In retrospect, the incredible success of the online venture that is TED talks does not seem surprising. TED, which stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” was initially a platform for tech-based startups to pitch their ideas to investors. Founded in 1990, it has grew to such a phenomenon that by January 2007, tickets were $6000 and invite-only. The Silicon Valley roots of TED have stuck even as its market has broadened, and “Ideas Worth Spreading” have become the new commodity of choice.
The marketplace for these ideas grew as the internet evolved. The popularity of Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) was an early symptom of the appetite that existed for this genre of self-improvement literature. Online platforms, such as Brain Pickings and The School of Life, now package the wisdom of the greats in a format that is convenient for our consumption. An interesting shift in tone has accompanied the popularization of this niche of self-help. Continual adjustment and betterment of the self is seen as paramount to happiness, and naturally it is not hard to find an audience that is willing to be convinced that self-improvement via philosophical reflection is an easy way to change ourselves for the better. This is why, often enough, just reading these articles is invigorating, because the belief in the possibility of such a transformation is already gratifying.
TED encourages speakers to stifle their appetite for nuance, and to package problems and their innovative solutions as being beneficial on a global scale. But their videos are perhaps equally as masturbatory as the mantra that living the good life is a matter of adjusting our mindset. Each speech creates a warm glow of inspiration, because it turns out that the social, economic and environmental problems of global importance could be solved, if we were only to tweak our thinking. What is even less surprising than the success of this format is that this new industry of ideas tends towards banality. The formula of the TED talk all but mandates a satisfying conclusion, and allows the speaker to go largely unquestioned by the audience. TED’s virality is no more a mystery than why each talk, with its 18-minute time limit, still feels like a sales pitch (a format that admittedly does a disservice to some of the conference’s most reputable contributors).
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek quipped that the cost set by Starbucks of being more than just a consumer is built into the price of a Grande Latte whose profits support fair-trade Ethiopian coffee farmers. The ultimate consumerism allows us to be self-congratulatory; and perhaps succeeds at countering a deeper discomfort with being born onto the luckier side of social inequality – as the main demographic for self-improvement porn and TED seems to be. The temptation that TED feeds is a desire to succumb to belief that the world is better for our individual exposure to these life and world-changing ideas. Brian Cooke’s recent podcast Philosophy can Ruin Your Life, in which he discusses with philosophers the true impact of a life spent with ideas, is more aptly titled. It is an appetite that delays our mustering the courage to admit that only knowledge in the service of the collective is worth it, and that individual comfort may be the last thing it brings.