Illustration by Brooke Bourgeois

What Was the TED Talk? | Some Thoughts on the "Inspiresting"

Oscar Schwartz

Bill Gates wheels a hefty metal barrel out onto a stage. He carefully places it down and then faces the audience, which sits silent in a darkened theater. “When I was a kid, the disaster we worried about most was a nuclear war,” he begins. Gates is speaking at TED’s flagship conference, held in Vancouver in 2015. He wears a salmon pink sweater, and his hair is combed down over his forehead, Caesar-style. “That’s why we had a barrel like this down in our basement, filled with cans of food and water,” he says. “When the nuclear attack came, we were supposed to go downstairs, hunker down, and eat out of that barrel.”

Now that he is an adult, Gates continues, it is no longer nuclear apocalypse that scares him, but pestilence. A year ago, Ebola killed over ten thousand people in West Africa. If the virus had been airborne or spread to a large city center, things would have been far worse. It might’ve snowballed into a pandemic and killed tens of millions of people. Gates tells the TED attendees that humanity is not ready for this scenario — that a pandemic would trigger a global catastrophe at an unimaginable scale. We have no basement to retreat to and no metal barrel filled with supplies to rely on. 

But, Gates adds, the future might turn out okay. He has an idea. Back when he was a kid, the U.S. military had sufficient funding to mobilize for war at any minute. Gates says that we must prepare for a pandemic with the same fearful intensity. We need to build a medical reserve corps. We need to play germ games like generals play war games. We need to make alliances with other virus-fighting nations. We need to build an arsenal of biomedical weapons to attack any non-human entity that might attack our bodies. “If we start now, we can be ready for the next epidemic,” Gates concludes, to a round of applause. 

Of course, Gates’s popular and well-shared TED talk — viewed millions of times — didn’t alter the course of history. Neither did any of the other “ideas worth spreading” (the organization’s tagline) presented at the TED conference that year — including Monica Lewinsky’s massively viral speech about how to stop online bullying through compassion and empathy, or a Google engineer’s talk about how driverless cars would make roads smarter and safer in the near future. In fact, seven years after TED 2015, it feels like we are living in a reality that is the exact opposite of the future envisioned that year. A president took office in part because of his talent for online bullying. Driverless cars are nowhere near as widespread as predicted, and those that do share our roads keep crashing. Covid has killed five million people and counting. 

At the start of the pandemic, I noticed people sharing Gates’s 2015 talk. The general sentiment was one of remorse and lamentation: the tech-prophet had predicted the future for us! If only we had heeded his warning! I wasn’t so sure. It seems to me that Gates’s prediction and proposed solution are at least part of what landed us here. I don’t mean to suggest that Gates’s TED talk is somehow directly responsible for the lack of global preparedness for Covid. But it embodies a certain story about “the future” that TED talks have been telling for the past two decades — one that has contributed to our unending present crisis.

The story goes like this: there are problems in the world that make the future a scary prospect. Fortunately, though, there are solutions to each of these problems, and the solutions have been formulated by extremely smart, tech-adjacent people. For their ideas to become realities, they merely need to be articulated and spread as widely as possible. And the best way to spread ideas is through stories — hence Gates’s opening anecdote about the barrel. In other words, in the TED episteme, the function of a story isn’t to transform via metaphor or indirection, but to actually manifest a new world. Stories about the future create the future. Or as Chris Anderson, TED’s longtime curator, puts it, “We live in an era where the best way to make a dent on the world… may be simply to stand up and say something.” And yet, TED’s archive is a graveyard of ideas. It is a seemingly endless index of stories about the future — the future of science, the future of the environment, the future of work, the future of love and sex, the future of what it means to be human — that never materialized. By this measure alone, TED, and its attendant ways of thinking, should have been abandoned.

