The Politics of TED

Is the topic of income inequality "Too Hot for TED"? Controversy has erupted in the past week over this question after a talk planned for the organization's popular website was pulled at the last minute. The incident has offered an interesting window into the politics of the group.

Is the topic of income inequality "Too Hot for TED"? Controversy has erupted in the past week over this question after a talk planned for the organization's popular website was pulled at the last minute. The incident has offered an interesting window into the politics of the group.

Here's what happened: recently, wealthy Seattle-based venture capitalist Nick Hanauer gave a talk challenging the idea that the rich are "job creators." Countering this concept, he made the demand-side argument that consumer spending is what generates employment, and that more equitable distribution of income, in turn, produces more robust consumer demand.

Having made much the same point in an op-ed last November, Hanauer dressed up his views with some slides and presented it in a short, TED-style talk. (For those unfamiliar with it, TED was initially launched as pricey conference presenting cutting-edge ideas in "Technology, Entertainment, and Design"; over the past decade, it has spawned its own genre of internet-friendly, pop-intellectual presentations.)

Hanauer expected that his speech would be featured on the popular TED site last week. Indeed, it was prepared for release. But the weekend before it was set to go up, TED director Chris Anderson personally intervened to pull the video. This pissed off Hanauer, who released emails from Anderson which showed that the video was being yanked because it was too "political."

In the ensuing hoopla, TED did release the video (although it did not feature the talk on its homepage). You can check out Hanauer's speech here:

So, was Hanauer unfairly censored? And what does this say about the politics of TED?

I'm not all that sympathetic to Hanauer's cries of censorship. I appreciate that he's a top earner who recognizes that he's getting off too easy on his tax bill. But his whole crusade on the issue reeks to me of a rich guy expecting to be taken seriously as an intellectual. (I haven't read his two books, but the fact that they were both prepared with the help of a coauthor, and that they both try to position the authors as brilliantly post-partisan, raises some red flags.)

After Hanauer went public with his complaints about being censored, Anderson issued a reply that furthered a narrative of entitlement. Anderson claims that the main reason he pulled the video was that its arguments "were unconvincing, even to those of us who supported his overall stance." He further said, "The audience at TED who heard it live (and who are often accused of being overly enthusiastic about left-leaning ideas) gave it, on average, mediocre ratings."

Given that TED has tons of videos to choose from, and that only a small portion of the talks given between its various sub-conferences ever make the homepage, Anderson argues that there's no reason Hanauer should have expected to be selected for the spotlight.

Of course, that's not the kind of thing that wealthy venture capitalists like to hear. Anderson notes:

We discussed internally and ultimately told the speaker we did not plan to post. He did not react well. He had hired a PR firm to promote the talk to MoveOn and others, and the PR firm warned us that unless we posted he would go to the press and accuse us of censoring him. We again declined and this time I wrote him and tried gently to explain in detail why I thought his talk was flawed.

So he forwarded portions of the private emails to a reporter and the National Journal duly bit on the story. And it was picked up by various other outlets.

Now, there's a difference between someone declining to post your supposedly brilliant speech on their homepage and having your First Amendment rights trashed by the state. And Anderson makes this point as well:

[A] non-story about a talk not being chosen, because we believed we had better ones, somehow got turned into a scandal about censorship. Which is like saying that if I call the New York Times and they turn down my request to publish an op-ed by me, they're censoring me.

Finally, while Hanauer's talk on inequality makes some decent points, no one should think that he is a progressive hero. As others have noted, he is known in the Seattle area for being promoter of the corporate "school reform" agenda.

On the other hand, I don't think Anderson's response is entirely convincing either. While the TED director tries to claim that the rejection had to do with ratings, not politics, he contradicts himself in the emails that were released. "[E]ven if the talk was rated a home run," he wrote, "we couldn't release it, because it would be unquestionably regarded as out and out political. We're in the middle of an election year in the US. Your argument comes down firmly on the side of one party."

That's not really true. If you watch the video, you'll see that Hanauer is not particularly partisan. He merely explains that the idea of the wealthy as "job creators" is a sacred article of faith among Republicans, and that Democrats rarely challenge them. I'd say that's a pretty accurate assessment of the situation.

But what does this indicate about the wider politics of TED? Some have used this incident to suggest that TED is bowing to conservatives, or that it has fallen into the trap of demanding "balance" at the expense of truth. I don't think either is exactly the case here. Rather, I think the incident is symptomatic of a more deeply ingrained bias.

The guiding principle of TED is that you can present a vision of ever-marching technological progress, that you can be a purveyor of the "big ideas" that will shape our society, that you can show the future, all without descending into the unpleasant muck of political debate. In other words, TED's dominant political idea is the denial of politics--a refusal to acknowledge any real power struggle in public life.

This is evident in the contradiction between the TED website's assertion that it "believe[s] passionately in the power of ideas to change...the world" and Anderson's insistence that the organization not include talks that would be "regarded as out and out political." The notion that there is not only real disagreement about what changes are of benefit to our society, but actual conflict over these different political visions--involving the exercise of actual political power--does not fit within TED's framework of "Ideas Worth Spreading." The organization refuses to acknowledge that there are private interests--monied and staffed with lobbyists--that are aggressively promoting a version of the future in which their wants are met at the expense of others' needs.

The default politics of TED, then, are an amalgam of Clintonian neoliberalism and techno-utopianism (the likes of which Evgeny Morozov has ably critiqued), with a philanthro-capitalist approach to social issues (an approach brilliantly taken apart in Alix Rule's "Good As Money," which ran in Dissent a few years back). The New Inquiry recently published a longer critique of TED, which featured a fine tweet by Mike Bulajewski: "TED's 'revolutionary ideas' mask capitalism as usual, giving it a narrative of progress and change."

I'm not a total hater of TED. Yes, not all the talks are great, and the format can become a parody of itself after you watch a few of them. Then again, there are plenty of academic lectures whose insights are mediocre and whose presenters are less than captivating.

I can think of worse ways to blow eighteen minutes online than watching a TED talk. But viewers need not accept the organization's Earth-changing pretenses. If you're looking to TED for revolutionary insight, you're missing the real struggle that our world has presented.

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