TED Talks Aren't Making My Generation Smart – They're Making Us Stupid
I haven't had an independent thought in years. Sometimes, I forget my own name.
This article originally appeared at VICE UK
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about thinking about thinking.
Over the last few weeks, for example, I've been making a sustained effort to watch at least one TED talk a day. I'm not sure what it is about my generation, exactly, but I've noticed a weird trend to watch or listen to "informative", Horrible History-style things for adults rather than actually think. It seems to be a cultural reference point to think about the idea of thinking, rather than actually engaging the old noggin.
Which is why I basically sleep walk through everything. I haven't had an independent thought in years. Sometimes, I forget my own name.
Maybe it's because I'm a card-carrying member to a tinfoil hat society for the infuriatingly smug, but I think there's something inherently wrong with passivity. And yet I write this from my bed. The most common response I received when I told people I was working on this was, "What? Have you never enjoyed one?" Which, I suppose, is my whole point. When thinking about thinking becomes entertainment rather than a challenge, something has fucked up.
It feels like almost bad manners to have a go at something that is so overwhelmingly positive. But, fuck it, I'm going to do it because, just as Justin Lee Collins making a handful of people laugh didn't mean he wasn't a horrible, horrible man, TED entertaining you doesn't mean it isn't a sneaky pyramid scheme, designed to suck off your ego while pretending to inseminate your mind with world-altering concepts.
From my vantage point, swinging from the nether regions of society, TED (and all other "thinkies") is the road of least resistance to thought, dishing out toilet stall profundity willy-nilly for those like me whose cognitive ability languishes somewhere between a turtle's and a slice of bread.
I have watched, I'd wager, 50 videos at least, because a) I have a lot of time on my hands and b) I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And I've concluded that it's basically having Alain de Botton in your house with a biro scribbling: "AdB woz ere," on the back of the shitter door and getting applauded for the effort.
Because I'm a reasonable person, I started re-watching the classics. I didn't learn anything.
I was told that porn made me an angry, violent man and yet I navigate my browser to my old favourites, regardless. I was informed that the secret to happiness is a really good cake, but I continue to pass up the option of dessert. I was even told that, like a twat, I've been tying my shoelaces wrong all these years, but I still do, because I'm clearly beyond help.
Tickets to an actual TED talk costs thousands of dollars. No TED event pays their speakers, because the whole thing is an honour. A privilege, for both them and us. But they will get you a nice hotel.
I think my dissatisfaction with this form of learning has got something to do with the fact that being super, super self-satisfied often does not bode well for rigorous debate or discussion. In all the videos I watched, each speaker and every audience member looked so pleased themselves that I had half the mind to think they were all being fellated by invisible ghosts.
A lot of people I know watch TED talks. A lot of people you know watch them. It's a pleasure mechanism, really. And I don't know about you but, as soon as I've touched myself, I have precisely zero desire to do anything but pretend my self-loathing isn't a logical reaction to what I just watched. I really need to get out of bed.
Nothing gets done when you're a self-contented shit surrounded by your acolytes and your ghost mates. Trust me.
But it's not all bad. What I do like about TED is the video rating system. It is absolutely amazing. You can choose from all sorts of over the top adjectives, ranging from "ingenious" and "funny" to "jaw-dropping". The nearest option to "fucking shit" is "obnoxious", which is what I rated all the videos I didn't understand (all of them). I gave the one about shoelaces "inspiring" because, fuck it, I'm fed up with these Velcro loafers.
What really honked my horns about this (and the whole of TED shebang, really) was how close it was to the theme tune of The Lego Movie, a song so insistent that a completely random assortment of things are "awesome" that to hear it is to think that there is literally no conceivable way to believe otherwise.
It's so mind-numbingly positive that the next time someone steps up on a TED talk stage everyone should have to sing along to that song and reflect on precisely what went wrong in their lives, because, despite what Sean Connery might have you believe, it's the failures that fuck the prom queen. I'm calling it now: no one who has ever been involved with TED has ever gotten laid.
Nothing gets done when you're a self-contented shit surrounded by your acolytes and your ghost mates. Trust me. A far improved set up would be an international tour of the world's finest curmudgeons spouting well-worn put downs designed to inspire the ego to prove them wrong. What mouth-breather wouldn't, after a year of Duncan Bannatyne calling you up in the morning and informing you that he's out, be motivated to succeed? Bannatyne is dripping in it.
The reason (if it isn't obvious) why I bring up The Lego Movie is because its whole conceit is that everything is not awesome. That, regardless of what the Octan Corporation tells you, people are sleepwalking through their uninspired, pantless existence because they think that average, systemised thought and behaviour is AWESOME.
It's not. All of our ideas are not amazing. Everything we think isn't epic. We are capable of being average, of peeing in our pants or spilling the contents of a Subway sandwich all over the desk. And that's fine.
We've got a generational problem where we're so concerned about being amazing that we can't be arsed to acknowledge we're average. And it's TED's fucking fault. And Paul McKenna's. And Gok Wan's.
It's embarrassing that a film starring Will Ferrell knows more about thinking than Jane Fonda, Chris Anderson and Ken Robinson. A kid's movie about building blocks is, to me, inexplicably more profound about the state of ideas and independent thought than a real-life company that claims to be dollop out intelligence like an exceptionally erudite dinner lady.
These entertainments about thinking are as intellectually rigorous or challenging as Noel's House Party. But they are fun, and entertainment is fundamentally about making the audience continue watching for as long as possible and also feel good. There's nothing wrong with a ghost sucking you off, as long as you know what its motivation is.
Infuriatingly, I found that there are TED talks about everything except what people really need them for, like how to use the fucking Underground without stopping in the way of EVERYONE, or how to eat a pizza in bed and not get grease absolutely everywhere. But, maybe I do these things because I've seen so many thought provoking talks that I am quite literally seized in the moment by an idea of such profundity that to continue functioning would be an affront to mythical epiphany.
Or maybe I'm just stupid.