The news this week that TED — the technology, education and design conference — would relocate from Long Beach, Calif. to Vancouver was met with equal amounts of excitement and disdain. TED is a globally-recognized cultural event whose host city can’t help but benefit from all the attention, not to mention the thousands of visitors the conference will draw. Having Vancouver, and indeed Canada, associated with an event built around “ideas worth spreading” can’t hurt. However, it has also become synonymous in some minds with hucksterism, with yuppie audiences lapping up broad platitudes repackaged as world-changing revelations. Prospective attendees even have to write an essay on why they should be allowed to attend before they get a chance to buy $7,500 tickets.
Vancouver is a good place for TED Talks. The two have a lot in common, my home city and the online sensation.
They both seem to secrete pretentious, lefty self-righteousness, and they both evoke a good deal of resentment from precisely the people you’d think would love them (as well as precisely those you knew would not). They’re both visibly affluent with a patronizing tendency to privilege checking and an ostentatious love of minority issues. I absolutely guarantee you that TED Vancouver opens with a request to proceed on stolen Native land. Still, most important in generating the disdain that now seems so rampant is that both have committed the cardinal sin against intellectualism: they have brought it to the masses.
Now, I’m not arguing that there aren’t idiotic pseudo-intellectuals in both Vancouver and the TED alumni association. Instead, I have always questioned both the logic of and motivations behind using these people to condemn the groups overall. I’m saying that pseudo-intellectudals are mostly just bad intellectuals, the far-left shaded portion of the normal distribution of human ability. As with any endeavour, increasing the overall number of people competing will swell that lower corner as well — even on the divinely curated TED pedestal (I actually like to think of it as a mount). The solution to bad intellectualism is not to attack those few places that are still providing, at the very least, some amount of the good stuff to a general audience.
I think what really unsettles me about the disdain for TED, and to a certain extent about that for Vancouver (gotta keep that parallel going), is the claim that small snippets of information will somehow be more damaging than no information at all. An instructively facile explanation of the mechanism by which knowledge makes us stupider can be found around the 20 minute mark of this recent Slate podcast. It feels to me like so much foot-stamping by people who want everyone to have to wade through nine boring lectures for every interesting one. “This is bullshit,” the haters think in my mind. “They’re fucking budgers!” I also blame this for the oncoming storm of hatred for Malcolm Gladwell (who should be criticized, but for misrepresenting certain ideas, not for being too superficial).
There’s also a flatly offensive implication of ownership, that these are our issues, and that only we of the Order of the Ever-Diluted Bachelor have the conceptual framework into which such information can be slotted. Whereas in its early days a repeated lecture about Kenyan windmill pioneers was a social fucking service, today it is the worst kind of ignorance – impertinent ignorance! There is an increasingly accepted (and increasingly unspoken) assumption that people who have slumped their way through the intellectual sock-hop that is most of undergraduate education these days just think differently – and maybe we do. But until people are willing to at the very least own their elitism, I won’t be impressed by nonspecific wingeing about the dangers of too little information.
Additionally, too much of the criticism of TED comes from the rather naïve assumption that the worst and most vapid of these presenters, the people whose nonspecific gurgling about innovative solutions (“Swirly fMRI colors mean that art is better than math!”) are not representative experts in their fields. Unfortunately, most of them are. Sure, a few nobodies slip onto the TED dais from time to time, underdog stories and diversity picks, but most TED presenters are real academics and professionals publishing in non-trivial journals or running in powerful circles. Blaming TED for the sad state of so much of research in business and the social “sciences” is like hating Best Buy because Windows sucks. TED is not the culprit here, and in fact polishes the turd significantly. By rejecting one of the last remaining sources of this sort of content, TED’s detractors are only exacerbating problems they claim to want to fix.
Even in the (ugh) design section, most the stuff is just boring, not actively irrational. It brings together artists and professionals from all sorts of imaginary fields so they can tell us how design is more important than things that are actually important. The feeling this evokes in me is familiar, since I live in Vancouver, and routinely pass expensive “distressed” furniture stores and eat a good portion of my restaurant meals off small slabs of wood. The douchery of the non-introspective elite is well known to me.
And yet, faced with possibly leaving this city I am putting more effort into staying than even I had foreseen. My friends and family are here of course, but ultimately I don’t want to leave Vancouver, the city. I’ve seen other cities extensively, tried on their identities and done a few laps around the store. I just like Vancouver. In spite of the beanie hats and the self-important psych-philosophy-double-major-it’s-no-big-deal-thoughs, the oxygen bars and the echo-chamber “debates,” even in spite of the never-acknowledged sense of superiority, I just like Vancouver.
This is a city that believes in the power of ideas, and which hold ideas passionately. It holds up the concept of education as a virtue. It has the energy and vitality of a people who are willing to throw a fucking knife into the ground and say, there, that’s what I think — there is no trace of the insecurity that leads people into a never-ending tactical retreat so consuming that they don’t notice they’re backing up in circles. They often get overly excited or too infatuated with their own intelligence, sit around writing poetry collections while lying to student loan agents about looking for a job. I’m telling you — these are the sorts of douchebags you want to live in and amongst. So long as you have access to an infinite supply of grains of salt, you can live here and appreciate that most of this city’s greatest flaws spring from its greatest strengths.
Sure, sometimes the people on TED are wrong, but at least they’re something. Can we all just stop being offended by the simple fact that when we swing for the fences, our misses will be just as exaggerated as our hits? Even the many and spectacular failures of TED at least engage interesting ideas, stimulate productive thought by inviting us to articulate counter-arguments on topics that most of us rarely encounter.
Vancouver is a good choice for TED. Here it will find its audience and bask in uncritical adoration. Then it will set about its mission, honestly and without cynicism. The biases in the selection process will introduce some odd talks, and a few stupid ones, and maybe even a liar or two. But the overall pursuit is honest, no denying that, and as a result the majority of what they produce will be amazing. It will be inspiring and educational and amazing.
Some people boycott stupid Vancouver coffee shops because they resent the unnecessary complications. I just ask for a dark coffee. And you know what? All the other bullshit aside, their coffee is simply the best. So I drink the coffee, and I don’t even resent the people with long orders — without them, there’d be nobody to make my coffee with such love and attention.
These douchebags are just fine by me.