Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

TED Talks: Deb Roy's "The Birth Of A Word"

I've recently voiced the thesis that TED Talks are aimed at pseudo-intellectuals and promote a pseudo-intellectual culture.  They do not inform so much as they persuade people into following a cult of personality.  I'm not saying they aren't informative at all. They can be, but I think the information is generally misleading and at the expense of a particular, emotionally driven agenda.  However, I have not seen a majority of the many, many TED talks that are out there.  I don't want to jump to any conclusions, so I'm only offering this idea as a hypothesis.  To make a stronger argument about TED Talks in general, a lot more Talks would have to be analyzed.  (It is also important to look at how TED Talks are planned, organized and promoted, but I'll save that for another day).

I know some people who claim to watch TED Talks because they offer a brief, entertaining glimpse into the future of science and technology.  I question how accurate that glimpse really is, and if that is what really draws people to TED.  What they get, I think, is less information and more an emotionally rewarding, inspirational experience.  It is not surprising that presents their list of the 15 most popular TED Talks thus:

Feel like getting inspired, motivated or just looking for a feel-good cry? Then look no further. There's no better way to start your day than with a fresh cup of coffee and a nice TED talk to make you feel ready to take on your day. . . . we've rounded up 15 of the most inspirational, tear-jerking and downright beautiful TED talks out there. So sit back, relax and get ready to listen to some of the most courageous and fascinating people in the world.
My hypothesis is that the emotional rewards are really the point of TED Talks, and that the dissemination of information is ultimately misleading--and misleading in a systematic way, a way which reinforces the audience's belief in the power of creative individuals to effect social change.

I've only had time to watch one of the Talks on mashable's list:  Deb Roy's "The birth of a word."

I chose this one because the topic appealed to me. I did not know what to expect, and I was surprised at just how terrifying it was.  It fully supports my hypothesis:  the emotional appeal is very strong, while the information content is very misleading.

Deb Roy presents himself as a loving father who is proud of his home recordings--recordings, he assures us, which will be cherished by his son, and by his son's children, and on and on.  And he is proud to share them with the audience, too.  When the audience hears his son say "water" for the first time, they give Roy a round of applause.

Roy claims to have discovered new ways of thinking about language acquisition.  However, none of the ideas he mentions (feedback, social behaviour) are new.  He also makes the misleading claim that he has been able to isolate a linear verbal learning trajectory:  how his son learned to say "water."  However, all he has done is edited various sounds together to present the illusion of a learning trajectory.  There is no demonstration of any scientific discovery or advancement.  And yet, the audience breaks into applause when they finally hear the word, "water."  It is an emotionally satisfying moment which is apparently meant to sell the idea that some great scientific breakthrough is on the horizon.

The fact is, Roy's research into language acquisition has not yielded any actual results, and there are good reasons to think it will not.  The first problem is that his study's only subject is his son, so we cannot expect unbiased results which could be reliably generalized.  The second is that he is not observing language acquisition "in the wild," as he puts it, because he has transformed his house into a laboratory in which none of the participants (except the subject) are blind.  Third, any attempt to perform this kind of study "in the wild" would raise enormous privacy issues.

While Roy presents himself as a father who loves to share his home recordings, he does not mention any difficulties in balancing his roles as father and scientist.  But we have to pause and consider the fact that he and his wife have put the first years of their child's life under a microscope.  Their interactions with their child have been deliberately aimed at studying how he learns language.  It is no wonder that their child was an early language user, is it?  They have spoken to their child knowing it was being recorded for later analysis.  And they spent countless hours going over those recordings, studying them not as parents, but as scientists.  What kind of effects might this have on their relationship with their child, and on their child's development?  Will their son grow up happy to have this incomprehensible mountain of data from his childhood?  Will he really be so happy to share it with his children, as Roy supposes?  It is certainly possible, but I think one or two psychologists might be useful in making sure it turns out for the better.  I'm not jumping to any conclusions about anyone's parenting skills, mind you.  I am just pointing out the dangers of turning childhood into an experiment.  More importantly, I'm pointing out the fact that Roy does not point it out.  The audience is not invited to consider any of the dangers that might be associated with his research.  After all, that would detract from the emotional appeal.

Perhaps more than language acquisition, this talk is about data imaging.  In fact, there is virtually nothing on display in this talk except nifty data imaging techniques.  These pretty images sell the promise of new ways of understanding social data.  Roy does not present any new ways of understanding social data, but he acts as if he's made great discoveries.  He presents old ideas as if they were fresh off the vine; as if nobody knew that language acquisition was tied to social behavior; as if nobody knew that critics connected large audiences to entertainment content.

New technology is certainly making it much, much easier to manipulate and interpret vast amounts of social data.  While that is true, Roy wants us to believe that this is somehow going to make all our lives better.  Yet, he does not offer any evidence that any of this is going to improve anybody's lives.  Now that the world has recoiled in shock at Edward Snowden's revelations, people are much more aware of the dangers of this sort of technology.  But again, Roy does not even suggest the potential for any such danger.

An honest, well-rounded discussion of these topics would at least touch on the possible dangers and limitations of Roy's research and the tools he is championing.  It would not rely on emotional appeals to mislead the audience into thinking that all is well in the land of science and technology, and it would not misinform the audience about achievements and discoveries.  If the goal of TED Talks is to give an honest, well-rounded discussion of its topics, then this one is pretty bad.  However, if the goal is to give an emotionally satisfying, one-sided discussion which sells the idea that the creative genius can change society for the better, then this talk is stellar.  As propaganda, it works.  Unfortunately, it promotes pseudo-intellectualism by promoting a cult of personality in which the intellectual elite are worshiped without critical thought.