TED talks have been a topic of a lot of discussion lately – I particularly like Evgeny Morozov’s comments. There are numerous problems with the TED format. This is in part because the goals of the TED talks are inherently contradictory. Speakers are expected to deal with issues of great complexity and importance. At the same time the presentations needs to be breezy, entertaining, and short. As a result many talks provide sweeping overgeneralizations. The format simply does not allow the speakers to appropriately qualify their claims, and ideas are frequently supported by anecdotes rather than data or facts.
Yet, I do enjoy TED talks. Many of them are very entertaining. Others are close to performance art. For example, this talk by the poet Rives is actually excellent. I was quite annoyed by it at first. The delivery is perfect, and the anecdotes are entertaining. Rives has the audience eating out of his hand. However, his talk is completely devoid of substance. Except that it seems the talk itself is a comment on the TED format – excellent in style, but explaining an idea so absurd and ridiculous that it is not an idea at all. The point of the talk is to take away any real content. What remains is an exercise in style.
Unfortunately, this is true for many TED talks, and can be found in much of what passes for essays nowadays. Still, the result is frequently entertaining. The ideas are presented simply, and we feel edified. Some, like Oliver Sacks, use the format to great effect. I think this is exactly because Sacks does not overreach. Many use the venue to try to explain fundamental problems and ideas. However, by stripping away their complexity, we are frequently left with nearly nothing more but beautiful exercises in style.