A thing named TED

TED Talks can be interesting for passive consumption.

by Trent M. Kays


With hesitation, I attended TEDx­UMN on Saturday. The event was full with a waitlist. It was home to a diverse crowd of students, professors and non-academic professionals.

The basic idea of TED Talks is to bring people together and proffer “ideas worth spreading.” This tagline has become ubiq­uitous, and scenes of spotlighted, miked lecturers proselytizing to a passive darkened audience dance through our minds. This is TED.

The first talk, which continues to be the most ambiguous to me, addressed mental health and apples. Or, how an apple helped a man overcome preconceived notions of what he was supposed to do with his life. The second talk focused on online mental health tools, and while interesting, it felt like a presentation at an academic conference. Combined, these talks addressed things im­portant to me: the mental health of students. As someone who has visited mental health services, these are important topics.

Despite the topic’s critical importance, especially to me, these talks were too often filled with cliches and dry academic wit, re­spectively.

The third talk was my favorite. It was well-delivered, engaging and interesting. The speaker, an engineer and professor, is part of a team working on light-powered robotic suits. Think Iron Man, except realis­tic. Out of all the speakers, the third speaker made the best use of the stage. It was still a lecture, but it was a lecture done well.

The next round of talks was somewhat stimulating. My second favorite was the fourth talk, which addressed open textbook initiatives and the Open Academics Proj­ect housed at the University of Minnesota. Working to ease the cost of college atten­dance, the project makes reviewed, openly licensed and complete editions of textbooks available for free. As a teacher, I can appre­ciate this work, though I rarely require text­books in my courses anymore.

The next two talks were insipid. The fifth and sixth talks felt as if they should be part of a Tony Robbins “Unleash the Power Within” seminar, except without the risk-free satisfaction guarantee. While obviously inspiring stories for the speakers and seem­ingly themed around not waiting, they were far too concerned with the repetition of over­used and common platitudes. Mostly every­thing your guidance counselor ever told you about being and inventing yourself was cen­trally rehashed in these two talks.

The fifth speaker argued we should just ignore the standard paradigm and do things without asking permission. The sixth of­fered us the encouragement to invent our own work and treat jobs as if they shouldn’t be careers but short-term opportunities. So much for stability, right? Overall, the ideas behind both these talks seemed to be that we should be prepared to make changes often in order to secure our future. While colored by tremendous issues of cultural and socio-economical privilege, this is still notable.

The last gamut of talks had little in com­mon. The seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th talks were more harbingers of the future than anything else. These talks focused on medical tourism, capitalism and climate change, meat and crop consumption and the power of individuals to develop peace, respectively. These topics were as fascinat­ing as they were timely. Yet, by the last talk throes, I was worn out from the uncomfort­able seats paired with audience members’ tremendous body odor, which I can only imagine was due to lack of bathing.

Without a doubt, all the speakers were passionate about their topic, and they want­ed to share that passion. However, the most engagement the audience had with the speakers consisted of leaning forward in their seats or seeing the speakers in passing in the theater foyer. I suppose this lack of en­gagement was understandable: There were lots of people at the event.

Perhaps the speakers’ ideas would have been able to better spread if delivered in a format that actually allowed open discus­sion. As it stands with all TED Talks, the per­son on the stage talks and the people in the audience passively listen. Then, the person on the stage leaves and the audience claps. Set on repeat, and you’ve got a TED Talk!

While all the speakers were passionate, one aspect that overshadowed the entire event was the critique of privilege. Or, I should say, the lack of such a critique. As I witnessed tweets and comments speed by on various social media, I was frustrated by the lack of discussion surrounding elitism and privilege. Unfortunately, I anticipated such a deficit.

The theme of many TED Talks argue that we should just make change or just invent ourselves or just create our niche. While lacking in brilliance, I can certainly understand the idealism inherent in these lectures. What undergirds these sermons is the privilege of the speakers. Some are more privileged than others, but nonethe­less, the speakers have been born into a class, country or area that enables them to do what they want to do.

Of course, one can set up or invent their career after they’ve had a world-class educa­tion and arose in a relatively fair culture. Yet, for the impoverished, the oppressed and the under-educated, life is much more complex.

We can’t all “just do it.”