Authorial note: I often joke with my flatmates that we could get together and figure out how to solve a world issue every night. You know, Monday night would be poverty, Tuesday night the environment, and so on. I say it part tongue-in-cheek, but also because I have a suspicion that if you did enough research you could figure out how to solve most of the world’s problems, and in fact, this is the project of TED itself. 

            If one has often participated in intellectual debates one often finds that the chief problem is the shared assumption between both sides, and not the problem they purport to be arguing over. Benjamin Bratton last year gave a TEDx talk criticizing TED.* One could of course grab the low-hanging fruit of the criticism of Bratton, that his TEDx is a useless post-modern form of protest because it is the very thing is it criticizing, but that will not be done here. What is of more interest is to see what unspoken presumptions Chris Anderson, in response to Bratton,** shares with Bratton, and how this might substantially refocus not only our minds but our hearts as well.

            Bratton describes TED as ‘middlebrow megachurch infotainment‘, indeed TED talks do have the feel of a secular sermon. The comparison is not lost on Anderson either who compares TED talks to having the potential of The Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Clearly whatever else TED talks may be, they are perceived to have revolutionary potential. Bratton’s trouble with TED talks is precisely that they have the appearance of a revolutionary blend of personal testimony and epiphany, a moment of nirvana if you will, but show no results. Anderson argues that their impact is precisely in their ability to share knowledge with a wider audience and get people out of their small narrow entrenched world views. TED, according to Anderson, can help create the new ‘renaissance people’ of knowledge, whereas for Bratton, TED is precisely the twitter of academia.418852090_640 For Anderson, TED is an attempt to get people to share knowledge in the midst of a YouTube cat video saturated culture, whereas for Bratton TED simplifies issues to such a degree as to not be helpful in any way at achieving accurate knowledge for its own sake as oppose to how it makes us feel. The goal then is clearly the spread of accurate, deeply-informed knowledge amongst an increasing illiterate culture. The argument they purport to be having then is whether TED is a good means of achieving such a goal. Both sides appear to have some merit to their argument. Anderson is quite correct that while TED may not be perfect it is certainly better than much of the garbage that floods our media. Bratton is also right that much of what TED promotes are ‘placebo politics and placebo innovation‘ such as the Kony 2012 campaign.***

            What has not been examined is the underlying goal. Bratton almost gets to discussing the very goal of knowledge itself when he says “Or is the idea about what ideas can do all by themselves wrong?”, but then ends his argument by basically saying that what we need to do it go deeper, and to do the hard work of reconceptualization. Anderson likewise almost gets to discussing the very goal itself when he says “But understanding the world isn’t just about digging deeper”, but then proposes that the solution is essentially that we dig wider, out of our trenches. Neither of these men argue that perhaps the problem is not one of lack of accurate knowledge but of moral strength or courage. They both seem to presume that if we just really knew the truth about ourselves and our world we will immediately have the will to solve our problems. The problem then for them is of a very Buddhist nature, our problem is essentially ignorance.

            Often of course we are quite ignorant of some things which we should probably know if we wish to solve some of our problems, but what is this strange faith that says that some how if we acquired some knowledge that we did not have before, we would have the will to save the world? It would indeed be an interesting survey to see how many solutions we have created in the past few decades to some immediate problems such our environmental crisis, and then to see how much could be done if we merely had the will to implement them. Even of more interest would be to see how many times within the past century alone we were convinced we had the solution to the problem, implemented it, and have it end up disastrously. Most especially, not because our knowledge was wrong but precisely because our implementation was motivated by the wrong heart.

            Let’s take two examples. At the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto they have developed a bio-based formula which they have implemented to create fibre-based plant pots that are entirely biodegradable. Sally Krigstin, a forestry professor at the University of Toronto has even said, “If we can get rid of Styrofoam out of grocery stores—that really is our vision: that we’d never see another Styrofoam tray in a supermarket.” Well, this is a wonderful example that could be included in the first survey, that is, it is a simple solution we know of for an aspect of one of our major global problems. Why has this not been implemented more widely as of yet? Simply and plainly, economic constraints, that “The only way we can keep our livelihood and good living is to get creative ideas into commerce…” Quite the sad state of affairs. Simple moral reasons are not enough to implement this great scientific innovation out of concern for our eco-system. The knowledge in this case is simply not enough, it is argued that their needs to be incentive.

