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.

Worth Reading: Stafford Beer-Brian Eno, M&A and R&D

Personal Research Program

The Stafford Beer-Brian Eno Connection: Alex Hough of Manchester Business School mentions how the cybernetics scientist Stafford Beer influenced musician and producer Brian Eno. Beer also influenced a generation of researchers and practitioners in modular organisational design, management, and systems thinking. Eno’s collaborator Robert Fripp was influenced by a precursor, John Godolphin Bennett‘s systematics.

START Bulletin Fall 2009: The US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has just released its Fall 2009 bulletin
on its programs of research and major research reports. I’m always on
the lookout for ‘good practice’ examples of how to communicate the
research results to different audiences.

R&D Management
: Michel Bauwens tipped me off to a special issue on Henry Chesbrough‘s ‘open innovation’ and ‘open R&D’: looks very interesting. Journal article idea: Under what conditions might the innovation tournament be a more efficient allocative mechanism for R&D resources, human capital and commercialisation than other institutional structures, such as university-industry consortia and joint ventures?

SmartyGrants: An intriguing new package developed by the Australian Institute of Grants Management for grant-makers and grant-writers to manage the end-to-end grant cycle. SmartyGrants uses a subscription-based ‘software as a service’ delivery model, akin to Salesforce.com.

Mergers & Acquisitions

M&A Market Themes: NYT‘s Steven M. Davidoff on the US M&A market and Warren Buffett’s acquisition of the railway Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Davidoff’s new book Gods at War: Shotgun Takeovers, Government by Deal, and the Private Equity Implosion (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009) surveys the recent M&A market and deal trends.

‘Sell’ for Research Renegades
: Edward Robinson’s Bloomberg Markets cover-story showcases a group of ‘sell-side’ researchers who have gone solo. Robinson notes the good security analysts have gone to hedge funds whilst others have founded independent research firms. This is a model I suggested the Smart Services CRC look at during its initial planning stages for its lessons on commercially relevant research and human capital management.

The Myer IPO: Fairfax’s Michael West blames Myer for ruining the Australian IPO market for others. Three observations: (i) I agree with West that Myer’s private equity owners were driven by a macroeconomic/monetary policy timing window to cash out after their cost cutting and change management; (ii) Brokerages and commission-based sales provided an ‘echo chamber’ to talk up the Myer IPO so that the underwriter’s market-making activities are supported in the aftermarket; and (iii) always factor in market volatility into daily commentary — an 8% shift is normal in the current market conditions due to buyer-seller resistance, post-IPO speculation and different views of Myer’s fair market value — and the likelihood that the underwriter and other investment banks will attempt to stabilise the stock’s support level.

Noosphere Memes

Vale Claude Levi-Strauss: The anthropologist’s structuralist approach is credited with changing how we perceived primitive societies and their cultural and religious practices. He is probably best known in popular culture for naming the Fine Young Cannibals‘ most successful album.

Worth Reading

Robert Fripp‘s soundscapes for Microsoft’s Vista and Worldwide Telescope software.

Stephen Kinsella‘s Economics for Business lectures.

Carl Jung’s Red Book and The New York Times coverage of the behind-the-scenes battle to get the memoirs published.

Joshua Gans take note: how inventors are using auction theory to protect their patents, via firms including Pluritas, Intellectual Ventures, Allied Security Trust and Rational Patent Exchange.

Christopher Hitchens and The New York Times obituaries of neoconservative ‘godfather’ Irving Kristol.

Foreign affairs maven Robert D. Kaplan on the Al Jazeera network.

Australian Treasury press release and consultation discussion paper on R&D tax incentives.

The merger battle between University of Melbourne and Melbourne Business School.

29th May 2009: What Researchers Can Learn From Brian Eno

For anyone attending Sydney’s Luminous Festival curated by musician/producer Brian Eno, some lessons for researchers:

 

1. Develop a longer-term view for your body of work/research program: Eno’s 40-year career demonstrates how creativity, foresight and role plularity may underpin a body of work or research program. Eno’s career spans several phases: early Roxy Music, a solo career which popularised ambient music and generative art, and as a producer on breakthrough albums by David Bowie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, and U2 (sorry, Coldplay doesn’t count). For most people, helming any one of the following projects would be enough: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light (1980); U2’s The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991); or David Bowie’s epochal ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). Eno’s hit rate and cultural influence suggests he has a greater embodied awareness. For an overview, see David Sheppard’s recent biography On a Faraway Beach (Orion Books, London, 2008).

 

2. Develop a self-mastery of technique: As the creator of ambient music and generative art, Eno is frequently portrayed as a Renaissance-style creative mastermind with adaptive intent. Two more informed examples are Eric Tamm’s PhD thesis and Elspeth McFadzean’s study (‘What We Can Learn From Creative People? The Story of Brian Eno’, Management Science journal, 38:1, 2000, pp. 51-56). Eno’s diary A Year With Swollen Appendices (Faber & Faber, London, 1996) illustrates the emotional strength; attitude to funding, project and organisational constraints; and granularity of focus that a research program needs in the face of adversity.

 

3. Honour chance and luck: The ‘Law of Accident’ plays an aleatory, randomised role in many of Eno’s most influential creations: the car accident which led to the ambient music experiments for Discreet Music (1975), the Frippertronics tape delay experiments which resulted in Eno and Robert Fripp’s album No Pussyfooting (1972), and the oracular deck Oblique Strategies (1975) created with the late painter Peter Schmidt. This period shows the value of a disposition for action that is informed by conceptual depth; rapid, iterative development for strategy execution; and quasi-experimental methods with collaborators that fail fast and leverage upside risk. Eno continues this line of development with the art installation 77 Million Paintings (2006).

 

4. Build a network of collaborators and mentors: Eno’s collaborators range from David Bowie, David Byrne and U2 to journeymen producers Daniel Lanois and Robert Fripp. This network enabled Eno to transition from Roxy Music to a solo career, and then as an in-demand producer (where word of mouth and past credits are the equivalent of academic publications and grants). As recounted in Simon Reynolds‘ history of New Wave innovation, Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber & Faber, London, 2005), Eno also became a mentor and subcultural curator in the late 1970s to New York’s ‘No Wave’ scene and artists such as Devo and Talking Heads. Many of these artists and producers would become influential in their own right, rather than followers of an Eno aesthetic. Of course, sometimes things can go wrong: the rest of Talking Heads blamed Eno’s production as one of the catalysts for vocalist David Byrne’s decision to leave the band. More recently, Eno has leveraged his ‘public intellectual’ status to promote John Brockman’s Edge salon and The Long Now Foundation.