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WordPress.com today announced its new blog feature for embedding videos from TED. If you haven’t heard of TED before, it’s an American conference of ‘ideas worth spreading’. It’s huge, with online viewers in the tens of millions. TED speakers are brilliant thinkers and communicators and listening to TED talks is often a thrilling experience. TED speakers are held up as visionaries and founts of inspiration. Amidst its enthusiastic idealism and optimism, and accusations of elitism aside, there’s a real expectation that what’s talked about at TED will change the world.
I wonder what to make of this in light of TED’s basis. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — the broad fields from which its speakers are drawn. From the get go, then, TED has a deeply humanistic and pragmatic approach. In other words, we’re talking about a bunch of post-Enlightenment, individualistic white people making decisions for the future of the majority world on its behalf.
I guess there’s a whole host of questions here, but I want to pick up on just one: religion. We live in a profoundly, inescapably religious world, a world in which (we Westerners are realising) religion is becoming more rather than less significant. As odd as religion appears to Westerners, particularly Western culture-drivers, most human lives are lived out in some kind of religious identity, in relationship to some divinity or other. Perhaps religion isn’t actually an idea worth spreading, but it’s certainly a foundational human idea and, in the scope of history, even the single most foundational human idea.
If religion is such a big idea, it’s pretty odd that it doesn’t figure a whole lot on the radar of TED, the would-be home of world-changing ideas. For example, the TED Brains Trust is loaded with technorati, designers and scientists, and the closest thing to a religious advisor is Daniel Dennett, an atheist philosopher (who has at least thought about how religion functions). In light of this, how can TED actually connect with the wider fabric of life on Earth?
Now, I guess it would be rather too cynical to claim that TED is just spitting into the wind, and there are at least some promising Western attempts to start getting to grips with religion: I think of the recent book Blind Spot: when journalists don’t get religion and this article. And I’ll leave you with the thought of this poster by Frank Chimero.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.