I like TED talks. A lot.
If you are unfamiliar with them, they are designed to be 18-minute presentations on topics related to technology, education and design (hence the name "TED").
The goal of these talks is to share "ideas worth spreading."
They are a huge step beyond the usual internet fare which, as many have noted, traffics more in information than wisdom. But they are not, in and of themselves, an education. And far less an ultimate statement on an issue.
The best most certainly are.
This is what they are best at.
But no TED talk is the final word.
Yet in our internet world, TED talks have become the longest, most sustained educational lesson most will ever choose to engage. It is the only course, if not collective degree, that most will ever receive.
I used to think that this truncated, attention-span sensitive, entertainment-oriented approach to learning was better than nothing.
I don't any more.
By itself, A TED talk undermines the exercise of real thinking.
Here are three reasons why:
1. The length, by design, diminishes any sense of real context to the larger discussion at hand. Every TED talk has a point - an agenda - that is being put forward without respect to alternate views or wider discourse. There is a body of knowledge, a "great discussion," that has been going on about the big ideas for centuries. TED talks seldom pay homage to that stream.
2. It is personality-driven instead of truth-driven. What matters most with TED talks is style, not substance. If you have any doubt, read the book on how to deliver a good TED talk by the founder of the entire enterprise, Chris Anderson, titled TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. To be sure, the best offer both style and substance, but style is what always wins points. And style can put forward any number of half-truths, if not outright falsehoods, in a manner few will question.
3. Most TED talks are culturally trendy instead of culturally trenchant, and even less culturally critical. Trendy is what's happening "now" – a topic or trend that rests on the surface of modern thought. Such topics tend to be, by nature, fleeting at best or superficial at worst. To be trenchant means to be cutting, sharp, keen, penetrating, incisive and distinct. In other words, to be trenchant is akin to what C.S. Lewis once said about the "old books" – the ones that have most shaped history and culture, civilization and science, politics and economics. They prompt us to think about the great issues of life.
Do I sound curmudgeonly in all of this?
I do not mean to.
But perhaps a bit of that spirit may be needed to remind ourselves how to actually go about being a learner, thinking deeply, developing a mind for God…
… and moving beyond TEDucation.
James Emery White
The Church & Culture Team heartily recommends A Mind for God by James Emery White on this subject.