The McDonaldization of TED

Wired looks at the spread of TED around the world:

Free online access is just one of two major initiatives that TED has undertaken to engage a wider audience. The other is fully physical and has equally changed the character of the organization. That initiative, called TEDx, began in 2008 as a way to bring TED-like gatherings to smaller communities. It quickly spread to cities and towns around the globe—1,300 so far, in 134 countries, hosting more than 800,000 people in total, many times more than have ever attended an official TED event. The video viewing I attended at the Bozeman library was not some random screening; it was an overflow simulcast of the inaugural TEDxBozeman, which had sold out its tickets in six days. Each event is required to show at least two videos from TED.com, but the rest of the speakers are in person, often local, creating a TED-style experience for places where “ideas conference” isn’t even part of the lexicon.

TED does place some restrictions on the independent organizers. The TEDx logo renders the x like an asterisk, with a tagline below that reads “x = independently organized TED event.” But in practice, TED has put its entire reputation in the hands of these organizers, if only because they’re so entrepreneurial and so plugged into their communities. These local showrunners recruit speakers unknown to TED central and coach them on how to present their ideas. The resulting one-day conferences draw huge crowds. For most of the world now, and even for most of the United States, these events are TED.

Chris Anderson (no relation to the editor of this magazine), a former media executive who has run TED since 2001, sees both TEDx and TED.com as in keeping with a larger philosophy of “radical openness.” But putting media online is a standard practice, whereas these satellite events have taken Anderson into entirely uncharted territory: He has given his nationally known brand away to thousands of complete unknowns, spawning independent TED events in cities and towns all around the world. Can “big ideas” really cover that much ground?

This piece praises TED for this move – here is the concluding paragraph:

As gauzy as this may sound, there really is some idea that underpins whatever it is that each of us does, and there’s some narrative (whether our own or someone else’s) that helps convey it to others. By bringing speakers out of their specialties, by teaching them to talk to everyone, TEDxes are helping speakers connect with audiences, and helping audiences in turn to connect ideas inside their own minds. That is, they’re adding to our store of stories—and it’s hard to think of a much better reason to get together than that.

I can’t help think of George Ritzer’s analysis of McDonaldization. As the headline for the article suggests, TED has become a franchise. And with franchising and a global spread, Ritzer argued these traits come to dominate organizations:

  • Efficiency – the optimal method for accomplishing a task. In this context, Ritzer has a very specific meaning of “efficiency”. In the example of McDonald’s customers, it is the fastest way to get from being hungry to being full. Efficiency in McDonaldization means that every aspect of the organization is geared toward the minimization of time.
  • Calculability – objective should be quantifiable (e.g., sales) rather than subjective (e.g., taste). McDonaldization developed the notion that quantity equals quality, and that a large amount of product delivered to the customer in a short amount of time is the same as a high quality product. This allows people to quantify how much they’re getting versus how much they’re paying. Organizations want consumers to believe that they are getting a large amount of product for not a lot of money. Workers in these organizations are judged by how fast they are instead of the quality of work they do.
  • Predictability – standardized and uniform services. “Predictability” means that no matter where a person goes, they will receive the same service and receive the same product every time when interacting with the McDonaldized organization. This also applies to the workers in those organizations. Their tasks are highly repetitive, highly routine, and predictable.
  • Control – standardized and uniform employees, replacement of human by non-human technologies
  • Culture – As a part of standardization, cultural hybridization occurs. As McDonald’s enters a country, consumer patterns are unified and starting with the food chains, local cultures are westernized.

Maybe TED is a bit different because it is about ideas and the content of the different talks could vary widely between Bozeman, Montana and Indonesia. This article also suggests the parent organization isn’t completely controlling everything on the other end. At the same time, I imagine attendees have some idea of what kind of product a TED conference is and they expect to have a particular kind of experience. What happens if the product at the local level, particularly when comparing a local TEDx conference versus the larger official TED talks, doesn’t compare? Even though the conferences are about ideas, do the ideas tend to clump together in certain fields or ways of viewing the world? The trick here is to balance a consistently good TED experience with new ideas that push attendees to see the world in new ways, all while avoiding becoming just another global brand or product.

Genius and creativity = “a probabilistic function of quantity”

I was recently reading a Malcolm Gladwell article about the invention of the computer mouse and came across this statistical definition of genius and creativity:

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. “The more successes there are,” he says, “the more failures there are as well”—meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too.

To put this in graph terms: as time increases, a creative person has an increasing number of ideas, a line with positive slope. Underneath this overall line of ideas is another positive line tracking the unsuccessful ideas and below that, increasing steadily but perhaps at a slower rate, is the line of successful ideas. In other words, the more overall ideas someone has, the more failures but also the more quality ideas.

The rest of the article is about creating the right structural environment to take advantage of ideas. Most groups and organizations won’t recognize all the best ideas but innovative organizations find ways to encourage and push the good ideas to the top. Indeed, the clincher at the end of the article is that Steve Jobs, supposedly one of the best innovators America has had in recent decades, missed some opportunities as well.

Lots of sociological themes in Time’s “10 ideas that are changing your life”

I enjoy reading magazines and other media sources that are willing to consider the world of ideas and what new thinking we all need to know about. Thus, Time’s “10 ideas that are changing your life” are not only interesting – there is a lot of sociological material in these ten ideas. Here are a few sociological musings about four of these ideas:

1. “Living Alone is the New Norm.” I’ve highlighted some of the recent reviews of the new research from sociologist Eric Klinenberg (see here and here) that shows that Americans living alone “make up 28% of all U.S. households, which means they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type, more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family and roommate or group home.” Another interesting line: “Living alone helps us pursue sacred modern values – individual freedom, personal control and self-realization.” That is an interesting trio of values to mull over.

3. “The Rise of the Nones.” Sixteen percent of Americans claim to be non-religious but this group is particularly interesting because 4% claim to be agnostic or atheist. Thus, many of the “nones” are spiritual or religious but dissatisfied with organized religion. This group can be examined as part of a larger debate about whether American religion is declining or not. This also presents a challenge for organized religion: how do you get these religious or spiritual “nones” to buy into established houses of worship?

7. “High-Status Stress.” New findings suggest that people in charge or in the higher classes experience more stress: “In fact, research indicates that as you near the top, life stress increases so dramatically that its toxic effects essentially cancel out many positive aspects of succeeding.” It may not be easy to be at the top even if you have the power and ability to do more of what you want. I’m not sure how this would affect the class struggles between the upper and lower classes but it is interesting information nonetheless.

9. “Nature is Over.” Humans have altered the earth in many ways, doing so much so that our conception of nature might need to change: “The reality is that in the Anthropocene, there may simply be no room for nature, at least not nature as we’ve known and celebrated it – something separate from human beings – something pristine. There’s no getting back to the Garden [of Eden], assuming it ever existed.” This reminds me of the romanticism of nature in the mid 1800s that influenced how early American suburbs were created (designing winding streets to preserve pastoral views) and how Central Park was created (meant to preserve a piece of nature in the midst of the big city). More realistically, neither city parks or most suburbs really present much of nature – based on an idea in James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk about suburbs, these are more elaborate “nature band-aids.”

Several of the other ideas have sociological implications as well.

Reading through this list, it reminds me of how much I enjoy reading and talking about new ideas and where society might be going. If I could get all of my students to share this enthusiasm and develop a capacity to seek out and interact with ideas on their own (using the critical thinking skills and other tools they have picked up in college), it would make me happy.