Curating or Censoring? The TED Controversy and Digital Humanities

Rochelle Terman
June 07, 2012
Image of a large red stamp which reads "censored" in all caps.

Living so close to Silicon Valley, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of TED (Technology, Education, Design) conferences or their global, self-organized TEDx offshoots. Specializing in “ideas worth spreading”, TED offers a yearly conference in California for a hefty$7,500 ticket, then shares videos of the 18-minute condensed “idea nuggets” for free online. The initiative has spawned a host of imitators and is heralded as the poster child for digital education and 2.0 innovation.

Previous criticisms of TED have focused on their alleged elitism. The program is closely associated with mega-rich venture capitalists and Silicon Valley futurists. Even for those who can afford the price tag, the conference is widely considered to be “unofficially invite-only.” But the most recent TED controversy, buzzing around the internet over the last month, has centered around new accusations of censorship. The National Journal broke the story:

TED organizers invited a multimillionaire Seattle venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer – the first nonfamily investor in Amazon.com – to give a speech on March 1 at their TED University conference. Inequality was the topic – specifically, Hanauer’s contention that the middle class, and not wealthy innovators like himself, are America’s true “job creators”…. 

TED officials told Hanauer initially they were eager to distribute it. “I want to put this talk out into the world!” one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April.

TED curator Chris Anderson initially called the piece “one of the most politically controversial talks we’ve ever run” and said “we need to be really careful” when it gets posted online. But TED quickly changed its position, saying that the decision not to post the Keynesian-inspired idea nugget was motivated by quality control, not political parity:

In early May Anderson followed up with Hanauer to inform him he’d decided not to post his talk. 

National Journal e-mailed Anderson to request an interview about what made a talk on inequality more politically controversial than, for example, contraception or climate change. Anderson, who is traveling abroad, responded with an e-mail statement that appeared to swipe at the popularity of Hanauer’s speech. 

“Many of the talks given at the conference or at TED-U are not released,” Anderson wrote. “We only release one a day on TED.com and there’s a backlog of amazing talks from all over the world. We do not comment publicly on reasons to release or not release [a] talk. It’s unfair on the speakers concerned. But we have a general policy to avoid talks that are overtly partisan, and to avoid talks that have received mediocre audience ratings.”

(Excerpts of the presentation were eventually posted on youtube.) The move set off a veritable hurricane on the blogosphere. Some, such as Bruce Upbin from Forbes concurring that the decision to cut the talk “was not a case of censorship at all. It was just a case of the TED organizers deciding that this particular presentation was categorically mediocre.”

But others questioned the quality-control argument, pointing to a number of disappointing presentations that, unlike Hanauer’s, made the cut. Foreign Policy lists ten talks they argue should have been excised, including “How to Use a Paper Towel” and “How to Tie Your Shoes.”

To make matters more perplexing, bloggers dug up a previous TED talk on income inequality that was given by Richard Wilkinson last summer and posted online in the fall. After reading the talk, many concluded that Wilinson’s content was much farther left than Hanauer’s, which was basically outlining a textbook-supply-side economic argument. Why was the former okay, but not Hanauer’s?

Blogger Ryan Louis Cooper hypothesizes that it’s all about tone.  Even though Winkinson’s talk was far more radical in its content, it was more palatable to wealthy TED-attending types than Hanauer’s talk. Cooper writes of Wilkinson’s talk,

“it’s rather remarkable how this kind of thing goes over fine with the rich job-creatin’ TED attendees, while a more moderate but less polite version gets censored. It’s almost like they’re sitting in their seats, blissfully unaware of what the speaker is actually talking about, but feeling good about being part of a hip, trendy, high-status event.”

After receiving significant criticism, TED eventually reversed their position and posted the talk. But the damage was done. The techno-utopian vision of a free and unencumbered marketplace of ideas was destroyed by the realization that the internet is not only capable of censorship, but is in desperate need of a curator. To put things in perspective, the web now holds more pages than the brain holds neurons, and is expected to double over the next few years.

How can we as digital humanists balance the need for quality filters while preserving open speech on the web? This question is becoming more urgent as digital humanities projects are moving further and further into user-generated content, where students and the public join the conversation in decentralized processes of knowledge creation. In the maze of data, how do we form knowledge? In the wilderness of facts, how can we obtain wisdom? Beyond the TED controversy, digital humanists are in a vital position to approach these questions.