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19th Mar 2013

Sharing Ideas in an Ethical Vacuum?

Sharing Ideas in an Ethical Vacuum?
Umair Haque, Director of Havas Media Labs and author of 'Betterness: Economics for Humans' wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review earlier this month. The essay is titled, 'Let's Save Great Ideas from the Ideas Industry'.

In a powerful and counter-cultural way the essay critiques the new wave of big idea forums like TED [short for Technology, Entertainment and Design]:

"I think TED thinking cheats us. Not just the "audience," but all of us. By putting climactic epiphany before experience, education, and elevation. Sure, we can spend our lives, in this digital age, getting quick hits of epiphany from our pundit overlords. In that sense, TED thinking is like a one-night stand with ideas."

Just a few paragraphs later, he hits even harder:
 
"There are no sources of evil in TED world — apart from a "lack." Insufficient Technology, Edutainment, and Design (or "innovation", "growth", "insights"): these are the only shortcomings the human world faces. There is no venality; no selfishness; no cruelty; no human weakness that is not readily amenable to the cure-all of Perfect Technology, Edutainment, and Design.

Hence, in TED world, there are heroes, but no villains. There are self-reliant supermen; but no rent-seekers, no criminals, no charlatans, no mountebanks, no fraudsters, schemers, or...just plain humans. There is good, but no evil. No ethics is possible given this calculus. It is an anti-ethics that perfectly describes the vacuity of our age. In this sense, TED thinking is a kind of Nietzschean enterprise: one beyond good and evil, where Supermen save the world. Yet, the real world asks us to have an ethical calculus precisely because the human heart is capable of great cruelty; of evil, of indescribable atrocity.

To me, this is the greatest and truest failure of today's idea industry: it is a mind without a heart. TED thinking cheats us of the better angels of our nature; of ethos itself, the highest, truest, and noblest of all the arts of human thought.

Great ideas, then, demand something from us — something more than pleasure. They demand more than just our "attention" — and far more than our standing ovations. They demand not just our eyes, wallets, and hands, but our hearts, minds, and souls. They demand our heartbreak, our hurt."


I think on one level Haque is being a little too harsh on TED - Isn't it okay for TED to invite people to present innovative solutions in the Technology, Entertainment and Design spectrum, some of which have been developed over many years? The presentations aren't merely new-fangled notions. If you haven't watched any TED talks and you have 20 minutes then start with this one: Sir Ken Robinson on Do Schools Kill Creativity?, which is a favorite of mine.

I would argue that one of TED's strengths IS its optimism, which in a world full of war, cynicism, cut-throat capitalism, extreme poverty, political impotence and environmental disasters is truly refreshing. It does present glimpses of the world as it ought to be and this can be galvanizing.

At times TED talks do force us to stare squarely at uncomfortable problems, though the pervasive conclusion is that we as species CAN ultimately overcome these problems. It assumes that we are moving towards some sort of balance between elitism and egalitarianism and that as we spread positive ideas especially with a naturalistic and therefore 'reliable' worldview, everybody wins. We learn from mistakes. We grow in empathy. We try really hard to recognize our carbon footprint.

But do big ideas forums like TED fail to address the fact that humans, including those in the audience, are capable of great cruelty; of evil, of indescribable atrocity?

Read Haque's whole article here and share your thoughts.


Joel Wilson