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Do TED Talks Prevent Real Innovation?

University of California San Diego professor Benjamin Bratton gave his own TED talk about why the much-loved lectures don't provide the reasoned, practical solutions they claim to. Is he right?
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TED talks are intended to spread ideas worth spreading. But have you ever left a TED talk with a false sense of inspiration? Has the call to innovate lost its stimulating effects and instead left you feeling anesthetized?

Benjamin Bratton, the director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego, recently gave a talk at TEDx San Diego about what's wrong with TED talks.

Bratton describes TED as "middlebrow megachurch infotainment" that oversimplifies problems, complex ideas, and real vehicles of change into easily consumable morsels. The talks are "taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems--rather this is one of our most frightening problems," he says.

Instead of actually inspiring people to transform, many TED talks are a colossal waste of time for both the speakers and the audience, Bratton says. They manipulate people by claiming to have a cure for society's problems, but in reality just make the audience complacent with a snappy, "just-so solution" reinforced with slides on a big screen. "When inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation," he says.

Some TED speakers, Bratton says, seamlessly whisk away a huge problem with a "Big Idea," from helping to lower jail recidivism rates by screening inmates for adult ADD to how to find your life's purpose in five minutes through some self-analysis.

Bratton compares TED talks' solutions to the world's problems to an easy rearrangement of puzzle pieces. But he says actually disrupting the status quo takes much more than a rapt audience looking at a man or woman pacing the stage with a hands-free microphone. "If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff--history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions," he says. "Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation."

He warns that a TED talk can be a placebo that's not just ineffective at bringing about change and innovation, but actually causes harm: "It diverts your interest, enthusiasm, and outrage until it's absorbed into this black hole of affectation."

Bratton closes the talk with some more food for thought: "At a societal level, the bottom line is that if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don't work--and don't invest in things which don't make us feel good but which may solve problems--then our fate is that in the long run it will just get harder and harder to feel good about not solving problems."

Watch the video below and let us know in the comments section what you think of Bratton's concerns.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jan 9, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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