TedX – Hillsong for Atheists?

Many people in the business world like going to conferences. They are often subsidised by their employers to go, stay in a nice hotel, listen to some ideas, schmooze and go home recharged – either by the ideas, the schmoozing, the hotel or a little of all of the above.  Teachers, too, like conferences, though they are often less swish than the business ones – and often pay their own airfare and accommodation.

These conferences have a various array of themes, concepts and types of presentation tools being used. Powerpoints were the rage until recently, replaced in part by videos and the swooshing of Prezi.  While business conferences are usually closed door affairs, however, teacher conferences are marked these days by the lines of teachers tweeting what is being said so that their PLN – Professional Learning Network – can read what is being said.  These teachers are more than aware that there are many teachers who cannot make conferences, due mainly to cost and family commitments.  They tweet so those colleagues and friends can keep up to date.   It is not, as many other teachers used to say at such conferences, a “rude thing to do”. It’s the opposite.

I say this because there is another strain of conference concept emerging – the TED talks. Teachers are aware of TED, largely because there’s not a term goes by where teachers see a TED talk being transmitted during an inservice day. This is not a bad thing – TED talks are often excellent, informative and can be inspiring.

What is intriguing, however, is how regional TED talks are organised and run. In 2012, the first TED talk in Sydney (at least, the first of which I was aware), was held at Carriageworks, in Redfern – a relatively low key venue for the ideas being spread. It was a free event, but one had to “apply” for entry with an interesting biography. Each potential audience member had to prove just how interesting they were to be provided entry to the event. The deciding panel therefore became some kind of doormen outside the hottest thought club in town. I wasn’t cool enough – I thought back and realised I should have just made something up. Something like this:

I am a cutting edge thought leader and shaper living in one of the most culturally intriguing parts of Australia’s most cosmopolitan city. I believe ideas are the key to unlocking the potential all of us have in continuing the cultural conversation and defining the paradigms of our age.

On the day, I put the question out as to whether those of us too uncool for entry could at least read the ideas from the comfort of our lounge rooms. I was told that the TED organisers were not allowing tweeting from inside the room from audience members. This astonished me, considering that the whole philosophy of TED is “Ideas Worth Spreading”. Ideas worth spreading, but not as individual people.  It seems from this policy that the way they practice their “Ideas Worth Spreading” idea is through their website. And to the cool people in the room.

Flash forward to 2013 and TED in Sydney has graduated to the Sydney Opera House – a much more expensive venue to hire. There was also, this time around, a ticket cost – $120 – for those who got in. I don’t know if they still had the Thought Club Doormen this time around. You would have thought so, however – TED seemed to be the hottest ticket in town for people interested in Thoughts. If you’re on the outside, you can watch the live stream at home or the videos afterwards.  But not reading tweets.

The cult of TED has been interesting to follow – and I think summarised pretty well in this Twitter conversation between the President of the NSW Independent Education Union, Dick Shearman, radio and newspaper veteran Mike Carlton and I:

Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 12.28.09 PM

The adherents of TED do sound a bit like evangelical Christians after emerging from a particularly inspiring church service – high on the propagation of simple, effectively communicated ideas.  You also don’t hear many dissenting voices TED being broadcast – restricting the tweets would certainly do that. It is also a bit Hillsong in that they do like to have the flashy, highly attractive venue and control over the material presented.

This is not to say TED is a bad thing, or that all of the presenters and their ideas aren’t excellent – I was pleased, for example, that Lisa Murray, the City of Sydney Historian, was appreciated for her work during yesterday’s event.  Her work, and that of other presenters, needs celebration and profile.  I do wonder, however, whether people who saw her talk would have gone to the other talks that she would deliver around the City as a part of her role, or just went because it was TED – and therefore cool.

