I went to my local TEDx today… and left after the first set of talks.
I went last year, and struggled a little bit with some of the content, but over-all enjoyed it. This year, I was disappointed. I’m not sure if the event changed, or if I have.
I’ll get one thing out of the way first. I don’t place a ton of value in “the arts” — which, I know puts me at odds with TED to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, good art, done well, is wonderful. Whether it’s a well-executed play, a good book, a moving piece of music, or a poignant photograph, art is wonderful. (Never really been moved by paintings, but that’s just one category, and that’s just me.)
But that doesn’t mean anyone who sets out to call themselves an artist deserves the title — or any kind of compensation (subsidy) just for claiming it.
If you are good enough at your art form that you can support yourself doing it, then more power to you. If you’re not, I’m afraid you’ll have to work a day job while you improve. But it’s ok, cause that’s true of any profession.
I don’t think that’s my core complaint with TEDx — despite the fact that this year’s presentations seem to be heavily weighted toward artists who were there to convince everyone that their art was important! To the community!
And I don’t think its even my core complaint that the non-artsy-fartsy talks lacked substance (like the fascinating physicist who spent 5 minutes on the most rudementary explanation of quantum computing I’ve ever heard, and the rest of the time with magic tricks and (an admittedly impressive) dance routine.)
My complaint is the same disillusion I’ve found with secular religion: this notion that the human race, when we work together for the common good, is transcendent.
The harsh reality that we seem to be avoiding is that humanity is not essentially good. If we all get together and love one another, we aren’t going to solve poverty, disease, starvation and crime. No amount of connectedness will change the human race from its essence. While it’s good for technology to facilitate community and interaction, scaling up and out isn’t going to change patterns of human interaction — it simply allows those patterns to exist at larger levels.
A few years ago it was in vogue to refer to YouTube as a great social enabler. Right now Twitter is the hot topic. But if you take a look at these things, they are not better than what we had before. They’re the same thing, just scaled out to a larger audience. If you join, say, a small community group, out of that group you will get some percentage of interesting discourse, creative ideas, and helpful progress. You’ll also get a certain percentage of complete idiots, stupid ideas, and ridiculous bickering. Go take a look at virtually any comment thread on YouTube, or at Twitter virtually any time of day, and you’ll see the same things — possibly with more weight on the dumb parts of human interaction, since its largely anonymous.
This is true of historic science, art, government, business and pure social interaction, in small groups and closed societies.
It remains true of modern science, art, government, business and pure social interaction in global groups and open societies.
We don’t make the human race better by doing more of these things at a larger scale and with better communication technology. We just increase our output: some good, some retarded.
Getting together and patting our own backs saying “look how great humanity is when we work together” or “look how bright the future would be if we could all just share more ideas” is kinda pointless. Good ideas, attached to a good execution plan (and, for better or worse, a good business model) will generally succeed to the scale that available communication technologies allow — without us sitting around and talking about them. Bad ideas will generally (sometimes not quick enough) eventually fail, and sitting around talking about those just makes us look stupid.
I tire very quickly of these “networking events” where people who feel like maybe they could be something mingle with other people who feel like maybe they could be something and hope that by rubbing together long enough, a good idea will be conceived. If you have a good idea, you’ll have no trouble attracting people to help you with it (or capitalize on it!) If you don’t, no amount of “IRL meet-ups” will give you one.
Don’t get me wrong. I love an inspiring talk about an interesting challenge, and how people worked together and overcame it. But let’s not pretend that the speaker has somehow evolved to a new human condition through Internet collaboration, or networking events. There’s no speaker I’ve ever heard that isn’t just a normal, flawed human being with as many misses as hits, who had an idea, worked hard at it, surrounded himself by other people who’d also pursued and honed their skills, collaborated in the same manor humans have collaborated since we were first placed on this earth, and achieved something through persistence, failure, learning and eventually success.
The story isn’t the triumph of humanity. Its God-given creativity and gifts, managing to occasionally shine through the fallen human condition. The hero isn’t the Internet, or the scientist, or the artist. Its a creator God who made us in His image to do creative things. And I’ll add personally, that any endeavor that doesn’t recognize Him as the source, and give Him the glory is, at best, an empty, meaningless victory.
And any idea-discussing-networking-event that starts with the notion that we’re it — that there’s nothing greater than us, is desperately depressing and hollow…

One thought on “Dis-ConnecTED

  1. Wow! Great insights, especially on the source of learning. I am going to take issue with some of what you said, however. It has to do with your being a kinestetic learner. Nobody is all one style of learner, but my observation is that your primary understanding of the world comes through what you do, rather than through what you hear or what you see. You learn best in situations where you can manually manipulate your environment, empirical or virtual, to achieve results. I am primarily an auditory learner. I learn best in group situations when I get a sounding board for my ideas and get them shaped, modified, expanded and refined. This doesn’t mean that I can’t learn in other ways, kinesthetically and visually, but primarily I need to ‘talk it through.’ Social networking, class discussions, cats with friends; this is how I learn. Without this kind of interaction my thoughts do not develop. I can no more think without them than you can think without a computer.
    And I am not alone. Five percent of people are primarily kinestetic learners, thirty percent are primarily auditory and sixty-five percent are primarily visual, according to the last stats I saw on learning styles. It could be that you are spot on with your analysis, and it could be a reflection of the dominance of kinestetic learning in your approach to the world. The cadence of the poetic voice speaks volumes to me. I hear reflections of T.S. Eliot in the plays of Samuel Beckett and the resonances of Beckett in Yann Martell’s Life of Pi that enrich my understanding not only of these works, but of the progress of human thought through the develop of philosophical ideas about the state of humanity. The brush strokes of a Van Gogh, or the composition of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper can astound and mesmorize me. Do not disparge such insights, for we are not all made the same.

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