regard for entertainment value and dramatic emphasis has become an important component of TED appeal. These days, a handful of core administrators and a few other staffers decide what lectures will go online, and when. Today, the average TED video gets 40,000 views within 24 hours. Yet, there are criticisms, the central gripe being that TED talk is today a too-sentimental form. Mr. Heller seems to find no cause for concern in this, however. He posits a glib comparison, stating that, in searching for transport, people once may have read Charles Dickens, rushed the dance floor, watched the Oscars, put on the Smiths. Now, he writes, there is TED—and TED Talks, which Heller spoke about in a live Q&A. The appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from its substance. Establishing intellectual credentials in order to break past them may give TED a somewhat vaporous tone; yet, it’s noteworthy that more than half of Long Beach talks end in standing ovations. By most measures, says Heller, TED shapes its style against the mores of academia, offering a solution for college-educated adults who want to close the gap between academic thought and the lives they live now.