The (dark) age of ideas?

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."
Even zippier:
"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:
For there was also a good deal of lecturing, and we must briefly discuss this somewhat more dignified variant of the feature article. Both specialists and intellectual privateers supplied the middle-class citizens of the age (who were still deeply attached to the notion of culture, although it had long since been robbed of its former meaning) with large numbers of lectures. Such talks were not only in the nature of festival orations for special occasions; there was a frantic trade in them, and they were given in almost incomprehensible quantities. In those days the citizen of a medium-sized town or his wife could at least once a week (in big cities pretty much every night) attend lectures offering theoretical instruction on some subject or other: on works of art, poets, scholars, researchers, world tours. The members of the audience at these lectures remained purely passive, and although some relationship between audience and content, some previous knowledge, preparation, and receptivity were tacitly assumed in most cases nothing of the sort was present. There were entertaining, impassioned, or witty lectures on Goethe, say, in which he would be depicted descending from a post chaise wearing a blue frock-coat to seduce some Strassburg or Wetzlar girl; or on Arabic culture; in all of them a number of fashionable phrases were shaken up like dice in a cup and everyone was delighted if he dimly recognized one or two catchwords. People heard lectures on writers whose works they had never read and never meant to, sometimes accompanied by pictures projected on a screen. At these lectures, as in the feature articles in the newspapers, they struggled through a deluge of isolated cultural facts and fragments of knowledge robbed of all meaning. To put it briefly, they were already on the verge of that dreadful devaluation of the Word which produced, at first in secret and within the narrowest circles, that ascetically heroic counter-movement which soon afterward began to flow visibly and powerfully, and ushered in the new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect.
So, the bad news is that our (myself included) love of TED and its kin is a symptom of our being "on the verge" of a "dreadful devaluation of the Word."  Sheesh, that stinks.  The good news?  Perhaps its all necessary for ushering in a "new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect."  And the dialectic rolls on...

More likely, we'll start seeing articles on how TED talks can and should replace lower division course work.  Adjuncts are starting to organize after all, and organization means less "flexibility" which greatly depreciates "leveraging" potential, and we all know what that does for efficiency and productivity...ah, but I digress.

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