Attending TED, Davos, the Aspen Ideas fest, or one of their uglier cousins is the newest status symbol. Sure, there are other exclusive events and high priced restaurants...but going to TED means you care about ideas.
In a recent article for New York Magazine, Benjamin Wallace hits the nail on the head when it comes to summing up TED:
"TED Talks, curated clips of the eighteen-minute lectures that are gathered on ted.com, have become today’s Cliffs Notes to sounding smart."
"eighteen-minute nerd-bomb disquisitions"
And then, to put it all in context and give it the even-better-than-the-pseudo-intellectuals-at-TED-real-philosopher-intellectual stamp of approval:
"The atheist Daniel Dennett suggested that TED could “replace” religion, observing that it “already, largely wittingly I think, adopted a lot of the key design features of good religions,” including giving away content."
So what shall we make of the TED phenomenon? It certainly counts as a phenomenon, after all. As the article describes in great detail, TED's rise to fortune and fame has been meteoric, spawning dozens of imitators. Wallace is on to something in his article. TED is definitely playing a distinct cultural role. But how will it be remembered? I could go into a lengthy characterization, but to my delight, one of my heroes foresaw all of this.
In the opening of his greatest work, The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse, speaking as the omniscient historian-narrator in a distant future, describes our current age as the "Age of Feuilleton" (feuilleton="a part of a newspaper or magazine devoted to fiction, criticism, or light literature"–I had to look it up too). Forgive the lengthy quote, but trust me it's worth it. Hesse is simply dead-on: