A Nightmare Of Shallow, Conceited Humblebraggery: Why Won't TED Talks Give It A Rest?

Peter Bradshaw lambasts the "cerebral heir of MTV Unplugged"

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I remember it like it was yesterday. The exhilaration, the sugar-rush of euphoria, and then the unspeakable cheek-burning shame. Two years ago, I was asked to give a TED talk. And then I was… sort of… un-asked. So any opinions I have on the subject could be written off as sour grapes. But like a spurned lover, brooding over every syllable of his ex's Facebook page, I've got some connoisseurship.

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It all started when I got an email out of the blue from an Oxford student who was the son of a friend of a friend from university days. That association alone was enough to trigger in my head the plangent oboe theme from TV's Brideshead Revisited. He asked me if I would care to give a TEDx talk at the Sheldonian Theatre, on any subject I chose. Whoa! Now I knew that a TEDx talk isn't quite the same thing as an actual TED. The TED organisation authorises TEDx as a sort of franchise operation. But these talks go out on YouTube and have the TED logo.

Instantly, I jumped up from the laptop without replying, emitting a squeal of pure, passionate self-love. Doing a TED talk was the hip version of being made a Companion Of Honour, or the brainy-balding version of getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fantastic! And I knew the drill. I could picture it. I would wear the classic TED-talker outfit: conservative dark suit, light shirt, no tie. I would be wearing the headset with the tiny microphone on a thin plastic stalk reaching round my cheek to my mouth. If one wasn't needed, I would wear a fake one.

I would amble coolly about the stage, conjuring cool stats and funky facts about film, culture and the internet, like commentators Malcolm Gladwell or Nate Silver. One moment I would make the audience rock with adoring laughter. The next they would shudder into saucer-eyed silence, their minds blown by a stunning insight I would casually throw out. I even had a few nuggets lined up. I would begin by pastiching Homer Simpson's speech on Jiko-Kanri, the Japanese art of self-management — just to flatter the hipsters who would get it. And the title of my TED talk? Get this: "The Selfish Meme". A twist on Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene! Brilliant!

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Then something awful happened. A month or so later, with no script but a fair few ideas, I emailed back to say I was ready, and what dates were we thinking about? The reply was that my lack of initial response meant they assumed I wasn't interested and they had gone with someone else. At least I think that's what happened. Maybe there is some brilliant brain scientist-slash- statistician-slash-award-winning-emotional- intelligence expert at MIT called Peter Bradshaw, and they had suddenly realised their mistake. I deflated horribly. Like a punctured balloon, I did everything but fly around the room making a farting noise.

That appalling moment returned to me on noticing that 2017 was the 60th birthday of the British writer and tech entrepreneur who invented the TED talk as we know it: Chris Anderson. His baby is now huge. There are more than 2,500 TED talks online, having racked up some 4bn views worldwide, and that TEDx spin-off has hosted 15,000 events around the globe. Originally, TED was a one-off conference (it stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) in 1984 in Monterey, California, set up by architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman. It restarted as an annual event in 1990 and soon became a huge success. Chris Anderson's charitable Sapling Foundation took over in 2001, but the breakthrough didn't come until the invention of YouTube in 2005.

Steve Jobs' TED Talk

Anderson took the sensational decision to make the TED talks freely available online in 2006, and they became a staggering viral hit — with talks by Bill Clinton, Bono, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, to name but four super-rich conceited men. Google sort of piggy-backed on the TED idea with its Talks at Google. In Britain, we've had Intelligence Squared, a forum for highbrow debate, since 2002, but it was only after the YouTube revolution that it, too, participated in the same big thirst for amiable, accessible, interesting ideas outside the stuffy halls of academe. TED gives them to you in Warholian 15-minute chunks.

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How did TED talks get to be so big?

When I was growing up, there was something called "after dinner speaking", a skill that nervous best men and grooms had to master for the wedding day, and of which worthies and wits could make a mini-career.