Though no longer at its cultural apogee, the public speaking platform is more active than ever. New TED talks are constantly being delivered and then uploaded and viewed on TED’s website and YouTube channel, which has 20.5 million subscribers. There are TED podcasts, a TED newsletter, a TED Ideas blog, and a TED publishing arm, which prints “short books to feed your craving for ideas.” Before the end of this year, TEDx events will be held in Barcelona, Tehran, Kabul, Hanoi, Wuhan, Anchorage, Jakarta, Algiers, Lagos, and Tomsk, the oldest university town in Siberia. People are still paying between $5,000 and $50,000 to attend the annual flagship TED conference. In 2021, the event was held in Monterey, California. Amid wildfires and the Delta surge, its theme was “the case for optimism.” There were talks on urban possibility (“finding new, smarter ways to live together”), a tech comeback (how genetic technology and NFTs “make the case for rousing the techno-optimist in us”), and climate confidence (“How we might beat this thing!”). 

I recently watched some of the talks from this conference on my laptop. They hit like parodies of a bygone era, so ridiculous that it made me almost nostalgic for a time when TED talks captivated me. Back then, around a decade ago, I watched those articulate, audacious, composed people talk about how they were building robots that would eat trash and turn it into oxygen, or whatever, and I felt hopeful about the future. But the trash-eating robots never arrived. With some distance, now, from a world in which TED seemed to offer a bright path forward, it’s time to ask: what exactly is TED? And what happened to the future it envisioned?

 

In ancient Athens, public speaking was understood primarily as a means of persuasion; learning to convince others was the duty of a democratic citizen. For Confucius, refined speech was the embodiment of refined ethics. In nineteenth-century America, popular lectures delivered in lyceums up and down the East Coast were seen as a form of moral uplift, raising the nation’s cultural standards and satisfying the middle class’s rapacious appetite for useful knowledge. The primary function of TED, by contrast, is to predict the future. 

The inaugural TED conference, held in Monterey, California in 1984, was organized by Richard Saul Wurman, an architect, and Harry Marks, a TV broadcast designer, who shared a conviction that the separate fields of technology (T), entertainment (E), and design (D) were converging, and that their convergence was going to change the world. Lofty futurism was nothing new for the Silicon Valley cohort that attended the first TED conference. Since the dawn of digital computing, the engineers and mathematicians building the new machines had spoken of how their inventions would instigate revolutions, upend institutions, disrupt industries, and transform what it means to be human. John von Neumann, sometimes considered the father of modern computing, is said to have confessed to his wife, “What we are creating now is a monster whose influence is going to change history, provided there is any history left.” The world was about to enter a new historical epoch. The change would be exponential and irrevocable across every sphere of human activity. Wurman and Marks packaged this futurist imaginary and sold it as a live event. 

There are two recordings that survive online from the 1984 TED conference. One is a demo by a Sony executive, dressed in a suit with a silk pocket square, who plays Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra on the newly invented CD-ROM. The other is a presentation by Nicholas Negroponte, an MIT professor who would later launch the MIT Media Lab, in which he offers five predictions: electronic books, touchscreens, teleconferencing, a computationally mediated service industry, and laptops for every student in school (an idea that would eventually lead to the spectacularly abortive One Laptop per Child program, which Negroponte himself oversaw).

TED wasn’t held again until 1990, when Wurman selected a more wide-ranging lineup of speakers. This time, he added philosophers, musicians, religious leaders, and philanthropists to the roster. The talks had to be tech- and future-oriented, but also, crucially, entertaining and visionary. Fewer practical demonstrations, more high-level sermonizing. At TED2, Jaron Lanier spoke of the perception-bending potential of virtual reality. In just an hour and a half, Lanier said, he could build a digital world that attendees could later explore in the V.R. room at the conference. John Naisbitt, then a popular futurist and author, and his wife, Patricia Aburdene, talked about the “megatrends” that would transform our lives in the coming decades — more people would move back to country towns and work remotely via their computers, for instance. For some, this high-minded forecasting seemed odious. Ted Nelson, inventor of Project Xanadu, an ill-fated, hypertext-based alternative to the World Wide Web, also gave a talk at TED2. He began by calling the event “the most self-referentially smug conference that I have been at outside Apple and IBM.” But the new TED format was a commercial success, and over the 1990s, the conference gained a cult following, particularly among the increasingly wealthy Silicon Valley crowd.

