I say ‘very’ rather than ‘super’. I think mountains are awesome but simply having the right money for my waiter is not. I don’t think I’m amazing: I don’t even believe I should think that. In sunny Silicon Valley, this moderate British scepticism makes me feel churlish and cynical. It certainly has no place at Googleplex in Mountain View, California, where I found myself recently, among 250 ‘thought leaders’ – researchers, writers, educators, artists, policymakers, investors – gathered for the Sci Foo ‘unconference’.
Fast forward a few weeks, and across the world to Copenhagen, for the MAD Symposium on the restaurant trade, organised by René Redzepi, head chef at Noma. Once again, I’m at an event that oozes positivity and where it seems all the speakers are ‘inspiring’ and ‘amazing’. The ethos is unmistakably the same one I’ve encountered in the UK, at various boutique, spoken-word events I’ve participated in, such as Salon London, the Lost Lectures and Sunday Papers Live.
A highly contagious meme is spreading around the world, one that can even make reserved Brits super excited. It takes serious ideas and turns them into play, packages big subjects into small parcels, and makes negativity the deadliest of sins. And it’s obvious what we should call the thousands, perhaps millions, who are helping to spread that meme: Generation TED.
TED started off in 1984 as a conference loosely themed around Technology, Entertainment and Design. Perhaps ahead of its time, it lost money and wasn’t staged again for six years. In the early 2000s, the founder of Future Publishing Chris Anderson got involved and the 18-minute talks began to be filmed. In 2006, the first of these videos were put on the web and, within three months, had attracted more than a million views. Now there are more than 1,800 TED talks online and the most popular have been viewed tens of millions of times. Almost all contain some kind of uplifting, self-help message. People can also organise their own TEDx events under licence, which has produced a further 30,000 films from 130 countries.
TED is merely the most visible manifestation of an approach to ideas and creativity that is catching on all around the world. For some, it adds up to nothing more than ‘middlebrow megachurch infotainment’, as art and design theorist Benjamin Bratton wrote in The Guardian in December; it provides bite-sized fast-thought for a distracted public that has lost the ability to concentrate.
Are the critics right or is there real substance in the modus operandi of Generation TED?
I hoped to find some answers at the weekend conference jointly organised by Google, O’Reilly Media, Nature, and the software and app developer Digital Science. Known as Sci Foo Camp (for Science Friends of O’Reilly), the event reinforces many stereotypes of the cool creative and high-tech industries. Everybody dresses down, and shorts are as common as ties are rare. Senior academics don their free Google baseball caps and hang out with young tech-whizzes by fake campfires or in an empty paddling pool. There is no preset agenda, and the programme is arranged by participants sticking Post-it notes with session suggestions on a huge timetable grid. Most of these involve short, informal presentations followed by freewheeling discussions. Subjects ranged from ‘Why science publishing still sucks’ to ‘Brains, complexity and emergent properties’. Two sessions comprise a dozen five-minute ‘lightning talks’.
The whole weekend was infused with a playful spirit characteristic of Generation TED. A proposed session on bringing play into the workplace attracted the most interest from fellow campers. Playful work environments provoke envy from those whose jobs are monotonous, and cynicism from those who have seen hip ‘creatives’ achieving precisely nothing in oversized nurseries. But, at its best, play adds a fresh creativity that rigid working routines kill. A playful spirit shakes you up and gives you a chance to see things from a slightly different angle.
The embrace of the play ethic meant that, while it was exhausting – with 15 hour-long sessions over one and a half days – Sci Foo didn’t feel like hard work. Everyone seemed both laid back and busy. This spirit of paradox and contradiction infuses the world-view of Generation TED.
Sometimes, however, these tensions are not especially creative, merely troubling, as in the clash between inclusion and exclusion. On the one hand, in the internet age everyone can access anything and get their ideas out there. But while the web is open, democratic and egalitarian, only the chosen few get to give talks and be seen by millions. Even attending a TED Global conference is at the discretion of the organisers. And while anyone can watch a TED talk, MAD presentation or Lost Lecture for free on a computer, tickets to this year’s TED Global in Rio de Janeiro cost $6,000 each.
