Onion Talks are a perfect send-up of those TED talks that seem to be all the rage. Let’s talk about ideas! Success! The future! How we can make life better by thinking! Increasing productivity! For someone like me, who reads books slowly in order to take opinions seriously, there’s something off-putting about the hype: as if declaring “I’m winning the future” is the same thing as working hard to identify a problem and find the solution. That sort of work is very, very difficult to talk about. If we knew “how to think,” we’d be gods.
Betsy Morais of The New Yorker hits right at the heart of a class issue underlying the talks, too. I would not back off the “smug” or “elitist” accusation at all. Truth is, what we perceive as failure now might involve the ideas that actually do define the future. Who are we to romanticize what might be momentary success? There’s a big difference between that sort of success and real progress in science or understanding:
That TED Talks are for winners—or as West described them, “C.E.O.’s, on islands or whatever, having a grand old time”—can make the lecturers come across as smug. TED has been accused of being elitist; Heller pointed out that the cost of admission to the Long Beach conference is seventy-five hundred dollars, and tickets are available only by invitation or application. But TED also clearly tries to be inviting, in a manner reflective of what West sees as a problematic tendency in the tech world, that “every new idea is the best one, and because we are profiting off of it, everyone must know—and everything else is backwards and obsolete.”
I don’t want to be too hard on good lecturing and solid presentation: I’m jealous, as the status of my skills in those departments is “needs improvement.”
Not all the Onion Talks are SFW. Still, “What is the Biggest Rock?” hits a nerve. I’ve been to enough lectures where that was pretty much what was presented. The actress gets the lunacy of a pre-crowned visionary down. “Using Social Media to Cover for Lack of Original Thought” and “The Power of Selling Out” might not be parodies.