Wurman’s curatorial decisions and fastidious quality control gave early TED a certain nerdy-chic exclusivity. He sat on stage for every talk. If speakers rambled or bungled a line, he would leave his chair and stand directly behind them until they noticed and left the stage. But after a decade, he grew tired of TED and, in 2001, sold it to Chris Anderson, a British media entrepreneur who made a fortune building websites (including the popular video game site IGN) and publishing magazines about “the web” (like Business 2.0) before things went south in the dot-com crash. 

Anderson’s worldview had been heavily influenced by the tech prophets of the day, like Kevin Kelly, WIRED’s born-again Christian founding editor. In his 1998 book, New Rules for the New Economy, Kelly would argue that in the digital age, value would be generated no longer through the movement of materials and energy, but through the spreading of ideas and stories — discourse converted with perfect efficiency into capital. Anderson was thinking along the same lines. In 1996, he had established the Sapling Foundation, a not-for-profit whose goal was to “provide a platform for the world’s smartest thinkers, greatest visionaries and most-inspiring teachers, so that millions of people can gain a better understanding of the biggest issues faced by the world, and a desire to help create a better future.”

When Anderson purchased TED, it was in the Sapling Foundation’s name, and at the 2002 TED conference, he sketched out a plan through which TED would further its ambitions. On stage, leaning forward in his office chair, he affected a kind of conceited chumminess distinctly reminiscent of David Brent from the British version of The Office. He began with an anecdote about his “eighteen months of business hell” in the late 1990s, but claimed that the experience had given him new insight into the future. The coming decades would not be about gatekeeping or rigid disciplinary boundaries or exclusivity, Anderson said. The future was about openness, connection, democratization of knowledge, collectivity. Ideas were there to be spread. Through this spreading,​ a better world would materialize. “To understand anything,” he said, “you just need to understand the little bits.”

 

Anderson’s speech was well-received — Jeff Bezos, an early TED enthusiast who was in the audience that day, gave him a standing ovation — and over the next few years, the conference’s reputation swelled. Anderson continued courting Silicon Valley’s future-builders for presentations. In 2003, Bezos himself, then still at the beginning of his meteoric rise to the top of the global rich list, gave a talk about how the internet was not a commodity, like gold; it was a utility, like electricity. Despite the recent downturn, there were plenty more fortunes to be made in the coming decades. “With innovation there isn’t a last nugget,” he said, grinning, as if he could see his own bright future unfolding before him. Anderson also invited several “thought leaders” who talked convincingly about how technological changes would transform society and human nature itself. This new TED tone was embodied by author Steven Johnson’s 2003 talk, “The Web as a City.” Johnson started with a story about the resilience of New Yorkers in the West Village after 9/11 and then twisted it into a metaphor for Google’s page-rank algorithm: how people and data points, if organized in dense amalgams, can generate a “collective intelligence” greater than the sum of its parts.

True to Anderson’s vision, TED’s reach continued to grow. 2005 heralded the first TEDGlobal event, held in the U.K. The biggest expansion came a year later, when TED began to upload talks online, where anyone could view them for free. Among the first talks posted was Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” which has since become the most viewed TED talk of all time; it has been watched 72.2 million times in the sixteen years since. In an immaculately delivered speech, the British author and art education consultant proposed that the public education model developed during the Industrial Revolution was outdated: it valued literacy and numeracy and cared only about disciplining children so as to make them malleable for the workforce. In the future, according to Robinson, these skills would become increasingly irrelevant because of a vague set of changes that were afoot. “It’s the combination of all the things we’ve talked about,” he said, referring to other talks at the conference. “Technology and its transformational effect on work, and demography and the huge explosion in population. Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true?” In this coming new age, it would be the teacher’s role to help foster children’s creative sparks so they could generate original, fresh, and unlikely ideas to shape the world to come. “Our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face the future,” he said. “We may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.”

