What TED Needs

Most people want, and gain value from, religious-like communities, strongly bonded by rituals, mutual aid, and implausible beliefs. (Patriotism and political ideologies can count here.) I once embraced that deeply and fully. But then I acquired a strong self-identity as an honest intellectual, which often conflicts with common religious practices. However, I get that my sort of intellectual identity is never going to be common. So religion will continue, even with ems. Realistically, the best widespread religion I’m going to get is one that at least celebrates intellectuals and their ideals, even if it doesn’t fully embrace them, and does so in a form that is accessible to a wide public.

I’ve given four TEDx talks so far, and will give another in two weeks. Ten days ago I had the honor of giving a talk on Age of Em at the annual TED conference in Vancouver (video not yet posted). And I have to say that the TED community seems to come about as as close as I can realistically expect to my ideal religion. It is high status, accessible to a wide public, and has a strong sense of a shared community, and of self-sacrifice for community ideals. It has lots of ritual, music, and art, and it celebrates innovation and intellectuals. It even gives lip service to many intellectual virtues. If borderline religious elements sometimes make me uncomfortable, well that’s my fault, not theirs.

The main TED event differs from other TEDx events. Next year the price will be near $10K just for registration, and even then you have to submit an application, and some are rejected. At that high price the main attendees are investors and CEOs looking to network with each other. As a result, it isn’t really a place to geek out talking ideas. But that seems mainly a result of TED’s great success, and overall it does seem to help the larger TED enterprise. Chris Anderson deserves enormous credit for shepherding all this success.

The most encouraging talk I heard at TED 2017 was by David Brenner on his efforts to disinfect human spaces. Apparently there are frequencies of ultraviolet (UV) light that don’t penetrate skin past the top layer of dead skin cells, but still penetrate all the way through almost all bacteria and viruses in the air and on smooth-enough surfaces. So we should be able to use special UV lights to easily disinfect surfaces around humans. For example, we might cheaply sterilize whole hospitals. And maybe also airports during pandemics. This seems an obvious no brainer that should have been possible anytime in the last century (assuming they’ve done penetration-depth vs. frequency measurements right). Yet Brenner has been working on this for five years and still seems far from getting regulatory approval. This seems to me a bad case of civilization and regulatory failure. Even so, the potential remains great.

The most discouraging talk I heard was by Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group. He talked about how he fought the World Bank for years, because they insisted on using cost-effectiveness criteria to pick medical investments. He showed us pictures of particular people helped by less cost-effective treatments, daring us to say they were not worth helping. And he said people in poor nations have status-based “aspirations” for the same sort of hospitals and schools found in rich nations, even if they aren’t cost-effective, and who are we to tell them no. Now that he runs the World Bank (nominated by Obama in 2012), his priorities can now win more. The audience cheered. 🙁

All strong religions seem to need some implausible beliefs, and perhaps for TED one of them is the idea we need only point out problems to good people, to have those problems solved. But if not, then what I think TED audiences most need to hear are basic reviews on the topics of market failure and regulatory costs.

At TED 2017 I heard many talks where speakers point out a way that our world is not ideal. For example, speakers talked about how tech firms compete to entice users to just pay attention to them, how cities seem to be spread out more than is ideal, and how inner city grocery stores have less fresh food. But speakers never attributed problems to a particular standard kind of market failure, much less suggest a particular institutional solution because it matched the kind of market failure it was to address. While speakers tend to imply government regulation and redistribution as solutions, they never consider the many ways that regulation and redistribution can go wrong and be costly.

It is as if TED audiences, who hear talks on a great specialized many areas of science and tech, were completely unaware of key long-established and strongly-relevant areas of scholarship. If TED audiences were instead well informed about institution design, market failures, and regulatory costs, then a speaker who pointed out a problem would be expected to place it within our standard classifications of ways that things can go wrong. They’d be expected to pick the standard kind of institutional solution to each kind of problem, or explain why their particular problem needs an unusual solution. And they’d be expected to address the standard ways that such a solution could be costly or go wrong. Perhaps even adjust their solution to deal with case-specific costs and failure modes.

