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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