23rd April 2012: The TED Effect

TED (2008)

 

I first encountered the TED Effect whilst on a university research team in 2004-05. A research consortium had tasked the team to consider what the internet of 2010 might resemble. We struggled to develop a methodological framework. The team eventually settled on covering trends that could already be read in Businessweek, Fast Company or The Economist. Interviewees were often taken at face value rather than probed or contrasted with contestable viewpoints. Presentation sound-bites replaced theoretical frameworks. The team’s rising academic star subsequently left to pursue a more lucrative career as a Web 2.0 consultant.

 

Richard Saul Wurman‘s Technology, Entertainment, Design conference is now the benchmark for academic presentations. TED has turned academic researchers and public intellectuals into internet superstars and social media phenomenons. It rivals Austin’s SXSW conference and John Brockman’s Edge salon in promoting the Faustian creative dynamism of culture, science, and technology. Ridley Scott tapped TED 2023 to promote his science fiction film Prometheus. Yet the influential conference also has critics. Hip-hop and cultural media theorist Roy Christopher observed, “A once visionary site of Big-Idea exchange has become the Starbucksification of public intellectualism.”

 

TED originally aimed to strengthen viewers’ “understanding of the world” beyond their personal experiences. It echoed the utopian CNN effect which media theorists postulated after the 1990-91 Gulf War: Ted Turner’s television network could positively influence political decision-makers about international humanitarian events. A decade later University of Manchester’s Piers Robinson carefully evaluated the CNN effect’s record during humanitarian crises in Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. Robinson’s book The CNN Effect (London: Routledge, 2002) concluded that, “the media coverage manufactured consent for official policy” (p. 121). The original media theory sound-bite hid a darker institutional truth.

 

Christopher suggests that TED now suffers from a “gate-keeping function” failure and an obsession with “Big Names”. “One person spends years developing idea X and then one of The Chosen mentions X in a TED Talk™, and then it’s their idea. That is a problem,” he writes. This was in part one of the problems that the research team I was on failed to confront in 2004-05. ‘Hot topics’ and ‘hype cycle’ events were an easier sell during TED-style public talks than rigorous research designs. The debate made for lively internal meetings. Christopher points to the reality that the ‘winner-takes-all’ pressure for aspiring, emerging academics to become a Big Name can create its own perverse incentives and moral hazards.

 

There’s a place for cross-pollinators and boundary-spanners in academia. The Conversation blog now fills the gap for Australian academics who want to promote their expertise in the research sector. Many more people will learn about 10,000 hours in Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers (New York: Penguin, 2008) than who will read K. Anders Ericsson‘s original research on expertise and deliberative practice. Popularisers like James Gleick, Steven Johnson, Kevin Kelly and Douglas Rushkoff can bring engagement, fresh insight, and a narrative arc to academic research that is dry and boring in its original form. But many like Seth Godin or Timothy Ferriss are also closer to effective self-marketers than academic researchers.

 

TED’s success blurs this distinction between effective self-marketers and academic researchers. This is the TED Effect in a more negative form. Academics now need to treat each published journal article as a major release event like a film or a music album. They need to create buzz around their research to attract external competitive grants and partner organisations. They should have a social media presence – at least on Academia.edu and Google Scholar. But this doesn’t replace the craft and journeyman facets of academic research. Citation, communities of practice, constructive yet critical peer review, and other scholarly practices remain important.

 

Christopher cites Alex Reid and Ian Bogost that many academics write in order to get tenure and to satisfy promotions committees. Perhaps these academics now write to get on the TED talks circuit. I have pointed out elsewhere that this establishes the wrong institutional conditions to become a self-motivated, productive, intrinsic writer. Over time this subtly destroys ‘the edge’ that an academic may have cultivated and impacts negatively on their original, authorial voice.

 

Universities provide selection pressures which provide varied solutions to different academics who don’t get to give profile-raising TED talks. Some have a productive period during and initially after their PhD and then settle into a mid-career plateau of administrative and overseas teaching work. Some discover the pedagogical joy of teaching-based research. A small core gain institutional incentives and resources to get promoted to Associate Professor or Professor. They may then get promoted into university senior management. However, this also means that Christopher’s problems about academic publishing are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, in the absence of a coordinated institutional response. The conservativeness of promotions and tenure committees will likely trump individual boycotts of academic journal publishers.

 

I reached a similar conclusion to Christopher about post-TED academic life which we jointly discussed during lunch a month ago at SXSW. It involves a self-funded research program, conference travel and resources modelled on self-managed artists. I have the freedom to choose who to collaborate with; what institution to publish with; and where to publicly archive research outputs. Although there are financial limitations it also means I can side-step the institutional mechanisms that take up a lot of potential research time for others. Robert Fripp‘s experience with Discipline Global Mobile was one important influence on my decisions. Trent Reznor‘s experience with The Null Corporation was another.

 

I don’t expect to hear from TED anytime soon: I’m not a Big Name yet.