TED Talks: Saviors of Gulf or Wastes of Time?

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TED (Technology Entertainment Design) talks are mind-bending lectures by experts and academics that range in topic from aquatic apes to the artistic merit of video games. Some independent organizers have just launched a timely spin-off: TEDxOilSpill, a forthcoming conference on the Gulf of Mexico disaster that will take place in Washington DC. The high-minded lecture series is an unusual match for the dirty, ground-level problems of the oil spill. Could these TED talks propel good ideas into the desperate post-spill debate, or are they an inappropriate waste of energy?

  • For TED Oil Spill Conference  Fast Company's Ariel Schwartz writes, "The inspiring lecture series tackles the unfolding oil-spill disaster. ... The team believes that it can cover what the mainstream media cannot because it is 'outside the scope of the major media networks who have to balance out immediate access with ongoing relationships with local officials.' For the event, the team plans to put together documentary videos, slideshows, and perhaps a print-on-demand book. The expedition only began on June 13, and already the TEDxOilSpill team has posted some impressive pictures. We're looking forward to taking a look at the rest of the multimedia bounty later this month."
  • Against TED Oil Spill Conference  Politics Daily's Joe Keohane writes, "While the junk shot tried and failed to plug BP's oil gusher with golf balls and trash, an event called TEDxOilSpill will attempt to stanch the flow with flattery, gimmicks and piety. ... This is where my ambivalence comes in. ... This is the single most urgent issue facing America right now, and it's a massively complex one. So why, if you're going to pull together a conference on fixing it, do you use a gimmick that limits each speaker to 18 minutes? ... Secondly, this thing is still happening. Right this second. Yet we have to wait until the end of the month to hear how we're supposed to fix it? That just doesn't seem terribly helpful." Keohane also asks why TED is requesting up to $200 for tickets and providing fancy catering for an event that's ostensibly about saving the Gulf of Mexico and thus in the public interest.
If the conference's reason for being is to get ideas out there, why does there need to be a live audience/venue at all? Why not throw the thing together fast, shoot it in some borrowed studio space, and broadcast it online? That way, the overhead would be next to nothing, and the ideas still hit a wide audience, without the weeks-long delay for pulling the event together.
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