CHANCES are you will not attend TED this year. Tickets to the gathering that began Monday in Vancouver are sold out, this despite or rather because of the fact that gaining entry to the ideas conference entails more than pulling out your credit card. There’s a velvet rope of an application process, and questions to answer: “How would a friend describe your accomplishments?” “What are you passionate about?” Two references have to vouch for you.
But if you don’t make the cut and shell out the $8,500 fee for general attendance, no matter. The real action and measure of TED’s reach is online. In November 2012 TED announced its “billionth video view,” which, assuming an average length of 15 minutes, means that collectively by then we had clicked on roughly 10 million days’ worth of TED talks. At our desks or on our phones, we stare as sympathetic experts tell us we should reform education, admit to personal failings more publicly or invest in the developing world. It sounds great. The ideas, which TED promises are “worth spreading,” do indeed make the rounds. (Or as the Onion put it in TED-inspired mockery: “No mind will be left unchanged.”)
I grew up among Christian evangelicals and I recognize the cadences of missionary zeal when I hear them. TED, with its airy promises, sounds a lot like a secular religion. And while it’s not exactly fair to say that the conference series and web video function like an organized church, understanding the parallel structures is useful for conversations about faith — and how susceptible we humans remain. The TED style, with its promise of progress, is as manipulative as the orthodoxies it is intended to upset.
A great TED talk is reminiscent of a tent revival sermon. There’s the gathering of the curious and the hungry. Then a persistent human problem is introduced, one that, as the speaker gently explains, has deeper roots and wider implications than most listeners are prepared to admit. Once everyone has been confronted with this evidence of entropy, contemplated life’s fragility and the elusiveness of inner peace, a decision is called for: Will you remain complacent, or change? Jesus said to the crowds, “Whoever has ears, let him hear.” A skilled tent revivalist can twist those words to suggest that simply showing up to listen makes you part of the solution.
The process just outlined is rhetorically persuasive, and being party to it can be thrilling. As a small child I thought that my parents, who worked for an international Christian broadcaster, had boosted our family’s social standing through their commitment to spreading the word. We weren’t just believers, we were believing rock stars. I was perpetually antsy during church but also knew that some people attended services only on Christmas and Easter, and I remember thinking, thank goodness we’re not like them, so ignorant and apathetic.
So on a pure emotional level I understand the appeal of sitting in a darkened room as a speaker pulls you into a crescendo of conviction that you can and will improve — and more attractive still, that your individual change for the better will make the whole world better.
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SOURCE: N.Y. Times