It was around the same time that TED talks began to take on a distinct rhetorical style, later laid out in Anderson’s book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. In it, Anderson insists anyone is capable of giving a TED-esque talk. You just need an interesting topic and then you need to attach that topic to an inspirational story. Robots are interesting. Using them to eat trash in Nairobi is inspiring. Put the two together, and you have a TED talk. 

I like to call this fusion “the inspiresting.” Stylistically, the inspiresting is earnest and contrived. It is smart but not quite intellectual, personal but not sincere, jokey but not funny. It is an aesthetic of populist elitism. Politically, the inspiresting performs a certain kind of progressivism, as it is concerned with making the world a better place, however vaguely. “The speaker’s work and words move you and fill you with an expanded sense of possibility and excitement,” Anderson writes of the successful TED talk. “You want to go out and be a better person.” All this can be achieved, Anderson proposes, without any serious transfers of power. In fact, in Anderson’s view, not only is culture upstream from politics, but politics itself — dependent on what he calls “tribal thinking” — destroys the free movement of ideas, with all its world-changing potential. “The toxicity of our political… nonconversations is a true tragedy of the modern world,” he writes. “When people aren’t prepared or ready to listen, communication can’t happen.” 

 

TED was never the sole purveyor of inspiresting content. Malcolm Gladwell was inspiresting. The blog Brain Pickings was inspiresting. Burning Man was (once) inspiresting. Alain de Botton, Oliver Sacks, and Bill Bryson were masters of the inspiresting. “This American Life” and “Radiolab,” and maybe narrative podcasting as a form, are inspiresting. But it was TED talks that perhaps best distilled the inspiresting down into its most concentrated form — eighteen minutes of pure inspiresting. 

Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 talk “My Stroke of Insight” perhaps represents peak inspiresting. A cognitive scientist who spent years “mapping the micro-circuitry of the brain” (interesting), Bolte Taylor tells the story of how one morning she woke up to find that she was having a stroke. Instead of panicking, she saw it as an opportunity to study her own brain. The left side of her brain was bleeding, and she began to lose the cognitive functions required for analytical thought and self-identification. Her right brain took over and she felt herself suddenly to be living in an eternal present, at one with everything. She said “goodbye… to life,” closed her eyes, and felt her spirit become “like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.” As Bolte Taylor recounts the experience in front of the TED audience, her eyes fill with tears. Her voice becomes incantatory. “We have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world,” she says. “I thought that was an idea worth spreading.” (Inspiring.) 

What is distinctly TED about Bolte Taylor’s talk is how she makes cognitive science somehow about self-improvement. Her talk does not aim to teach us only about the hemispheres of the brain, but also how to be better humans. This particular rhetorical strategy, already deployed by self-help gurus and life coaches, is apparent in many of the most popular TED talks at the height of the TED era, a period that loosely correlates with Barack Obama’s first term. In her talk, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, speaks about how each of us can, like her, become a creative genius. Brené Brown, a social work researcher, tells us how interpersonal vulnerability changed her life — and how it could change yours, too. We were no longer just watching TED talks for information about the future of the world out there. TED talks could help us make our future selves superior. 

Suddenly, circa 2010, everyone was sharing TED talks — via email, on Facebook, on personal blogs — and TED, a not-for-profit, was making a lot of money. Tickets to the annual conference were going for $7,500 ($15,000 for VIPs). TED set up partnerships with elite brands. TED speakers who achieved millions of views could parlay the attention into new careers as so-called thought leaders. Advertising executive Simon Sinek’s 2009 talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” massively boosted sales of his self-help-cum-entrepreneurship book Start with Why. Sarah Kay, a spoken-word performer whose TED-talk poem, “If I Should Have a Daughter,” amassed millions of views, told Business Insider, “I’m very much aware that my career would not be what it is had that video not gone online.” In other words, if you could master the TED-style talk, you could sell anything — even slam poetry. 