None of this is about left vs. right, it is just about good policy analysis. But perhaps this is just a bridge too far. Until the wider public becomes informed about these things, maybe TED speakers must also assume that their audience is ignorant of them as well. But if TED wants to better help the world to actually solve its problems, this is what its audience most needs to hear.

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  • Dave Lindbergh

    Are you familiar with the Hygiene Hypothesis
    ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841828/ ) ? Disinfecting hospitals is great, but doing so in other public places may be a profoundly bad idea – the rich world epidemics of allergies and asthma may result from too much disinfection.

    I’ve long daydreamed about a “rational religion” that would offer ethics, mutual aid, social connection, and ritual, but without the implausible/supernatural beliefs.

    It seems that costly requirements bind religious communities together, perhaps via the sunk cost fallacy. Irrational beliefs are somewhat costly, but might costly rituals (which needn’t be irrational) work equally well? The equivalent of praying toward Mecca 5 times daily, periodic fasts, etc.

    Is there a name for the sort of person who takes TED seriously? Not intellectuals, but interested in ideas. And (sadly) without awareness of existing knowledge (as per your examples re market failure). Of course there are plenty of “intellectuals” who share the same blindness.

    • I’ve long daydreamed about a “rational religion” that would offer ethics, mutual aid, social connection, and ritual, but without the implausible/supernatural beliefs.


      • Dave Lindbergh

        Is that a religion? Perhaps one of the milder forms of Buddhism is closer. But what I’m really aiming for is Reformed Tiplerism. (Tiplerism without the prophecy stuff.)

      • Mark Bahner

        Scientology? 😉

    • Jim Vine

      Have you looked at Sunday Assembly?

    • germs

      “Are you familiar with the Hygiene Hypothesis
      ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.go… ) ? Disinfecting hospitals is great, but doing so in other public places may be a profoundly bad idea”

      Assume some version of HH is true. Widespread disinfection (with UV or some other method) in public places may still make sense if temporally targeted. For example seasonal influenza is very costly. Broad disenfection during influenza season can be combined with less disinfection at other times of the year. Perhaps that yields the optimal outcome mix of low HH sideeffects and high prevention. Seems like a research area we should give high priority.

      • Mark Bahner

        Yes, regardless of the truth of the HH, disinfecting certain places at certain times is unquestionably a good idea. Hospital operating rooms, for example. Airports during disease outbreaks. Schools during disease outbreaks.

        The UV light treatment can always come with a caution, “Do not try this at home.” 😉

        “Perhaps that yields the optimal outcome mix of low HH side effects and high prevention.”

        Yes, at least start with the unquestionably good settings (e.g., hospitals).

        P.S. I hope Brenner does “regulatory shopping” looking for other countries that seem more willing to use his device. The U.S. isn’t the only country with money!

      • Curt Adams

        The problems from “excessive” hygiene probably derive from the fairly specific issue of eliminating intestinal parasites. Getting rid of airborne germs is probably a pure win.

    • It is not just that communities need costly requirements. They also need to have special benefits that other people cannot get. If you have implausible beliefs, and actually believe them, then you have the high cost of insisting on believing something unlikely, and the purported benefit of secret knowledge that other people don’t have. If you have costly requirements but not implausible beliefs, you have no benefits that other people don’t get to have, and so you won’t be bothered to pay the cost of the requirements.

    • “I’ve long daydreamed about a “rational religion” that would offer ethics, mutual aid, social connection, and ritual, but without the implausible/supernatural beliefs.”

      Cf. the failed “Cult of Reason” during the French Revolution.


      Cf. also secular “reenchantment creeds” such as Marxism, Freudianism, and nationalism. In Ernest Gellner’s view, they all function as substitute religions. He thought all of them suffered from fatal epistemic and/or ethical flaws, however.


      • Dave Lindbergh

        “Rational religion” is perhaps poorly worded. I don’t mean *worship* of rationality – that’s not only stupid, but has led to atrocities in the past (as you point out).

        I just mean an organization that has the positive benefits of religions without the obviously irrational/supernatural stuff. Subtractive from conventional religion – not additive, other than perhaps adding some Reformed Tiplerite *very* long-term goals – which I won’t go into here unless someone cares enough to ask.

        As readers of this blog are aware, humans are terrible at reasoning and subject to numerous biases and fallacies.