Sci Foo Camp embodies this tension between openness and exclusivity. Once there, everyone is equal, but few are called to what is a select networking opportunity. Ask people why they came and, if they are honest, they talk about being flattered. That’s certainly how I felt. Of course, it is an incredible opportunity to hang out with a diverse group of interesting, smart people, sparking off ideas that you’d never otherwise have. But the invitation to attend also seems like an opportunity to enter a secret society, an inner circle of thinkers selected by a cadre of rich and powerful players in the online world. Who knows what this might lead to? A TED talk, perhaps? It’s certainly part of the same world. I heard versions of the phrase ‘When I was at TED…’ many times over the weekend. Without the networking incentive, I’m not sure I would have been able to justify the huge expense of jetting out to California.
To be progressive and radical once meant being sceptical and opposed to large corporations. For Generation TED this is outdated thinking that leads only to cynicism and inertia
There is a second, related contradiction, between the celebration of maverick freethinking and the web’s powerful domination by a handful of controlling big players. At Sci Foo, everyone was made to feel relaxed and welcome, but Google’s security guards were everywhere, making sure no one wandered outside the event’s designated area. Google clearly struggles with this tension. It strives for an open web and still stands by its motto, ‘Don’t be evil’, which even formed the basis of the Wi-Fi password on the company buses taking campers from their hotels to campus. But Google has now become a corporate behemoth with enormous power. Many campers expressed sotto voce a feeling that, in accepting Google’s hospitality, they had in some way supped with the devil.
At times, the contradictions between the ideals that the tech world has inherited from the beat generation, and the realities of 21st-century business become too much. As several people remarked, how can a business insist you dispose of your compostable coffee cups in the right bins when many of its guests have flown thousands of miles to get there, and the company has its own fleet of private jets? And it’s hard to swallow all that talk of empowering ordinary citizens and saving the planet when it comes from hugely powerful, mega-rich winners of the tech revolution.
But the contradictions do not necessarily betray any insincerity. To believe that people’s sense of moral responsibility and idealism declines as their income rises is stupidly simplistic. I saw nothing fake at Sci Foo. There was nothing in it for Google, O’Reilly Media, Nature or Digital Science, who spent a lot of money hosting the event, nor for the volunteers from these companies who helped out for no other reason than that they thought it would be an amazing weekend.
For the most part, these tensions are the inevitable result of the contemporary world rather than gross hypocrisies. Generation TED does not believe that money is evil, business is bad or that only small is beautiful. It knows that it takes a lot of cash to stage a major event, and that means a combination of corporate sponsorship and realistic ticket prices. Free festivals might have been fun but you’re not going to get the best talent from around the world if you expect them to bring their own tents and can’t pay their air fares. It is naive to think that a brighter future can be built without better big businesses.
This point is central to understanding what Generation TED stands for. For critics, it looks like a sell-out. To be progressive and radical once meant being sceptical and opposed to large corporations. For Generation TED, however, this is outdated thinking that leads only to cynicism and inertia. It’s time to grow up and accept that to do good things in a capitalist world you often need to tap the wealthy. In reality, this has always been true: think of Engels supporting Marx, or Beatrice and Sidney Webb funding Fabian Socialism with inherited wealth.
The rejection of cynicism, however, sometimes looks less like realism and more like naive, starry-eyed optimism. In its mission statement, TED says: ‘We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.’ It goes without saying that this change is supposed to be for the better. Viewers get to choose which adjective best describes the video they’ve watched: beautiful, courageous, funny, informative, ingenious, inspiring, fascinating, jaw-dropping, or persuasive. ‘Bullshit’ and ‘misleading’ are not on the list. Generation TED believes that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.
This atmosphere of overwhelming positivity also prevailed at Sci Foo. We were told at the start to ‘Be fantastic with each other’, a phrase that only reminded me of the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), in which two dumb time-travelling surfer dudes inadvertently start a religion whose motto is ‘Be excellent to each other!’ At the camp’s end, participants were invited to share their upbeat ‘Sci Foo moments’, ensuring that everyone left on a high.