            An example for the second survey, that of right knowledge we implemented wrongly or, more simply, tools we used wrongly, one could come up with all the easy examples of the Internet or airplanes, and the like. But let us take something more controversial, namely Drones. Phillip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Defence for the British government, recently gave a defence of ‘Drones’ in which he rightfully pointed out that these aircraft are supposed to give better intelligence and prevent potential casualties on both sides of a conflict due to their precise technological capabilities. So then the problem in armed conflicts was the amount of civilian casualties, and the solution was these particular unmanned aircraft that significantly reduced these numbers, at least in theory. We had the knowledge of the proper technology, we implemented the solution. The problem is solved! Right? Well not quite, for aside from Afghanistan, these technologies have not been used in war contexts.+ The technologies quite arguably were the right solution to the right problem, but their particular implementation now has created its own problems. In fact, the implementation looks much less like it is motivated by the cause it was set out to solve, namely the reduction of civilian casualties, and more like the desire to make war and armed conflicts like video games to reduce the psychological trauma of the combatants deploying them (again, at least in theory).

            With these two examples, that of the entirely biodegradable plant pots and Drones, we can see that often the right knowledge is neither sufficient nor necessarily the complete guide in order to accomplish morally good actions. Why then does much of our blogging/activist culture, as exemplified by TED and its detractors, believe that correct knowledge, whether digging deeper or wider, is the solution to our plights? The capacity for human self-delusion, willful ignorance, or denial, should never be underestimated. In fact, it is not even claimed here that if Bratton or Anderson only knew that knowledge was not enough to solve our problem, would they then have the moral courage or will to solve some of our world’s problems. The very claim would be to fall into the mind set that knowledge is what is needed. ‘Know thyself!’ is the mantra but a plea of ignorance is often the excuse to dodge moral criticism or examination of one’s motivational heart, of the truth one already knows. “But I didn’t know!”—”You knew full well! Or you could have easily found out! You chose to be ignorant.”

            What the TED talks and their detractors have essentially done is to really believe the insincere plea, believe the cry that if they only knew they would have done better, and have tried to give others the knowledge they claimed they did not have before. It is because they sincerely believe the insincere plea of ignorance that they believe correct knowledge is the solution to our plights. The delusion that correct knowledge is what is needed, is something much of eastern and mystical thought has believed, but it is something which the Judeo-Christian tradition has almost entirely avoided. It is the Judeo-Christian tradition that produces prophets who expose to us the dangerous truths, which we know of but are willingly ignorant of, and call upon us respond to that truth with a repentant heart (Psalm 51). Other traditions, as can be seen in the western embrace of Buddhism in TED for instance, for the most part just produce gurus that encourage you to seek after guidance from their hand (often for a fee!). Once you discover the correct knowledge of yourself  and the world all will be well, it is claimed. But what if the terrifying element of TED talks and the gurus of knowledge, is that they are essentially like Seth MacFarlane’s TED, a Teddy bear who will bear the storm with you with reassuring knowledge, rather than get you out of the storm. And not only this, but that you yourself know this, and yet you refuse to know it.

*Bratton, Benjamin. “We Need to Talk About TED.” The Guardian, December 30, 2013, sec. Comment is free.

**Anderson, Chris. “TED Isn’t a Recipe for ‘Civilisational Disaster’.” The Guardian, January 8, 2014, sec. Comment is free.

***Bratton uses the word ‘placebo’ but it may not be the best term since placebos are in theory suppose to work, whereas TED, Bratton argues, does not. Perhaps inoculation is a better term, to express taking out the impactful element of politics and innovation.

For criticisms of Hammond see: 

(i) Linebaugh, Heather. “I Worked on the US Drone Program. The Public Should Know What Really Goes On.” The Guardian, December 29, 2013, sec. Comment is free. EML6619I2

(ii) Smith, Clive Stafford. “Philip Hammond Ignores the Truth About Drone Atrocities.” The Guardian, December 20, 2013, sec. Comment is free.