News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Craig Mod’s Subcompact Publishing Concept


Craig Mod is writer, designer, and publisher exploring the possibilities of digital books. He recently wrote about “Subcompact Publishing” that spawned a lot of discourse across the web. As you may recall, this year I have been spending a lot of time posting about digital publishing, in fact devoting one of my boards on Pinterest to the topic [defunct link].

Today I watched one of his talks entitled “Edges and Boundaries and the Future Book”. The kernel of what he would later elaborate on in “Subcompact Publishing” is there, along with a passionate examination of both physical books, their digital counterpoints, and the opportunities that each medium provides.

Here, though, I want to focus on the power of his public speaking, as it related to an experience I had last night when attending TEDxTucson 2012. I wrote about this on Facebook in a flurry of thoughtfulness and frustration last night. Here is that post:

As I return home from TEDxTucson, I find myself with questions. One weighs on me primarily: if all ideas are presented so slickly, so engagingly, by speakers who as a rule are appealing, passionate, and extremely well-spoken, then how does one determine which ideas are worthwhile? This question is really not about TEDxTucson specifically, but about TED in general, and beyond that, unconferences and other events, especially those that promote a spreading of ideas packaged together as short, memorable, dare I say it, entertainment, ready-made for repurposing as video online.

I sense Neil Postman at the ready, complicating my understanding of these events, now that I wonder if they are not a spoken medium rendered, he might say, as live television, the speaker and the presentation displayed on the screen bound together, perhaps, in an unseen idiot box, and then certainly bound together when they arrive later as video online.

What I witnessed tonight was wonderful and produced with great care and love. But the ideas were the mix that I feared most when first I read about this event: pseudoscience, fringe science, science, social science, religion, and Eastern philosophy. All packaged together in one event, but which ones worthwhile? Do they all offer something useful, the spread of ideas more important than the ideas themselves? Or does the audience decide? Can the audience decide? Those of us trained in media criticism might attempt to separate out what was useful from what was not, but what about other audience members?

Maybe the answer lies not with the ideas themselves, nor this kind of expression. May the ideas spread far and wide, a tsunami of ideas, no filtering required. Discourse and discussion; isn’t that what I am personally calling for all the time? Maybe what really matters is what becomes of the idea. Maybe the activities spawned by these ideas are their proving ground.

Certainly not every idea can be acted upon! Do I really need to wait until these several ideas I heard and saw tonight are acted upon before I decide whether they were worthwhile or not? Do we even stay engaged long enough to see how the activities spawned by these ideas sort out? Or is there nothing but idea equality, where all ideas are equally worthwhile, and all of them have merit, and all of them should be considered, and all of them should be acted on, whether or not these actions ever occur?

What concerns me is whether or not many of us, if engaging with these ideas at all, can actually differentiate between them, so that we might act on them, or lend our support. I cannot imagine, and I cannot allow myself, to simply let these ideas wash over me, unexamined. But isn’t that what the barrage of ideas does, especially as TED franchises through the TEDx program, and competitor events and online video series crop up?

Like many TED and TED-like talks, I’m perhaps relying too heavily on the raising of questions that I am not actually prepared to answer (I blame the late hour and this being an immediate, probably emotional, gut reaction that resonates with questions I have been asking for awhile now). I cannot help but be disturbed by these questions and the disquiet I am feeling. I remember when it used to be so easy just to praise TED and the spreading of ideas, before Neil Postman, before my own frustration after years of this spreading, before people like Joseph P Jackson and others recently (and some not so recently) posted their own commentary about these kinds of organizations and events.

What I find in Mod’s speech is not only worthwhile ideas, but a presentation that allows those ideas to be explored in some detail. At 39 minutes he is not posing questions without answers; introducing an idea but in the interest of time not exploring it more fully; or struggling to find a compelling beginning, middle, and end. Instead he is giving his idea and his exploration of it room to flow, room to connect with the audience.

It is too easy to say that the TEDxTucson talks needed to be longer. Every talk has its own innate length. What constrains TED-style talks is a generally fixed length for all talks, and a focus on completing many talks in a certain amount of time. This generally ensures that talks are entertaining, quick, evocative, and focused, but it does not necessarily allow the ideas presented are given the room they need to flourish. One could counter that the availability later as video online allows viewers time to watch and rewatch, while exploring additional resources. Then again, it also allows videos to become lost in the noise of all such videos as they rapidly proliferate. Short videos and a long tail.

