Mar 16, 2013

Is TED a Cult?

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

I never gave a whole lot of thought to TED. I've seen a few lectures because they went viral. Some were good. Some not so much. I never had the time or inclination to research the organization. But over the past few weeks, they've drawn my attention less because of some of the excellent presentations they've posted than because they've censored that excellent content. So, I'm learning about TED just in time to watch it jump the shark.

As I wrote yesterday, they censored two excellent lectures by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake. Weeks ago I watched a brilliant talk by Nick Hanauer that I saw posted on a thread with a very high recommendation. But as I was watching the video, I noticed other videos in the sidebar about how it had been censored, and began picking through that morass.

In watching the drama unfold between Hancock and TED, so many of the patterns are familiar. I've seen this with a lot of the big sites through the years: the in-group/out-group dynamics, the condescension and derision from site administration, the accusations that people who complain are basically spammers, the exasperated indifference from site administration, the sense from administrators that they are displaying benevolent largesse by even allowing criticism and discussion of their backroom decision, the refusal to answer direct questions, the bald-faced bullshitting...  I could go on but, really, it's so tiresome.

I've long thought that large web communities were ripe for some sort of study into the psychology of influence. They so rapidly devolve into authoritarian hierarchy. I see a lot of it displayed on the web-based arm of TED. But I have to admit that I was brought up short by the Joe Rogan interview I saw posted last night in response to TED's censorship of Graham Hancock. If this is what's going on at the actual conferences, TED is so much worse than I thought.

Rogan interviewed TED refugee Eddie Huang, who brought tales of cult-like behavior within TED. Huang compares it to Scientology. If you can get past the profanity -- not an issue for me but it merits mentioning -- this is a very interesting discussion. If Huang's experience is even remotely reflective of what goes on behind the scenes, there are some very troubling indicators here:

  • TED conferences are closed environments and none of the fellows are allowed to leave the conference
  • Forced camaraderie and inability to be alone ~ TED assigns everyone a roommate and won't allow fellows a private room even if they're willing to pay for it
  • Sleep deprivation ~ lectures, networking, and forced fun, make for very long days and full participation is overtly demanded
  • Exclusivity ~ TED is very, very special and, as part of TED, you can be special, too

Also troubling are the financial elements Huang touches upon. As discussed, TED caters to wealthy donors and, it would seem, censors accordingly.  But the financial architecture indicated here is disturbing. The heavily cultivated audience members -- who are also made to feel very, very special -- shell out thousands of dollars a piece. Fellows -- aka., the people whose lectures are the TED product -- are paid nothing. Their only remuneration is wide exposure -- should TED put their lectures out on video rather then censor them -- and the opportunity to rub shoulders with their wealthy donors.

TED also gives fellows a packet with, ahem, helpful advice, like, "don't just ask them for money," because they apparently think their brilliant speakers are idiots. And, obviously, this is not really about helping out their fellows. It's about not upsetting their big money donors, by plaguing them with crass attempts by fellows to convert their time and energy expenditure into something resembling remuneration.

So what does TED give their talent? Free room and board to participate in a week-long event, which has the possibility but not the promise of advancing their work. What does TED take from their talent? Their time, their ideas, their energy, their names... I'm reminded of Al Franken's warning to users of social media like Facebook and Google: "You are not their client, you are their product."

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