The TED format proved alluring to some academics, too, especially those hoping for a crossover career appealing to both scholarly and popular audiences. Brown’s vulnerability talk vaulted her research to international fame: each one of her books since has appeared on The New York Times Best Seller list. Though there was no peer review process for TED, the conference had a review system to ensure that speakers were presenting valid, trustworthy material. Quality control was compromised, though, through the creation of the TEDx franchise, which from 2009 let licensees use the brand platform to stage independent events around the world. At a 2010 TEDx event, Randy Powell, a man who claimed to be at the “forefront of the most advanced mathematics ever known to mankind,” spoke about what he called vortex-based mathematics. This previously undiscovered branch of math would, he said, “create inexhaustible free energy, end all diseases, produce all food, travel anywhere in the universe, build the ultimate supercomputer and artificial intelligence, and make obsolete all existing technology.” He got a standing ovation.

The video went largely unnoticed until 2012, when a handful of science bloggers found it and pilloried Powell’s claims. The talk, they said, was constructed entirely out of meaningless jargon. In an online forum, a theoretical physicist said that Powell was “either (1) insane, (2) a huckster going for fame or money, or (3) doing a Sokal’s hoax on TED.” Spectacles like this one damaged TED’s brand, and soon critics were accusing the institution of vapid oversimplification. Evgeny Morozov wrote in The New Republic, “TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas worth spreading. Instead it has become something ludicrous.” A long profile of Anderson in The New York Times Magazine called TED “the Starbucks of intellectual conglomerates.” 

Perhaps the most incisive critique came, ironically, at a 2013 TEDx conference. In “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” media theorist Benjamin Bratton told a story about a friend of his, an astrophysicist, who gave a complex presentation on his research before a donor, hoping to secure funding. When he was finished, the donor decided to pass on the project. “I’m just not inspired,” he told the astrophysicist. “You should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.” Bratton was outraged. He felt that the rhetorical style TED helped popularize was “middlebrow megachurch infotainment,” and had begun to directly influence the type of intellectual work that could be undertaken. If the research wasn’t entertaining or moving, it was seen as somehow less valuable. TED’s influence on intellectual culture was “taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing,” Bratton said. “This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather, this is one of our most frightening problems.” (Online, his talk proved to be one of many ideas worth spreading. “This is by far the most interesting and challenging thing I’ve heard on TED,” one commenter posted. “Very glad to come across it!”)

 

The criticism leveled at TED foreshadowed a backlash against the technocratic elite that would continue to pick up steam in the following years. Twitter had failed to bring democracy to the Middle East. It became clear that social media was only free because our personal data was being mined and sold to advertisers. Obama was not the political savior many had hoped him to be. The banks had been bailed out, but most regular people were still suffering from the fallout of the financial crisis. For a generation coming of age, upward mobility, social equality, and the utopian promises of technology were revealed as mere fantasies. Inspiresting content in general was becoming less relevant, more cringe — a signifier of liberal ineptitude. On Tumblr and Twitter, there was a meme where you’d write some incredibly banal or absurd observation and then add: “Thanks for coming to my TED talk.”

Meanwhile, the TED talks continued, endlessly re-articulating tech’s promises without any serious critical reflection. Indeed, those associated with TED — the curators and the speakers — still appeared authentically attached to the futures they were articulating, despite evidence that these visions were illusory. In 2014, for instance, Elizabeth Holmes gave a talk at a medical-themed TED conference about the technology that her company, Theranos, was using to make blood tests more efficient. By the time she appeared at TED, many inside the company already understood that the technology was not working as it was supposed to. And yet Holmes willingly got on stage and sold the story, and TED promoted it, further propelling Theranos to its peak $10 billion valuation. 

