The Church of TED

POSTED: 03/19/15 6:52 PM

CHANCES are you will not attend TED this year. Tickets to the gathering that begins today in Vancouver are sold out, this despite or rather because of the fact that gaining entry to the ideas conference entails more than pulling out your credit card, Megan Hustad writes in an op-ed in the New York Times in which she takes the TED-hype neatly to task.

“There’s a velvet rope of an application process, and questions to answer: “How would a friend describe your accomplishments?” “What are you passionate about?” Two references have to vouch for you.

But if you don’t make the cut and shell out the $8,500 fee for general attendance, no matter. The real action and measure of TED’s reach is online. In November 2012 TED announced its “billionth video view,” which, assuming an average length of 15 minutes, means that collectively by then we had clicked on roughly 10 million days’ worth of TED talks. At our desks or on our phones, we stare as sympathetic experts tell us we should reform education, admit to personal failings more publicly or invest in the developing world. It sounds great. The ideas, which TED promises are “worth spreading,” do indeed make the rounds. (Or as the Onion put it in TED-inspired mockery: “No mind will be left unchanged.”)

I grew up among Christian evangelicals and I recognize the cadences of missionary zeal when I hear them. TED, with its airy promises, sounds a lot like a secular religion. And while it’s not exactly fair to say that the conference series and web video function like an organized church, understanding the parallel structures is useful for conversations about faith — and how susceptible we humans remain. The TED style, with its promise of progress, is as manipulative as the orthodoxies it is intended to upset.

A great TED talk is reminiscent of a tent revival sermon. There’s the gathering of the curious and the hungry. Then a persistent human problem is introduced, one that, as the speaker gently explains, has deeper roots and wider implications than most listeners are prepared to admit. Once everyone has been confronted with this evidence of entropy, contemplated life’s fragility and the elusiveness of inner peace, a decision is called for: Will you remain complacent, or change? Jesus said to the crowds, “Whoever has ears, let him hear.” A skilled tent revivalist can twist those words to suggest that simply showing up to listen makes you part of the solution.

The process just outlined is rhetorically persuasive, and being party to it can be thrilling. As a small child I thought that my parents, who worked for an international Christian broadcaster, had boosted our family’s social standing through their commitment to spreading the word. We weren’t just believers, we were believing rock stars. I was perpetually antsy during church but also knew that some people attended services only on Christmas and Easter, and I remember thinking, thank goodness we’re not like them, so ignorant and apathetic.

So on a pure emotional level I understand the appeal of sitting in a darkened room as a speaker pulls you into a crescendo of conviction that you can and will improve — and more attractive still, that your individual change for the better will make the whole world better.

In the 1920s the French psychologist Émile Coué popularized the idea that success started with the repetition of a simple mantra. Twenty times a day you were supposed to tell yourself, as one translation put it, poetically, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Prescriptions offered by many TED speakers are equally granular. The second most popular talk, measured by views on the TED site, is the one wherein Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School says that high-power poses — including standing up straighter, hands on hips — could “significantly change the way your life unfolds.”

It’s strange that this advice should have such a large audience today. (For one, it’s not really news. Studies on the effects of body language are about as old as the VHS.) Ms. Cuddy does make a fascinating case, as did Sheryl Sandberg in her 2010 talk, an early look at the “Lean In” theme, which included not one but three “powerful” pieces of advice.

TED talks routinely present problems of huge scale and scope — weimprison too many people; the rain forest is dying; look at all this garbage; we’re unhappy; we have Big Data and aren’t sure what to do with it — then wrap up tidily and tinily. Do this. Stop doing that. Buy an app that will help you do this other thing.

To imagine that small behavior tweaks are smart responses to big persistent challenges, like the gender gap in wages, is a stretch. These ideas don’t spread because people are rationally calculating the odds that they’ll work.

Perhaps the fact that there’s no intrusive voice from above makes this all more appealing than monotheism. Instead of sola scriptura, TED and its ilk offer more of a buffet-style approach to moral formation. I’ve talked to people who say they’ve happily dispensed with God, and don’t even find the general idea comprehensible. But a few, having announced they’re free of cant, spend many nervous hours assembling authority structures and a sense of righteousness by bricolage and Fitbit, nonfiction book clubs and Facebook likes.

I never imagined that the Baptists I knew in my youth would come to seem mellow, almost slackers by comparison. Of course they promoted Jesus as a once-and-done, plug-and-play solver of problems — another questionable approach.

If I were 19 again, and experimenting with sacrilege for the first but not the last time, I would heed some advice that was given to me then: “If you’re going to be an atheist, you should be having a lot more fun.”

But the truth is, now is a fun time to be a skeptic among true believers, since there are so many types of true believers to choose from. I sometimes wonder whether TED’s top 20 list will eventually morph into a creed, or whether, as in the early church, heretics will be asked to leave the party. I resist the urge to rewatch Ms. Cuddy’s talk, and stop myself from sniping at people slowing me down on New York sidewalks — people sliding forward tentatively, shoulders hunched, not because they’re tourists, but because they’re trying to move forward and look at their phones at the same time.”

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