My days end best when this sunset gets itself… I gave up after one session of TEDxCanberra. The puzzle of ideas festivals

My organisation was dealing with a problem.  It wanted to reform its business processes to put it in a better financial position.  The solution had already been decided long before the problem was fully understood: we were going to introduce a new piece of software.  This was contentious and, very quickly, there was little good will left to make anybody believe that the proposed software solution would work.

To address this problem, senior administrators called a meeting.  No agenda.  No real communication about what the meeting would cover.  But it was time to call everybody together into a room in order to ‘talk’.  The session began with five minutes of trying to make the audio visual system in the room work, before we realised we were going to be subjected to a TED Talk that had been uploaded to YouTube.  Make sure the important things are in the goldfish bowl before adding the unimportant things.

This is the popular association with the TED Talk: vapid ideas that focus on the presentation and style of delivery rather than critical engagement with the ideas themselves.  There’s a real problem in your organisation, life, or community?  Here’s a ten-fifteen minute hot take about what your problem is and how you can fix that with a bit of inspirational thinking and elbow grease.

Today is the ninth TEDxCanberra session.  I gave up after the first session and went home to read instead.  At $160 for a ticket, I was strongly tempted to try to endure it… but why?  The key idea on display was that ideas festivals are broken and they need to be rethought.

Elizabeth Bruenig called it best:

‘Ideas festivals uniformly suck; firstly the ideas suck, secondly they’re always short on what makes festivals great, ie funnel cakes and other fried foods, carnival rides and games’

Although I agree that ideas festivals suck, I think they could be good.  More than that, if they were done properly, there’s no reason why an ideas festival couldn’t be an opportunity to enrich democracy.

Perhaps the major reason ideas festivals suck is that they have no real understanding of what they want to achieve.  It was shortly after 9am in the morning when TEDxCanberra wheeled out two electronica DJs.  The beats dropped and the lights blinked like a rave.  At 9am.  In the morning.  When I can still taste the coffee I drank hurriedly.  For what purpose would anybody schedule electronica for that time in the morning?

Then on with the first idea: climate change is bad.  It sure is.  Then the next idea: human waste is bad and maybe more dung beetles could help.  That sounds insane.  Next idea: folk tales have a long history of being told and retold, but producing ‘canonical’ versions of fairytales have calcified norms that are out of place in today’s society.  That’s a good idea and could go in several different ways.  Wait, no.  We’re moving on to the next idea: maybe racism and homophobia would go away if we stopped using labels.  That’s moronic but no time, because we’ve got a movie about the cameleers in Broken Hill to watch.

There’s no sustained engagement with any of the ideas.  In two of the speeches given this morning, the speaker clearly hadn’t given sustained engagement with the idea prior to workshopping how they were going to deliver their brainfart of an idea.  There’s something bizarre about watching a person claim that there are no standards relevant to what they’re talking about while simultaneously showing a screen displaying the ASO standard they claim doesn’t exist.

TED is premised on the idea that if progressives just care enough about something, solutions will magically manifest themselves.  Climate change isn’t an economic problem: it’s caused by people not caring enough.  Asylum seeker policy isn’t a wildly complex international problem: if you just sob quietly to yourself in a corner for five minutes, you’ll divine a perfect resettlement strategy.  Racism is definitely caused by people not having a good hard care about things.  Maybe you’ll recycle more and attend a protest about something.

TED, in particular, is built around the idea of one person delivering a hot take into a void.  The style is not geared towards discussion and engagement.  Only one perspective is privileged: that of the person standing on the red circle, and that person might not be an expert on the issue being discussed.  In this sense, it has the opposite problem of the panel discussion.  Panel discussions often have too many voices jumping quickly between ideas; a TED talk is a monologue with no antagonist to test the ideas being put forward.

TED is clearly addressing something that people recognise as a need.  Tickets sell to ideas festivals and people want to engage, so there’s an audience waiting for something good.  Literary festivals occupy a similar space, with audiences cramming in for an experience.

But the offerings are not enriching because they’re not anchored on an idea of the audience.  If you’ve got a room full of middle class, educated people and you wanted them to engage with an idea, what idea would it be and how would you lead them to engage with it?

Let’s say I wanted to get people to engage seriously with asylum seeker policy.  Rather than have the usual megaphones talk about how people need to cry more, I’d structure it around perspectives: global, communal, and local.  What is the evidence base and what are different approaches trying to achieve?  And then, if you really must, bring in the blowhards at the end to see if they can sustain their usual nonsense in the face of what the experts and the evidence were putting forward.  By the time people leave, they’d be more informed about what they believe, they might even change their views, and they might have an idea of how they can influence politics to reflect that new information.

At the moment, we are wasting really good opportunities to have ideas festivals that have impact and that create informed, engaged citizens.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

One thought on “My days end best when this sunset gets itself… I gave up after one session of TEDxCanberra. The puzzle of ideas festivals”

  1. Pitty you left after the first session. I somewhat agree with you about some of the talks at TEDxCanberra but some of the later ones where amazing.

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