        I’ve never bothered to move this idea past the daydream stage, because it’s so obvious that, if it was viable, it would exist already.

      • consider

        It used to be called ‘The Philosophy Department’

      • What do you think of the rationalist and EA communities? They have some of that, though they also lack some of the features that religions have (which is for the better, in my view).

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I noticed them late – just 3 or 4 years ago.

        LessWrong strikes me as a Eliezer Yudkowsky cult. That’s not meant as disparagement of LW or EY, just a first impression from the whole “sequences” thing (which I haven’t read; they and EY may in fact be wonderful).

        EA is interesting and may be something I’ll get into.

        I’m in late middle age, very busy, and don’t feel a lack of community. I had more interest when I was younger.

        But in the last few days since I posted on this, I’ve realized that what’s missing for me is eschatology – grand long term goals to give “meaning” and “purpose” and “direction” to life.

        Tipler thinks there will be an *inevitable* Omega Point where intelligent life controls all matter in the universe and is able to perform an infinite number of computations in finite time, enabling the resurrection of the dead as ems. (In an infinite number of scenarios.)

        I find his argument that all that is *fated* unconvincing. Worse, if you think it’s fated, then there’s no need to put effort into making it happen.

        But as long as that outcome isn’t ruled out by physics, it strikes me as an excellent long-term goal to work toward.

      • oldoddjobs

        “humans are terrible at reasoning” – compared to who/what?

  • TED needs gender equality, says Jim Yong Kim probably.

  • Lord

    Isn’t there a TED talk about that?

    It would be a challenge considering their brevity.

  • Brian Slesinsky

    My basic gripe with TED (as a viewer of their videos) is that they come across as high-production book trailers for books that often haven’t yet been written. There should be more emphasis on good followup reading (or other educational activities) after watching the video.

  • lump1

    The more general problem with TED, of which this is an instance, is that there seems to be a ban on pessimism, even when reality requires it. You can point out problems, but only if you close with some variant of “… but we’re young and poised and inspiring and the laws of gravity don’t apply to us, which is why in 10 years, my plucky startup will have a magic thingy that will fix it! And all the kids in Africa will be happy just like that picture behind me!” Applause!

    • oldoddjobs

      wealthy white protestants congratulating each other on subsidizing African breeding

  • oddray
  • citizen15

    “While speakers tend to imply government regulation and redistribution as solutions, they never consider the many ways that regulation and redistribution can go wrong and be costly.”

    This seems to be a bias generally with those employed in, or likely at some point to be employed in, the Government Industry, which consists not only of people working directly in Government but also people that work for think tanks, non-profits, media, and academia that either receive government grants or analyze government policies. TED probably has a disporportionate share of Government Industry people relative to the general population. Regulation, redistribution, and taxes all increase demand for those in the Government Industry. If people in the Energy Industry recommended solutions to problems that called for government to buy or subsidize more energy, we might think that they were conflicted. Perhaps, the best way to understand the Government Industry’s calls for more regulation and redistribution is to view them as calls for more subsidies for the Government Industry.

    • oldoddjobs

      sock puppet charities being another example. some % of a charity’s wealth comes from the taxpayer (this is more common in the UK & Ireland) and the charity uses this money to petition the state for more funding

  • Gabriel Gluck

    Any suggestions for resources on learning about market failures and institutional design. A quick google search yielded Who Gets What ― and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design by Alvin Roth. Anything else come to mind?

  • victoria wilson – mn

    I would add two additional characteristics to your most excellent idea to have speakers classify their particular problems within an identified institutional design- and that would be to identify the players and their commitments. I think we are biased- or too quick to classify- as to who is public, who is private and who is trading in the transactions.

  • lfstevens

    TED audiences seem much more enthusiastic about private solutions to social problems outside the US than within. They seem comfortable thinking that, say, Bangladesh needs things like micro finance, while vociferously objecting to payday lending here, despite their similarities.

  • Butler Reynolds

    #1 One of the more awkward things to me is the leader worship that I experience among conservative friends and acquaintances. It’s most evident in their regard for military leaders, but manifests itself in other areas where decisiveness, heroic action, and honor are given a bit higher priority than the intellect.

    TED is the more lefty urban secular version of leader worship. TED talks are often centered around thought leaders and political leaders finding and implementing solutions to the world’s problems.

