And it is like a cult; an atheist cult, an idea cult. But the rituals are vague, genuflection a social interaction and not a subjugation. There is an undeniable religious air to the thing, not just the rules and and the isolation, the exclusivity — but the tone of thinking, a pathological pressure to remain open-minded. If Judeo-Christian religions operate effectively by empirically answering questions and avoiding inquisition, TED works in the reverse, shunning the very concept of knowing — asking only that you bring an open mind. That your mind remains forever open, questioning. Questioning, but never quite judging.
Part of that feeling is driven by the fact that there really isn’t debate at TED. Debate amongst attendees, late at night, over drinks, certainly — but even those debates feel guarded, protective of the speaker’s ideas. Scared to offend, the debater perhaps worried that they will be identified as closed minded, or that they’ll appear to have missed the point. Someone told me that at one point their “bullshit detector” went off. It was a journalist, you know, with the black label.
(For those who prefer not to see me lapse into an idealistic and excessively optimistic person, avert your eyes immediately.)
TED is a strange, isolated, cultish, morally unsound, and tone deaf place. It's elitist, awkward, and self-congratulatory.
But, at the same time, I'm idealistically pleased it exists.
Simply put, investing in the inherent value of ideas — whilst also reserving any semblance of scathing or premature judgment — is an affable concept.
One need only look at Twitter or Facebook for the briefest of moments to feel suffocating claustrophobia at the ignorance reverberating from person to person — retweet to retweet. Positivity is callously subjugated to the position of irrelevance, whilst snark and sarcasm are positioned as the primary routes toward followers.
And followers seem to correlate to relevance.
And relevance seems to correlate to accuracy.
In a digital world characterized by such self-congratulatory nonsense, perhaps the isolated world of TED is necessary? As Topolsky highlights, the result isn't pretty. In fact, it can be downright unattractive. But, above all else, it's an environment unfettered by the typical societal constraints of media and obligatory social expectations.
Today, we can criticize, dismiss, and deride ideas faster than ever before. We disseminate ideologies in the most fluid and frictionless of manners, regardless of their relevance or contextual value.
And that's troublesome.
We coax ourselves into believing that our carefully cultivated followings represent the broader opinions of the world. That, because you follow Apple users, Apple's products must be inherently better. That, because you follow Republicans, Democrats must be ethically wrong. That, because you follow atheists, the faithful must be flagrantly ignorant.
We don't allow ourselves the latitude to think, consider, and dream unabated — nor is there any expectation for us to do so. Instead, we act under the guise of pragmatism and balance, whilst nurturing extremist opinions. We pretend that we're being realistic and mindful, when we're clearly patting each other on the back — our eyes turned away from the competitive viewpoints either side of us.
TED is absolutely cultish. But it's a cult for the sustenance of beneficial ideas. Elitist, morally unsound, isolated, self-congratulatory, and tone deaf? Yes. All of those. But useful and, in some respects, daring? I believe so.
In a world in which balance and moderation are increasingly unavailable, perhaps we need a place of cognitive seclusion. A place in which we, as creators, thinkers, businesspeople, and so on, might have the chance to explore the middle-ground. Or, god forbid, the opposition.
Without context and questioning, knowledge, innovation, evolution, and growth simply cannot proceed.
Yes, TED is trite and frequently deplorable, but it serves a unique and valuable purpose. It combats the adoption and pursuance of shallow causes in favor of lofty, world-altering ideas. Rather than embarrassingly latching onto a cause — as we so often see on Twitter and in the technology community — TED fosters an environment in which such transparent behavior is seen for what it truly is. An environment in which the crazier, loftier, and more ambitious the idea, the better the response.
Perhaps it serves little tangible purpose, but I'm pleased to know there's a place for innovative thinking to incubate and grow outside of the prohibitive strata of an increasingly polarized, aggressive, and sheep-like community of people.
Call me an optimist or an idealist — that's absolutely what I am — but I simply can't completely write off an environment conducive to, and non-judgmental of, disruptive ideas. That's an important, new, and, in some respects, necessary thing. One that, as odd as it might be, might serve a beneficial purpose for all of us in the long run.
At the very least, TED can inform — and perhaps necessitate — the creation of a better environment. It can catalyze the desire to build something with fewer boundaries and it can foster the dispersion of reason and rationality.
TED is most certainly not the balanced vessel we need, but it's doing more than any other event or gathering that I can recall. And that's worth something.