How TED Makes Ideas Smaller


In 1874, the inventor Lewis Miller and the Methodist bishop John Heyl Vincent founded a camp for Sunday school teachers near Chautauqua, New York. Two years later, Vincent reinstated the camp, training a collection of teachers in an outdoor summer school. Soon, what had started as an ad-hoc instructional course had become a movement: Secular versions of the outdoor schools, colloquially known as "Chautauquas," began springing up throughout the country, giving rise to an educational circuit featuring lectures and other performances by the intellectuals of the day.

William Jennings Bryan, a frequent presenter at the Chautauquas, called the circuit a "potent human factor in molding the mind of the nation." Teddy Roosevelt deemed it "the most American thing in America."

At the same time, Sinclair Lewis argued, the Chautauqua was "nothing but wind and chaff and ... the laughter of yokels" -- an event, Gregory Mason had it, that was "infinitely easier than trying to think" and that was (said William James) "depressing from its mediocrity."

The more things change, I guess. Compare those conflicted responses to the Chautauqua to the ones leveled at our current incarnation of the highbrow-yet-democratized lecture circuit: TED, the "Technology, Entertainment, and Design" conference. TED is, per contemporary commentators, both "an aspirational peak for the thinking set" and "a McDonald's dishing out servings of Chicken Soup for the Soul." It is both "the official event of digitization" and "a parody of itself."

One matter on which there seems to be no disagreement: TED, today, can make you a star.

TED is a private event that faces the public through its 18-minute-long TED talks -- viewed over 500 million times since they were first put online, wonderfully free of charge, in the summer of 2006. It has pioneered the return of the lecture format in an age that would seem to make that format obsolete. And in converting itself from an exclusive conference to an open platform, TED has become something else, too: one of the most institutionalized systems we have for idea-dissemination in the digital age. To express an idea in the form of a TED talk (and: to sell an idea in the form of a TED talk) is one of the ultimate validations the bustling, chaotic marketplace of ideas can bestow upon one of its denizens. A TED-talked idea is a validated idea. It is, in its way, peer-reviewed.

But the ideas spread through TED, of course, aren't just ideas; they're branded ideas. Packaged ideas. They are ideas stamped not just with the imprimatur of the TED conference and all (the good! the bad! the magical! the miraculous!) that it represents; they're defined as well -- and more directly -- by the person, which is to say the persona, of the speaker who presents them. It's not just "the filter bubble"; it's Eli Pariser on the filter bubble. It's not just the power of introversion in an extrovert-optimized world; it's Susan Cain on the power of introversion. And Seth Godin on digital tribes. And Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce marketing. And Chris Anderson on the long tail.

For a platform that sells itself as a manifestation of digital possibility, this approach is surprisingly anachronistic. (Even, you might say, Chautauquan.) In the past, sure, we have insistently associated ideas with the people who first articulated them. Darwin's theory of evolution. Einstein's theory of relativity. Cartesian dualism. Jungian psychology. And on and on and on. (Möbius' strip!) Big ideas have their origin myths, and, historically, those myths have involved the assumption of singular epiphany and individual enlightenment.

But: We live in a world of increasingly networked knowledge. And it's a world that allows us to appreciate what has always been true: that new ideas are never sprung, fully formed, from the heads of the inventors who articulate them, but are always -- always -- the result of discourse and interaction and, in the broadest sense, conversation. The author-ized idea, claimed and owned and bought and sold, has been, it's worth remembering, an accident of technology. Before print came along, ideas were conversational and free-wheeling and collective and, in a very real sense, "spreadable." It wasn't until Gutenberg that ideas could be both contained and mass-produced -- and then converted, through that paradox, into commodities. TED's notion of "ideas worth spreading" -- the implication being that spreading is itself a work of hierarchy and curation -- has its origins in a print-based world of bylines and copyrights. It insists that ideas are, in the digital world, what they have been in the analog: packagable and ownable and claimable.

A TED talk, at this point, is the cultural equivalent of a patent: a private claim to a public concept. With the speaker, himself, becoming the manifestation of the idea. And so: In the name of spreading a concept, the talk ends up narrowing it. Pariser's filter bubble. Anderson's long tail. We talk often about the need for narrative in making abstract concepts relatable to mass audiences; what TED has done so elegantly, though, is to replace narrative in that equation with personality. The relatable idea, TED insists, is the personal idea. It is the performative idea. It is the idea that strides onstage and into a spotlight, ready to become a star.

Image: Wisconsin governor Robert LaFollette addressing a Chautauqua, via the Library of Congress.