Author Thomas Frank has written a critical commentary on TED and the literature of creativity. His thesis is that the literature and TED are engaging in propaganda, selling their audience (identified as the professional-managerial class) the false idea that their own creativity is the source of their financial success and power. I'm not convinced by Frank's argument, but I think there is something in what he is saying. However, I also think he gets something very wrong.
I've been thinking a lot about propaganda lately, since I'm currently teaching it as part of my IB English: Language and Literature course. In my class, we focus on Nazi propaganda (especially an extract from chapter three of Mein Kampf) and Walt Disney war propaganda cartoons from 1943, such as "Reason and Emotion."
As I explain to my students, the Mein Kampf extract and "Reason and Emotion" used many of the same rhetorical strategies (flattery and ridicule, in particular) in order to give their audiences hope and encourage loyalty. Of course there were political ends. In the case of Mein Kampf, it was support of the Nazi party and Hitler's dictatorship. In the case of "Reason and Emotion," it was support of the war effort against Hitler. In both cases, the propagada's stated purpose was to encourage people to think independently, with reason, and not to be led by their emotions or fooled by the press. And yet, in both cases, the propaganda's actual message was that people should be led by particular emotions (patriotism in one case, nationalism in the other; and fear in both cases) and that those who did not support their side of the war were irrational, emotionally unstable, dangerous and, ultimately, manipulated by the press. Both Mein Kampf and "Reason and Emotion" silenced whoever opposed their political aims.
Propaganda does not always silence the opposition, but it does always serve a particular social or political agenda. According to Thomas Frank, TED talks and the literature on creativity have an economic agenda: to prop up the professional-managerial class, to help them believe that their power and success is deserved and rooted in their own creativity. The problem is, I don't think propaganda is generally about helping the powerful justify their own power to themselves. Power only needs to be justified to the people who don't have it.
I am not familiar with the popular literature on creativity, and Frank does not give enough details for me to discuss. However, I have seen a number of TED talks (never in person, mind you) and I've always felt there was something phony and pandering about them. Speaking only about TED, then, I think the draw is more a form of wish-fulfillment for pseudo-intellectuals. I presume the class of pseudo-intellectuals intersects a lot with the professional-managerial class, but I don't think the TED audience is limited to the professional-managerial class. So here's my first thesis: TED talks systematically give pseudo-intellectuals something to believe in: the power of the creative genius to bring about social change.
The audience is flattered into believing that they, too, are (or can be) part of the change: by appreciating and supporting x, y and z. They are led to be able to talk about x, y and z only as a pseudo-intellectual, of course. They are not able to offer a critical analysis of x, y and z, and they are not inclined to. So they intuitively recognize that they are not the creative genius that they worship. On the other hand, they are given license to celebrate in their own creativity, however limited it is. (And if they realize they are not very creative at all, then they feel good in at least being able to recognize that they should be more creative.) The audience feels special because they are given the chance to recognize and (to a limited extent) identify with such greatness, and support the change it heralds.
Hitler did something similar in Mein Kampf. He went on and on about the nobility and power of the creative genius. It was the need for such a leader, he said, which made dictatorship necessary. I'm not saying TED is setting us up for a dictatorship. That would be silly. My main point in making the comparison to Mein Kampf is to show that this idea is not new. The idea of the creative genius has a strong history of being used to manipulate people. TED sells hope in the creative genius to people who are afraid they do not have power to effect change. It gives people something to believe in--something far less dangerous than dictatorship, perhaps, but still something we should think critically about: the role of the intellectual in society.
The American intellectual has a privileged position in American society, but it is a culture that values personality over rigor. (I've commented on this previously with respect to Sam Harris, who has also pandered to pseudo-intellectuals with a TED talk. See here and here.) Intellectual honesty and integrity are sacrificed for the sake of cult. The result is that the most successful public "intellectuals" are, in fact, pseudo-intellectuals.
I doubt that we could analyze TED talks and find a consistent set of economic or political values being espoused. I rather think that TED promotes something else: loyalty to the cult of personality which sustains America's pseudo-intellectual climate.
Here are a couple more criticisms of TED that are worth checking out: one, two.