What would Patrick Moynihan think about TED?

August 23, 2012

I came across an article on the TED blog about the 20 most watched TED talks. I found it at first oddly unsettling. And then I realized there was nothing at all odd about being unsettled by that. Here’s what TED has to say about itself:

“TED is dedicated to ideas worth spreading. And that leaves many wondering exactly which ideas have been spread the most widely in the six years that TEDTalks videos have been available online…”

Of course the fact that an idea has spread is not evidence ipso facto that it was worth spreading. See the Jersey Shore. Res ipsa loquitur.

But this post hoc logic is of a piece with the impact TED is having on the world of knowledge and ideas (or at least on the popular perception of that world). TED is about the consumerization of thoughts and ideas. It is about designing and packaging them into cute little bites that are easily digested by the masses. But is that what knowledge has come to?

I can assure you, the great thinkers of human history did not trade in memes. Pick up a copy of Plato’s Dialogs. Read Aristotle. Kant. Freud. Marx. If you don’t like “dead white guys,” read Margaret Mead. Read Simone de Beauvoir. Read Betty Friedan. Read Cornel West. (Note: I put none of those non dead white guys in the same league as the dead white guys. But that’s not the point.) These thinkers traded in thoughts. They waded into the detail. Deep into the detail. They explored ideas, formulated theories, tested them empirically and with thought experiments. Because that is what it takes to make the case for an idea worth having.

I enjoy TED talks as much as the next guy or gal. I also enjoy watching the Rambo movies. But I don’t finish a Rambo movie with the feeling of having immersed myself in the intricacies of military theory. Or even tactics. Nope. To do that, I’d have to pick up von Clausewitz. Or Sun Tzu. Or the like.

TED talks are definitely valuable. So is the quickie. So is fast food. These things have their place. But they are not the stuff of which healthy relationships, healthy diets or healthy intellects are made.

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