MOSTLY, I try to dig into the arts and culture in this blog. But there are times when digital technology demands attention; technology has become the water in which we all — musician and scribe and architect alike — swim.
That’s why I’m especially pleased to nudge readers toward a piece that’s been floating around for a while which even some informed people may have missed: “We need to talk about TED,” in which art and design scholar Benjamin Bratton compares TED talks to American Idol. Even if you’ve read it before, you’re probably rolling your eyes — “that, again?” — it’s worth revisiting. Here’s how he leads off:
In our culture, talking about the future is sometimes a polite way of saying things about the present that would otherwise be rude or risky.
But have you ever wondered why so little of the future promised in TED talks actually happens? So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change. Are the ideas wrong? Or is the idea about what ideas can do all by themselves wrong?
I write about entanglements of technology and culture… So the conceptualization of possibilities is something that I take very seriously. That’s why I, and many people, think it’s way past time to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the intellectual viability of things like TED.
As he says partway down:
I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.
One of the many good things about this essay — I’ve linked to the Guardian version — is that Bratton delivered it as an actual TED talk (here) at TEDx San Diego. It’s quite electrifying, I think. He gets into all kinds of contradictions in techno-utopianism, Silicon Valley solutionism, and the shallowness of contemporary culture — including what he calls “placebo politics and placebo innovation.”
These issues have only gotten more dire — and the mythology around the benevolent wisdom of our corporate overlords even thicker — since the original speech.
I don’t know the dude, though Bratton was in LA, at the architecture school SCI-Arc, until a few years ago. I feel like someone has tapped into my thinking over the last few years and made it sharper and more focussed. Some of the subjects he gets into in his address show up in my upcoming tome Culture Crash, and I hope I’m able to deliver them with the kind of force he has.