On two separate occasions, I saw Sir David Frost do the same after-dinner speech which contained the same gag — he recalled a drunk and befuddled toastmaster who declaimed: "Pray for the silence of David Frost!" There were also motivational writers such as Dale Carnegie. The historian AJP Taylor used to give history lectures on live television, timed to the split-second. The Royal Institution's flagship Christmas Lectures about science to schoolchildren were first broadcast on the BBC back in 1936. TED has bits of all these, but maybe it's the Christmas Lectures which come closest to the TED talk: populist, high-minded, determinedly informal.

Part of TED's secret is that it is apolitical, non-controversial. The clue is in the acronym: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Nothing obviously divisive. The subjects tend to gravitate to huge, we-are-the-world globalness, or quirky or fun life-details in which a great deal can be found. There's also the fact that thinking, on a non-intimidating scale, became fashionable. Frizzy-haired The New Yorker science geek Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point in 2000, a brilliantly simple guide to an idea that would captivate the online world: how things go viral. Gladwell's punchy, intelligent ideas created the appetite for TED.

There was also something that Steve Jobs talked about in his own TED talk: when he dropped out of college, he still wanted to go to lectures that had nothing to do with his abandoned degree subject. He took a course in — of all things — calligraphy, which inspired the font-choices in Apple computers. And Steve Jobs inspired the TED talks in another way. Every few years from 2007 onwards, the great man would take to the stage to demo the latest extraordinary new iPhone or iPad. These exciting set-piece talks undoubtedly inspired TED. And I think there is one other thing. Watch any TED talk and you will probably see at the corner of the stage what looks like a vacated bandstand. At some other point in the evening there has been music. Not now. This is just voice, just thoughts. The TED talk is the cerebral heir of MTV Unplugged, which began keeping it real in 1989.

In theory, TED talks are a trove of ideas, a mine of educational stimulus, and some are great. But they can drive you up the wall with pure, scalp-clawing irritation. In preparation for this piece, I sat down and watched a couple of dozen, back-to-back. It left me in a state of gibbering delirium. I went into TED overload, noticing intriguing cosmic patterns and questions in everything. I got on a near-empty tube carriage and thought: Wow! People sit down where they think they are going to be furthest away from everyone else, one at the far end, the next at the opposite far end, the next in the middle, it's like the seeding at Wimbledon!

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At their worst, TED talks are a nightmare of shallow, conceited, humblebraggery, celebrity preening and intellectual flatulence. The worst, the very worst, is, of course, Bono. In 2013, he gave a talk entitled "The Good News on Poverty". It is every bit as excruciating as you might expect. Like so many of the super-rich white men who give these talks, he is infatuated with the developing world and Africa as an obviously important subject which is personally risk-free. (Discussing poverty at home might lead to impertinent heckling about his tax affairs.)

Bono says that causing the increased availability and affordability of retroviral drugs is vital in getting a handle on HIV-Aids and other diseases. OK. Fine. Fair enough. But as with so many other TED-talkers, there is no question of citing other people from these countries by name, and there is something almost unbearable in his grandeur; Bono selects facts and graphs as coolly as Madonna selects orphans.

At one point, he assures the audience that he is here not as Bono the rock star but the "factivist" and puts his cool shades on upside down, briefly, as an adorable pantomime of sexy geekiness. Occasionally, he tries gags like: "We see model countries like Brazil… and who doesn't love a Brazilian model?" Here he pauses for laughs. Nothing. Then with unbearable faux self-deprecation he says solving these problems would mean: "You won't have to listen to an insufferable little jumped-up Jesus like myself!" He puts out his arms in mock-crucifixion style and waggles a little "c'mon" movement with his fingers to say: applaud! Not many do.