There is something attractive about this, especially when compared with the traditional sneering cynicism of the liberal intelligentsia. After all, if you look at the people who really have made positive changes in the past half century, all have focused on the opportunities for making things better rather than the irredeemable rottenness of the modern world. The UK’s much-loved National Health Service was created by idealistic politicians, not those who dismiss parliamentarians as self-serving egomaniacs. Bill Gates has done far more to tackle malaria than the bien pensant Jeremiahs of literary Hampstead.
What’s more, this is a generation that has grown up in a fast-changing world of disruptive technologies. For them, radical change is not hypothetical but a daily reality. They have seen that the past is not necessarily a guide to the future, and so their question ‘Who knows what’s possible?’ is real and genuine. The fatalism of the post-war generations might have once been well-founded, but to assume plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose in the 2010s is to be blind to both the potential and the reality of the information age.
Nonetheless, Generation TED does lack sufficient scepticism. Truly great ideas are sculpted with the chisel of critical thought, not created fully formed by spontaneous genius and good intent. We don’t need to wallow with postmodern irony in the contradictions and paradoxes of the modern world but nor should we ignore them. There are signs that Generation TED is learning this lesson. TED, for example, has added an asterisk to its strapline ‘Ideas worth spreading’, which leads to a series of wry footnotes including ‘and challenging’. It is as though even TED has realised that undiluted positivity is not enough and that critical, sceptical voices are needed too.
Depth is also needed alongside the breadth that characterises Generation TED’s voracious appetite for big ideas from a wide range of sources. Writing in the New Statesman in 2012, the UK science writer Martin Robbins said ‘TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place.’ For those who consume the short talks, there is always the danger of living life in the intellectual shallows.
I was a fish out of his own water, and that is a good place to be. We need to get out of our familiar ponds and swim with strangers
However, once you look at the participants, the breadth over depth charge doesn’t stand up. Speakers are invited to give talks at TED and campers are invited to Sci Foo only because they have their own specialisations. Depth is what you bring, breadth is what you take away. The whole premise of these intense intellectual mash-ups is that people are doing all sort of interesting things but, because they work within their own fields, there is not enough cross-fertilisation. Thinkers and writers need to be thrown together for serendipitous intellectual encounters to occur. At Sci Foo, for example, I spoke to some people who work in systems theory and they provided a fresh perspective on a long-held idea of mine.
This is something that Generation TED has definitely got right. Everyone rightly bemoans the way that academic specialisation and organisational silos prevent people from sharing expertise and knowledge. Most experts have at least one thing to say which is of interest to people outside their specialist field, so we need forums that allow experts to communicate and share in non-technical language.
Therefore breadth augments depth, at least for participants in these events. It could be the same for those watching online, but the signs here are that breadth too often substitutes for depth. One anecdote from Sci Foo illustrates this: a fellow camper’s book sales shot up after he appeared on PBS radio in the US. However, there was no discernible effect on book sales after his TED talk went online, with more than half a million views in less than a week. This echoed my own experiences of appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week and having a TEDx talk selected for the main TED site. The traditional radio listener takes in short bursts of information and then follows up some at greater length, but Generation TED grazes for intellectual sustenance on video snacks and rarely sits down for a complete meal.
Just as Generation TED needs a bit of scepticism, so it also needs to recognise that intellectual nuggets are only tasters and not the final word: just because something takes 18 minutes to watch, that doesn’t mean it takes only 18 minutes to fully understand.
I certainly left the Googleplex with my head buzzing, and realising that my intellectual reservations were much easier to deal with than my cultural prejudices. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to hear something quotidian being called ‘awesome’ without feeling that reflex smirk of the sober Englishman convinced of his own cultural superiority. That is surely the main reason why I began the ‘unconference’ feeling like a fish out of water.
By its end, I realised the metaphor wasn’t quite right. I was a fish out of his own water, and that is a good place to be. We need to get out of our familiar ponds and swim with strangers. That simple idea is at the heart of Generation TED. At its worst, it reduces us to goldfish, constantly gawping at what is in front of us but never taking anything in. But that is far from inevitable. We can dive deep as well as float on the surface, content to bask in the warm glow of bright minds. We can temper our optimism with scepticism. If we play our cards right, the new world of enthusiastic intellectual exchange and creative openness can be – perhaps there is no better word for it – awesome.