I would be interested, too, whether the organisers of TED would ever contemplate a TEDxPenrith, where ideas could be propagated by a range of people to an audience keen to engage with ideas. This is because there are people who live in the region interested in ideas about society, the planet, education, history and the rest. The cynic in me guesses that it will never happen – TED seem to want the big flashy settings for the videos to get the clicks from their audience. You would wonder too if they would attract some of the Thought Leaders of our Age to make the trip out west.

5 thoughts on “TedX – Hillsong for Atheists?

  1. Elizabeth Marr says:

    It’s not that far from the city to Penrith but it’s a marathon to explain to others that Penrirh people are interested in life & education.

  2. Anne Phillips says:

    I do like that headline! I would definitely like to attend such an event at Penrith. Am I cool enough? Probably not. I have been following the Twitter stream and people I know seem to find it inspiring. However, did you read the article in the April 2013 Harvard Business Review called ‘When TED Lost Control of TEDx’? Most informative.

  3. elissamilne says:

    I was one of the anointed participants, and it cost me considerably more than $120 for the privilege. 🙂 The word ‘cult’ definitely came to mind on a few occasions throughout the day, and dissent was definitely difficult to express within the construct of the event. What fascinated me last weekend was the way the “ideas worth spreading” tag had completely disappeared from the presentation of the day, and the emphasis seemed to be more on “sessions that will make you feel inspired”. Apparently a big drawcard for participants is the opportunity for networking, but the shift to the Opera House had the impact of restricting the chances of meeting anyone much at all, such as the logistics of the northern and southern foyers. [Apparently the CarriageWorks venue was much more suited for interaction, I’ve since learned via Twitter – I didn’t get to talk to many people at all on the day!]

    Hillsong for atheists? Um, no. Hillsong preaches a message of belief powering a personal change in circumstances. TEDxSydney 2013 preached a message of individual voices having the potential to impact on specific cultural outcomes: from a greater awareness of the need to preserve digital records, for example, through to a greater awareness of the political-cultural reality of life in West Papua. This is a fundamentally important distinction. The diversity of personal experience was celebrated, not calibrated, and I honestly cannot stress enough how vital this difference is in making TEDxSydney quite the opposite of a Hillsong corollary.

    Hillsong is about the collection of resources for the propagation of a singular world-view; TEDxSydney had its fair share of money-changer in the temple about it (Qantas handing out first class goodie packs, for example), but also featured highly contradictory messages – a session on butchering a carcass juxtaposed with a talk about the ethical responsibility humans have to not eat animals, for example.

    Hillsong is also an cultural phenomenon that cannot be thought about without the happy-clappy aspect of the services, and TEDxSydney simply couldn’t compete with the kind of participatory music-making Hillsong offers. Sure, we got to clap out some polyrhythms, but we were fairly squarely positioned as ‘audience’ in a way Hillsong has never entertained.

    Both events share high production values, but the quality of the camera work at Hillsong would be far superior to what we saw at TEDxSydney. 🙂 On the other hand, the lunch at TEDxSydney was really hard to fault – church potluck at the most basic level (all the food was locally sourced, with many TEDxSydney participants bringing in fruits and vegetables from their backyards to be used in the lunch) but taken to insanely gourmet proportions by the staff of ARIA.

    TEDxSydney has staked out a place as part of the establishment (hello, moving to the Opera House for the venue?!) while Hillsong ignores the establishment as it rakes in followers and their tithes. TEDxSydney now feels like part of the calendar of Sydney’s festival events – next it’ll be the Writers Festival, and VIVID and then the Film Festival, and so on. And I learned while in the US a couple of months ago that the cool kids in California go to BILL (not TED) these days. Whatever BILL is. 🙂

    I reckon Mike Carlton is just getting in early on calling the shark jump. And I can’t see Hillsong doing that any time soon….

    1. prestontowers says:

      Thanks for that response, Elissa – I can see why the Hillsong call is off the mark – but your comments about the organisation and vibe somewhat confirms my suspicions that TED is more about show and being fashionable than it is about genuine idea sharing.

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