Of course, Holmes’s fraud wasn’t TED’s fault, directly. But the public speaking platform’s philosophy, which conflated telling a story about an idea with its realization, fostered a certain myopic self-belief in people like Holmes that they could create the world ex nihilo with willpower and well-crafted oratory alone. The TED philosophy encouraged boldness of vision, but also denial of reality. As such, it was a magnet for narcissistic, recognition-seeking characters and their Theranos-like projects. Other questionably ambitious and ultimately doomed projects promoted through the TED platform include: Shai Agassi’s electric car idea, Better Place; Pranav Mistry’s SixthSense technology, which was supposed to make our devices obsolete by integrating computers with our bodies; and Peter Molyneux’s video game, Milo, The Virtual Boy, in which players interacted with an artificially intelligent eleven-year-old. I recently heard a business journalist say that when he’s short on story ideas, he’ll just look for people who have given TED talks and “figure out what they’re lying about.”

I became directly acquainted with the TED philosophy in 2015 — the year Holmes went under, the year Gates gave his pandemic talk. A friend was scheduled to appear at a TEDx in Sydney but had at the last minute decided against it and asked if I would do it in her place. I agreed and put together a talk about some of the research I was doing at the time on computer-generated poetry. The talk was later featured on the TED website. I got lots of new followers on Twitter and some emails, including one inviting me to an all-expenses-paid trip to a university in Switzerland where I would serve as a “creative A.I.” expert. I told the university I was no such thing, but the administrators there didn’t care. 

I went to the conference, the point of which seemed to be for young people to explain their inspiresting ideas to wealthier, older people. In the evenings, everyone gathered at the “$200,000 whiskey bar,” as it had been described numerous times in emails leading up to the conference, and the ideas would begin to flow. I was treated to many off-the-cuff TED-style pitches. An Israeli guy who was using drones (interesting) to monitor forests (inspiring). A Singaporean woman who was saving global bee populations (interesting) by putting beehives on the roofs of public housing and teaching the kids who lived there how to be apiarists and sell their own public-housing-branded honey (inspiring). The most popular young person was a French woman who was using machine learning (the most interesting thing of all) to help refugees (the most inspiring cause of all?). She called her idea “tech-fugees.”  Many of us were feeling anxious or uncertain or nihilistic about the coming decades, if not the coming months. The week before, Donald Trump had become the presumptive Republican nominee in the United States. Yet the TED progeny continued to offer bold, tech-centric predictions with unfaltering confidence.

And they have continued to do so. Indeed, if TED’s cultural high-water mark was during the Obama years, grand utopian fantasies are still spun by the technologists and tech-believers, despite all of their past failures and deceptions. Jeff Bezos recently predicted, for instance, that humans will soon live in space, and when we do, Earth itself will become a vacation destination, like a national park. It is a garish, puerile prediction, to be sure, but it is undeniably visionary — as are the crypto, AI, metaverse, geo-engineering, space-bound futures promoted by many tech leaders and their adoring acolytes. Amid seemingly intractable problems here on Earth, a vision of the future can resemble a life raft, and in the absence of viable alternatives, substanceless promises of space travel, crypto-utopias, and eternal life in the cloud may become the only things to look forward to.

TED of course can’t be held solely responsible for the increasingly eschatological pronouncements of this cohort. That would be, in a way, to buy into its hype too much. But as the most visible and influential public speaking platform of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, it has been deeply implicated in broadcasting and championing the Silicon Valley version of the future. TED is probably best understood as the propaganda arm of an ascendant technocracy. It helped refine prediction into a rhetorical art well-suited to these aspiring world conquerors — even the ones who fail.

Oscar Schwartz is a writer and journalist. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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