We’ve spoken more than once on here about Alain de Botton, the Swiss thinker who’s been pushing the not entirely unsympathetic idea that there’s a thing or two worth salvaging from religion in a world that’s largely “moved on.” As far as books of its kind go, De Botton’s Religion for Atheists is less of a mixed proposition than most, going far beyond the baby-and-bathwater attitude that characterizes much of the intellectual establishment’s view of Christianity these days (esp in an election year…). De Botton, however, is probably most well-known for the talk he gave at the TEDglobal conference last year, summarizing the book in question. One of his main points–the least interesting, in fact–has to do with forms of communication, namely, that non-believers have a lot they can learn from the rhetorical skill and emotional gravitas that preachers have cultivated lo these many centuries. I’m sure the irony was not lost on de Botton that no platform that has been more successful at integrating homiletical insights into a non-religious setting than TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design). For once the cross-pollination appears to be flowing from church to “world” rather than vice versa…

Anyway, The New Yorker recently published a profile of the trailblazing TED, written by the always terrific Nathan Heller. It’s a flattering portrait of what frankly sounds like a wonderful organization. For our purposes, though, the lengthy discussion of the mechanics of the “TED talk” is the most uncanny and relevant portion. TED talks, we discover, do more than just mimic the form and style of the sermon, they mimic the function as well.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the immense popularity of TED: the inevitable reductionism and almost megachurch-like commodification of ideas, the not-so-subtle West Coast smugness, the overt idolatry re: human potential, etc. But of course, you don’t have to buy into the self-salvation part of the project to see TED’s success as a good thing. Indeed, the democratization and heart at the, um, botton of it all is really encouraging, and despite the occasional Portlandia-like trappings, TED does seem to have a sense of humor about itself. Plus, the sheer range of content–topically as well as ideologically–means that a surprising number of the talks end up (inadvertently) shedding fresh light on some very ancient truths. If only well-researched, winsomely-delivered self-knowledge were enough to change a person..!

People who know TED these days frequently know it best from “TED Talks,” a series of Internet lecture videos that has received more than eight hundred million views to date. (That’s nearly two-thirds the number of movie tickets sold last year in all of North America.) Yet its style and substance have begun to overtake other media, too. To feed a market for “ideas” which it has helped to create, the organization has launched an e-book imprint and an e-reader app to accompany it. You can watch TED lectures on your seat-back screen as you fly cross-country, or listen to excerpts in your car as they air on NPR…

The TED talk is today a sentimental form. Once, searching for transport, people might have read Charles Dickens, rushed the dance floor, watched Oscars, biked Mount Tamalpais, put on Rachmaninoff, put on the Smiths, played Frisbee, poured wine until someone started reciting “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond.” Now there is TED. “I got all inspired and my hair stood on end and I got weepy-like and energized and enthused,” wrote a participant in an online TED-discussion forum. (The talk that brought on such delirium was about education.) Debby Ruth, a Long Beach attendee, told me that she started going to TED after reaching a point in her life when “nothing excited me anymore”; she returns now for a yearly fix. TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel.

Should we be grateful to TED for providing this form of transcendence–and on the Internet, of all places? Or should we feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions? It’s tricky, because the ideas undergirding a TED talk are both the point and, for viewers seeking a generic TED-type thrill, essentially beside it: the appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from its substance…

[The] elements–an opening of direct address, a narrative of personal stake, a research summary, a precis of potential applications, a revelation to drive it home, and and ending that says, Go forth and help humanity [ed. note: !!!]–form the basic arc of many TED talks. As with lots of things, though, the magic is in the execution. When Jill Bolte Taylor narrated her own stroke, she teared up speaking about how, as she lost her rational intelligence, she experienced a state of “nirvana” that tapped the “life-force power of the universe. Her talk is the second-most-viewed of all time on TED.com.

Establishing intellectual credentials in order to break past them gives TED a somewhat vaporous tone. Tears are not uncommon. More than half of Long Beach talks end in standing ovations…

By most measures, TED shapes its style against the mores of academia. Educational lectures are set at a podium; TED prizes theatrical movement. Academic work relies on communities of shared premises and interpretive habit; TED tries to communicate without those givens. Scholarship holds objectivity as a virtue; TED aims for the heart. If the thirties and forties were the golden age of the Great Books programs–the tools of a middle class striving toward the academy–TED is a recourse for college-educated adults who want to close the gap between academic thought and the lives they live now.

There is, perhaps, an air of wishfulness to that endeavor.

Seven Favorite TED Talks (What Are Yours?)

  1. Jonathan Haidt. Required viewing for church bureaucrats everywhere…
  2. Brene Brown
  3. Dan Ariely
  4. Kathryn Schulz
  5. David Brooks
  6. Alain de Botton
  7. And of course…