The silver medal for the worst talk is a tricky one, but has to go to Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, who in 2009 gave a talk entitled "Your Elusive Creative Genius", and she has, to use the Scottish phrase, no small opinion of herself. She is dressed in drama-school teacher black, almost as if she is appearing in front of a greenscreen, or as if someone might sew ping-pong balls on her outfit for a motion-capture movie. She says that her smash hit book Eat Pray Love "for some reason became... this international bestseller thing" and after saying that writers should embrace the idea of genius and inspiration as something that periodically arrives from without, rather than as some permanent burdensome responsibility, she talks about how nervous she is about writing the "dangerously, frighteningly overanticipated follow-up to my freakish success." Gilbert takes the humblebrag to a new level.

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And bronze? Well, David Cameron's TED talk is so supercilious, so fatuous, so conceited, that it perhaps deserves co-gold status up there with Bono. It's only the fact that it is so boring that it doesn't snag annoyingly in the mind quite as much. Back in 2010, before he accidentally lost our membership of the EU and then smartly abandoned politics for the lucrative private sector, Cameron gave a smug and smarmy talk entitled "The Next Age of Government", all about his now utterly forgotten ideas on "the big society", and how the monolithic forms of central government would be irrelevant compared to community-based activism of volunteer groups, committed individuals and enlightened corporations, liberated by the web. Complete hot air.

This is not to say that all TED talks are bad. Of course not. There is an excellent, informative 2017 talk by David R Williams called "How Racism Makes Us Sick", about how racial inequality feeds insidiously into expectations of health and living standards. Many people think that the best TED talk in history is from its earliest years, given by an Englishman in 2006: the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson on "How Schools Kill Creativity". His theme is that schools should teach creativity. In the hands of someone else it could have been unbearable. But Robinson is a natural stand-up comic: droll, witty, calm, without the usual TED-talker's need to rove around the stage with a clicker bringing up slogans and graphics on the screen behind him, PowerPoint style.

Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk from 2008, entitled "My Stroke of Insight", is a thoroughly engaging and engrossing account of what it feels like to suffer a stroke — and the weird epiphanic sense she had that, as a brain scientist herself, this might be the most educational thing that could have happened to her.

Writer Mary Roach raised the roof in 2009 with her "Ten Things You Didn't Know About Orgasm", particularly her video of a farmer achieving artificial insemination with a sow. Freaky. Thandie Newton's "Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself" in 2011 has got an awful title, but her talk was very strong, simmering with a kind of unprocessed anger at other people's attitudes to her as a mixed-race child growing up in Britain. Another TED talk that threatened to be lame but was in fact interesting was Cameron Russell's "Looks Aren't Everything. Believe Me, I'm a Model" in 2012. She talks about her life as a fashion model and puts up on screen images of herself as a teenager in fashion magazines, juxtaposed with actual photos of herself taken in normal life at the same time. She looks like a kid, a normal human being, 15 years younger and from another planet.

However, for my money, there is no question who has given the best TED talk in history — Monica Lewinsky, with her "The Price of Shame" in 2015. Her courage and integrity are remarkable, as is her candour in speaking about something that really has affected her, a subject whose discussion involves real personal risk and real personal pain, unlike the Bonos of the world talking, however worthily, about poverty. She has passion and urgency, and is utterly without the smugness and self-congratulation of most of the other talkers, good and bad. Incidentally, these include Bill Clinton himself, who is wryly referenced, by Lewinsky, though not by name, and also by another TED-talker, Pamela Meyer, in her speech entitled "How to Spot a Liar".

Lewinsky's talk is about how shaming has become a new hysteria, and how it is commodified and monetised by being used to sell ad dollars. There is something moving about seeing Lewinsky emerge from the silent movie of her ordeal and speak for herself for the first time, and reveal herself to be a deeply intelligent and insightful person with authentic insights into cyberbullying — a particularly important subject, now that Melania Trump is supposedly making this her own charitable interest, despite the fact that husband Donald makes cyberbullying virtually his only way of relating to the world.

So there are good things in the TED universe. You might have to wade through an awful lot of posturing, cliché and self-promotion and meretricious nonsense to reach it, like everything else in the media, old and new. But I admit that TED is, on balance, a force for good. Sadly, it carries on without my fascinating conceptual game-changer, "The Selfish Meme".