Many talks don’t have time for questions, but TED and the TED-style of presenting appears to actively discourage any Q&A at all. The idea is then proposed unimpeded, and unchallenged. At TEDxTucson, there were points made that made my blood boil. I doubt I would have stood up and asked about them given the time to do so, but the policy does remove any opportunity for immediate discourse. Perhaps this is a limitation of Mod’s talk as well (there is no indication of what might have happened at the end of his talk). Yet the time he takes in his talk is in itself an answer of sorts, an exploration that is given enough room to answer many potential questions from the audience.

Finally, at TEDxTucson, the impression I took away of nearly all speakers was that the compact form of the TED-style was packaging each of them in a similar way. Their ideas and speaking abilities and approaches might have been different, yet each one was a cookie-cutter shape, a strawperson rendered the TED way. The one speaker last night at TEDxTucson who seemed to fumble through the TED-style constraints was the exception that proved the rule: this speaker raced through a presentation that was obviously not designed for so short a time, and several slides were skipped over or presented unexplained as the audience tried to understand what was being shown.

Mod’s talk, though, is all him and his ideas, as his own design and pace and length allow his passion to take over the presentation, rather than his presentation taking over his passion. The TEDxTucson speakers were certainly passionate, but they were constrained to the TED-style, that short, emotional, open-ended public presentation perfect for online videos of no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, massively consumed by those who are telling themselves, perhaps disingenuously, “I am participating in a discourse! See me watch these videos and learn so much about so many ideas!”

Maybe there is a place for TED-style talks. Certainly I have been a happy and willing viewer of the effort for several years now. In all things with an emerging long tail, though, the question comes up: what are we losing when it is harder to find the worthwhile content in an ocean of noise? Furthermore, when there are so many more speakers and talks available today than ever before, how do we distinguish between the worthwhile ideas and the worthless?

There is this tension between elitism and commoditization, where we don’t necessarily want to allow only a few people to practice and enjoy a particular activity, but we don’t necessarily gain anything obviously beneficial when everyone can practice and enjoy the same activity. Particularly when these speakers and their presentations are packaged in a way that lends them well to short online videos, it becomes far more difficult to determine the merit of all of these ideas.

It might be argued that I am mistaking my disinterest in a few short talks last night and my passionate interest in a longer talk today for a larger, and imaginary, issue. My observations, though, stretch back far longer than the past couple of days, and involve watching a great many presentations of various lengths over the years, in the TED-style and not, as well as me personally giving talks of both types, including a short unconference talk about Humanity+ and longer talks about HiRISE and images of Mars. I also have the benefit now of having read the work of noted media critics like Neil Postman who challenged the merit of various new(er) media. I did not come to these questions and concerns because they were always with me; in fact, it took a great deal for Neil Postman and other critics to win me over at all given my early resistance to any media criticism.

It might be argued instead that what really challenged me were particular talks and references to the soul, ghosts, Eastern philosphy, and quantum mechanics computation in neural microtubules giving rise to consciousness. This is in fact a valid argument, but I would add that my skepticism of these supernatural, pseudoscientific, or fringe scientific ideas really focused my attention on how the TED-style talk allows such ideas to enjoy equal footing with other ideas I find much more worthwhile. Furthermore, I am not certain that there is any significant number of people in the audience and later viewers who will be able to, or will take the time to, differentiate between such ideas. This lack of differentiation leads to the masses believing in the equality of all ideas. This pervasive ignorance in our culture is anti-science and leaves society as a whole incapable of engaging with those ideas that are truly leading to major changes for humanity and our planet.

In this age of possibly accelerating technological change and the vast number of risks and opportunities it provides, it is certainly possible for us to simply accept the changes without question, or even worse, deal with them only when their finally rear up. Is that safe, though? Shouldn’t we be questioning everything? “The unexamining life is not worth living for a human being” Socrates said, but in our time it is more danger than that. The technological forces at work might have been set in motion by humanity, but they do not require our participation all the way to the end. Talks like the one given by Mod may or may not survive scrutiny, but talks like those given at TEDxTucson almost preclude any scrutiny at all! They are presented, and equal, and then drop into the ocean of such ideas with no current ability to determine which of them are worthwhile. It does not matter that I personally examined them and determined what I wished to take away from them. I do so because I demand it of myself. I do not think TED-style talks demand of their audiences that they do so in the slightest.

What, then, is the solution?  I think we start with recognizing both the good and the bad of TED and TED-style talks, and how this style and packaging is a medium to be scrutinized. We participate in conversations about these issues. I doubt we get rid of these events and this style of talk (though it is possible this style is a fad and will fade on its own eventually), but we do need to explore our options for separating out the worthwhile ideas from the worthless, including automated filtering, reputation graphs, fact-checking algorithms, ratings, and other methods for surfacing them. In doing so, I hope that eventually we can discourage the kind of talks that are at best a dangerous waste of time.

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