    Emergent Order as the divine is not welcome in either of these two houses of worship.

    • oldoddjobs

      it’s not leaders they worship, it’s bombing bad leaders

  • Rajaram Bojji

    Recently gave a TEDx talk. My point is simple. Newton & an intelligent CVT can replace entire fossil fuel used by humans , with gravity power; but for infinite stupidity identified by Einstein.

    • oldoddjobs

      cool story bro

  • Austin James Parish

    Robin, can you give an example of an inefficiency highlighted by a TED speaker, the market failure explanation, and a standard institutional solution? Thank you.

  • ST

    Yeah, religious people are SO stupid. Augustine, Aquinas, MLK, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, Lewis, some of my friends and neighbors – all morons. Not at all like us smart enlightened people.

    • Monsoonking

      What he actually said was that a strong self-identity as an honest intellectual often conflicts with common religious practices.

      You may disagree with that sentiment, but I think you made up the “stupid” and “moron” stuff.

      • ishmael2009

        @Monsoonking –

        It’s pretty close to implying it though. He’s essentially saying that if you’re intellectual and honest, it’s hard to be religious. Of course, this is nonsense, as (for example) the Catholic and Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton would be quick to point out, but the way I read it, that’s what he’s saying.

      • “be religious” /= do “common religious practices”

      • He’s essentially saying that if you’re intellectual and honest, it’s hard to be religious.

        Perhaps it will help to point out that “intellectual and honest” (or “intelligent and honest”) is not the same as “intellectually honest.”

        That it is hard to be religious yet intellectually honest follows from the thesis that religions necessarily include “implausible beliefs.” (Is that what you deny?) Implausible beliefs are intended to be repugnant to the intellect.

        [To take the most extreme example of an intellectual theist from those offered, Augustine was surely not intellectually honest (although very smart and personally honest).] He actually disparaged the intellect in favor of moral goodness.]

      • ishmael2009

        That’s a really good point. I don’t deny that religions require implausible beliefs. Indeed, I think it’s inherent in the idea of faith. To try and be a little more precise in what I mean, I’m saying that just because you decide to believe (or at least accept) something implausible or irrational does not suddenly preclude you from being intellectually honest. It’s not a binary thing, in my estimation, where one misstep means you fall into the abyss of irrationalism and error.

        I would argue that all human beings hold at least some implausible beliefs and ideas. But that at least with religion, the belief in the implausible is clearly marked and accepted as such. My ‘denial’ (if we want to use that language) is that this is intellectually dishonest. It doesn’t mean you then go on to make all arguments based on faith.

        When Monsignor Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest and physicist who proposed the ideas of the big bang and the expanding universe published his theories, he did so as a physicist and as a Catholic priest, but he didn’t resort to “because God did it” as a kind of deus ex machina. I really don’t see a problem with this. We are complex beings, capable of containing apparent contradictions.

  • yohami

    I heard TED insides are cult-like nowadays. Would explain how they got overrun by the SJWs.

    • Aleksandr Skorokhod

      Could you name a person, a family, or a church that is NOT cult-like nowadays?

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  • Mnestheus

    A TED selsom passes without a speaker bemoaning ‘the water crisis ‘
    When will we hear one ask why , after decades of TED talks, water conservation scarcely exists in meaningful praxis because we let the sun evaporate a ton of stored fresh water a day for every man , woman, and child on Earth ?

  • Anon

    I think that for many of the “tech people” – and I consider myself as such – who give speeches in these events suggesting any kind of government action equals giving up on the idea. Politics is a huge sinkhole of ideas. The correctness of the idea doesn’t matter anymore because no-one is going to spend time listening to your arguments. Your idea and the idea of building a wall at the border of your country are on equal footing. We see environmental activists spending decades trying convey to the public and the politicians simple ideas like “we should stop dumping plastic waste in the oceans” or “we should stop frying the planet” with little success.

    What these speakers might think is “I have solved the technical parts of the problem. Now I can only hope that someone does the actual hard part and solves the political part, but, by god, that someone will not be me.”

    My favourite variation of the old adage “for every complicated problem there is a simple solution that is wrong” is: “for every complicated problem there is a simple solution that people refuse to accept.”

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