TED talk bitterness is unwarranted

A Daily columnist shouldn’t be so quick to write-off TED talks.

In an April 21 column, Trent Kays expressed a rather dismal attitude with regard to this year’s upcoming TEDxUMN event. It appears to me that his column unjustly placed TED talks in a negative light in order to promote his own educational ideals.

Kays said the TED talks will only be accessible to those who attend the event in person by shelling out the ticket fee. This absolutely not the case — TED talks are posted online for anyone to see at any time for free. From Kays’ article, it is clear that he knows this, yet he continues to argue as though the talks will only benefit those “privileged” enough to attend in person.

Next, Kays bemoans the dreary teaching style of the lecturer and passive audience. I agree that this instructive method can be mind-numbing when a teacher simply parrots a textbook in a longer amount of time than it would have taken to read the book. But TED talks are meant to present fresh work regarding a speaker’s experiences, research and findings. These are ideas so new and exciting that they aren’t found in textbooks yet. TED talks are meant to tell a story to a large online audience and inspire similar innovative thinking internationally. It’s not feasible to reinvent TED talks to be based on audience participation without diluting the experience of the larger audience that watches the event online days or months later.

Kays waxes philosophical, asking, “[W]hat’s the point of any TED or TEDx event?” If it doesn’t “[help] the unprivileged, the impoverished and the enslaved,” then it’s nothing but “intellectual masturbation.”

This argument is absurd. It implies that any academic work — participation in any event or organization, really — that does not make its first priority to eradicate human suffering is a complete waste of time and immoral. This problem is not exclusive to TED talks, Kays, so why stop there? Why do humans do anything that does not directly benefit others? Why do we selfishly go to the movies when we could instead spend the two hours volunteering at a soup kitchen? Why should we bother to save money at all when it could be going to buy food and shelter for the homeless? Surely you can’t blame TED talks specifically for doing what they do, rather than rushing straight to the aid of the
oppressed.

I appreciate Kays’ humanitarian vision. However, he has unfairly slighted TED in an effort to shoehorn his own views regarding education and social justice.