Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Is TED Indicative of a Healthier Public Discourse?

I was on a plane flying cross-country a couple weeks back and had a couple standard business suit types on the other side of the aisle with their shiny new iPads.  During the flight, they were both watching TED talks they had downloaded to pass the hours.  They intentionally chose to make "the smart" a part of their routine. It made me wonder whether we are seeing a change in the public discourse.

There have always been outlets for intelligent conversation in the media.  NPR, PBS, and The New York Review of Books are out there, but their audiences are a closed group.  TED seems to be expanding the circle.  Intelligent, thoughtful talks are being seen as mainstream entertainment options, as pleasurable ways to pass time.  Because of lousy high school instruction, we often lump thinking and learning in with the "have to" stuff, the work.  We take the "want to" as mindless relaxing.  As a result, we have become intellectually lazy in the way we talk about hard issues and have allowed experts to be discounted as "elites" and not as a necessary part of the discussion. 

At the same time, the experts have created a world in which their reward structure is completely predicated on talking to each other.  Professors are recognized and get raises not for making a difference, but for publishing in technical journals.  If lots of people read and understand what you are doing, that is a BAD thing because if you were doing serious work, only a dozen people in the world would be able to have a sense of it.  As a result, the people most needed at the table have refused to sit down.  TED, and the cultural place it is occupying, seems to be starting to change that.  The notion of a public intellectual seems to be creeping back in.

TED has branched out and local TEDx groups are popping up.  (Indeed, for those in the area, I'll be giving a TEDx talk along with the inimitable John Commito and Dusty Smith and alums Luke Norris and Sarah Calhoun on April 18th at Gettysburg College.)  This movement seems to be coming out of a need, a desire for smart talk.  Is this something that will change the way we talk about issues in the world in a significant way?  Is it a canary in the cultural coalmine or just a flash in the social pan?