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Hot-air Balloons at TED Talks

01/09/2014 05:34 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2014

Hot air. That's what I get from a lot of speakers.

Of course, that's the nature of the public-speaking circuit: polished pros who give us their bullet points for change, complete with interesting graphics and what-if questions.

These talks leave me feeling a bit underfed. Of course, some leave me feeling supercharged. But more and more, I feel I've heard the same future-speak and problem-solving in 30 minutes too many times to count.

I've been at TED Talks, and I've watched many, many of them and, you know what? I get the feeling that the formulaic is replacing the fresh.

A recent blog post by Benjamin Bratton -- reprinted in the Guardian discusses several of these tendencies at TED Talks (and Bratton's post was actually a reworking of a talk he gave at TEDx in San Diego: so he, interestingly enough, gnawed at the hand that was feeding him).

Bratton writes, in a provocation: "TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design... I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment."

Well, yes, it does sometimes seem to have become that -- the platform for people seeking to become thought leaders and entrepreneurs who want the benediction of a TED Talk to help drive their brand.

Bratton's post is well worth reading, but a few points jump out for me. He refers to the technological discussions as "placebo technoradicalism, toying with risk so as to reaffirm the comfortable." That is, he feels, TED places faith in the concept of technology to effect change but not enough in the work to effect it through the use of technology. You know, doing the hard work to accomplish something.

Bratton adds:

"Problems are not 'puzzles' to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It's not true. 'Innovation' defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo."

These are valid points. I think that as institutions like TED become more important in providing a forum for discussion of topics concerning today's and tomorrow's world, a certain similarity, a certain facileness creeps into the presentation as speakers look at what other speeches have been lauded or shared or liked on YouTube, and try to ape them.

Speakers, of course, want to be liked, known, their ideas shared. But are they offering something truly new, and demanding of their listeners something the audience might find uncomfortable to consider? Or are they repackaging other ideas, even their own, to ensure a certain level of enthusiastic complaisance about our current way of looking at the world?

I don't have an answer. I'm a speaker myself, and I've reshaped my presentation, known as "Pendulum," over the past couple of years to incorporate new information and insights I've had. But I also need to question myself to make sure I'm not simply regurgitating what the audience wants to hear.