"We Need to Talk About TED" | Benjamin Bratton

Excellent critique of the increasingly popular ‘TED talk’ format. He writes [emphasis mine]:

Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling…After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired… you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?

Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing.

The whole post really is great and worth the read. I have had similar thoughts and wrote about one deficiency of the format after I attended TEMED in 2012. I have reproduced that post below.

The missing element of TEDMED - critical discussion (Apr 2012)

TEDMED is a conference that bills itself as, “… a safe place where people with very different ideas can come together to talk, to learn and to celebrate the amazing world we live in.” Speakers and performers—all leading experts in their respective fields—come together to share their ideas about the future of medicine and technology. Presentations are only limited by the speaker’s imagination and the 18 minute time limit. TEDMED’s openness to imaginative ways of thinking about medicine, health care, biomedical research, and well-being produces 4 days of mind-bending talks and performances.

Despite TEDMED’s decidedly forward-thinking subject matter and format, one critical element is missing from the formal structure of the conference–critical discussion of presentations. Almost every single “traditional” medical conference features talks followed by a brief period for public discussion with the presenter about their ideas. TEDMED is devoid of such public critical discussion. Instead, discussions are relegated to the attendees analyzing presentations amongst themselves during breaks in the Social Hub (TEDMED’s sponsor venue) or short exchanges on Twitter or blog posts weeks after the event when the videos are posted online.

Jay Walker—TEDMED’s chairman and emcee for the event—provides some faux analysis after each speaker in the form of a brief summary and a few crowd-sourced questions. However, this serves more to simply reinforce the speaker’s thesis and stroke their ego than critically analyze what he or she said.

The lack of critical analysis consequently allows some speakers to freely conflate marginally related ideas and invoke anecdotal evidence in support of their hyperbolic assertions. It also misses a tremendous opportunity. TEDMED is much more than the small lineup of speakers; its attendees (TEDMED calls them “delegates”) are also innovators and broad-thinkers at the cutting edge of medicine and health care. Why not allow them to engage with the speakers in a public forum for all to hear? While at TEDMED this year, I had some of the most engaging discussions with other attendees and a hundred such discussions occurred at each break. It is a shame a piece of these discussions are not captured for the public.

As often as I am able, I like to suggest a solution whenever I see a problem. I think the solution here is to add a component to the TEDMED Connect app whereby attendees can verbally ask questions and engage with the speakers in a brief discussion session after each talk. During the talk, attendees in the room can jump onto the TEDMED Connect app and touch a button indicating they would like to ask a question at the end of the presentation. At the conclusion of the speaker’s talk, persons indicating they had a question would be recognized one by one. Their smartphone (via the TEDMED Connect app) would become a microphone so that their question could be broadcast over the speakers in the auditorium and the video feed. They would stand up, ask their question into the microphone of their smartphone and engage with the speaker, then sit down and let the next person participate. Time is always an issue, so this could be limited to 3 people or so.

Regardless of its implementation, TEDMED needs to allow for attendees to engage with the presenters after each talk. Critical analysis is the chief means of raising the discourse at conferences. For TEDMED to cement its place as the preeminent event for discussing the biggest ideas in medicine and health care, its discourse could certainly use a boost.