A tale of opacity – two great TED talks from TEDGobal2011

There were two TED talks this year that struck me as particularly interesting, not for what the speakers said but for who they were and what they didn’t say. The talks were from Yang Lan, the Chinese media mogul and Maajid Nawaz, an anti-extremism activist. In both cases, these extraordinary characters told us what to think about their circumstances, not how to explain the journey they had travelled to get there. Yang Lan explained a little bit about navigating a deeply sexist  Chinese broadcasting industry. Maajid Nawaz explained that at 17 years old, having grown up in Essex, an aspiring working class suburb of East London, he began recruiting extremist radicalised Muslims out of Cambridge University and then subsequently went to train himself in a camp in Pakistan and join the leadership of a fundamentalist group. Later, after having been arrested, imprisoned for four years and released, he  saw the light and now campaigns for moderation and is anti-extremist. While his tale is an extraordinary and heartening one, neither of these presenters talked once about the emotional journey which took them to their current roles.  Yang Lan told us nothing about how she negotiated the power structures of  the Communist Party state, despite the fact that with 250 million viewers, she is something considerably more than the Chinese Oprah; she is more likely the most powerful propagandist the Chinese leadership could wish for.  As I reflected on her presentation, it dawned on me that it was more like a market research presentation on behalf  of a media company looking to sell advertising space on its network, than a TED talk. The phrase  that was highlighted in Yang Lang’s presentation was “When it comes to brands, the Chinese are the most visually tuned-in consumers in the world.”      And Maajid Nawaz told us nothing of his emotional journey to move from being a young Essex lad, to becoming an extremist fundamentalist leader,  back to becoming an impassioned analyst and advocate of moderation. There is no question that we would all wish for more Islamic moderation as indeed we would across all the world’s religions and the struggle to understand what it takes to make that transformation is critical. But in the end, one has to believe that such a change is an emotional and psychological adjustment. I would really like Maajid Nawaz to use his compelling powers of rhetoric to reveal that about himself.  TED talks in the past have often enabled the speaker to span a classic narrative arc of story-telling,  allowing powerful  tales to be told and great messages to be conveyed. Here for the first time, in these two presentations, we have the sense that the message is hidden behind the statement. That TED, in commissioning these speakers, who are in one way or another on the edge of our comfort zones, were able to make presentations that did not offer the same kind of candour and transparency that very many “classic” TED talks have offered. By intention or by coincidence,  which we must leave to the curators of TED to tell us,  these two talks struck me as being fascinating for their opacity as much as for the honesty of their stories. As the world shifts ever faster and the socio-eonomic dynamics become increasingly complex, I would like to hope that TED continues to offer us a higher degree  of insight than mere pitching would allow. The sophistication of powerful players makes TED a target, given its great proven power to distribute “ideas worth spreading”. In the process it needs to be careful it doesn’t spread ideas that it might not be so comfortable to have spread. Watch that space and let’s see how this addictive cult of story telling evolves.
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