I don't know if TED has gone downhill or if they were never good in the first place, but geez do they promote a lot of pseudo-intellectual garbage.
A random TED talk has about as much intellectual content as picking a random book out of the non-fiction new releases and reading the blurb on the dust jacket. It makes you aware that an idea exists and that somebody is promoting it; that's about all.
Some individual TED talks are decent and even good -- just as that random book with the interesting dust-jacket blurb might actually be good -- but so many are junk that the TED brand is useless as an indicator of quality.
The marketing around TED is carefully designed to make you feel smart and superior for watching them. The production values, the big-name speakers, the high price of tickets, the illusion that you're part of an elite audience... all designed to flatter the viewer and make the contents seem like something more than the shallow sound-bites they are.
And the Silicon Valley culture seems to have eaten it up. "Did you see the TED talk about..." is a standard conversation-opener at work. People think they're an expert on some topic because they watched a guy give a ten-minute slideshow about it in front of a bunch of rich people. Giving a TED talk is the ultimate status symbol in this culture.
It doesn't hurt that TED has a serious ideological bias towards things that make the target audience of rich, mostly white, industry insiders feel good about themselves for being rich, mostly white, industry insiders.
He's trying to explain how "The West" got so far economically ahead of "The Rest". He's talking about the importance of social institutions, but he tells his mostly-software-industry audience "you can't understand institutions so I'm going to compare them to something you do understand". Does the audience even realize how badly he's insulting them?
His list is: Competition, science, property rights, modern medicine, consumer society, and work ethic.
It should be obvious that property rights, competition, work ethic, and the consumer society existed in plenty of pre-modern and non-western societies. And "modern medicine" is begging the question of how you get to the point of inventing modern medicine. But even if we let those points slide, there's a glaring ommision from this list. Think for second; can you spot it?
He illustrates the wealth gap by showing how for centuries Europe was relativeley poor, but in the 1850s the UK shot way ahead while China and India got much poorer.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY HAVE HAPPENED IN THE 1850s THAT WOULD EXPLAIN WHY THE UK BECAME WEALTHIER RELATIVE TO CHINA AND INDIA? It's a complete mystery, I can't figure it out at all.
So yeah, he's forgetting the "Killer App" where you use your superior military to invade another country, take their natural resources, kidnap their people as slaves, force unequal trade treaties on them, and deliberatly hold their devleopment back with an unequal colonial administration designed to make them second-class citizens in their own country.
The countries that have the lowest human development indices today are almost all former resource-extraction colonies of European empires. The ones with the highest indices are Western Europe itself, its former settlement colonies, a few Mideastern oil states, and Japan -- which did quite a bit of colonialism of its own.
Colonialism isn't the whole explanation because it doesn't explain how Europe achieved its military advantage that allowed it to do all this conquest and extortion in the first place. And obviously some of the wealth gap is due to the Industrial Revolution starting in Europe, which probably does have something to do with science and competition and so on. But I am highly dubious of any explanation for "The West vs The Rest" that glosses over the fact that The West spent centuries literally stealing wealth from The Rest.
Gee Niall Ferguson, WHY AM I SO MUCH RICHER THAN MY NEIGHBOR WHOSE HOUSE I JUST ROBBED? It must be because of my superior work ethic and my respect for property rights!
Ferguson brings up imperialism only to dismiss it with a couple of glib sentences. He says imperialism can't be the answer because "Asia had empires too" and because the peak of the wealth gap came in the 1970s, after colonialism ended.
These explanations are incredibly weak. Asia had empires too, yes; and in their day they were extremely wealthy and effective! If there were TED talks in the 16th century they would be attmepting to explain why Ming China and the Ottoman Empire were so far ahead of backwards Europe. All this comparison proves is that the advantage of empire doesn't last forever. Also the Ottomans and the Mings didn't have a military advantage over their neighbors remotely comparable to the military advantage that colonial Europe had over Africa and the Americas.
The wealth gap peaking in the 1970s? A mere few decades after the end of World War 2 and the beginning of the slow process of decolonization? When the rich nations had just finished reaping all the benefits of colonialism and the newly independent former colonies were just beginning their climb out of poverty? This is exactly when we would expect the wealth gap to peak if colonialism was the main reason for it. Ferguson is actually undermining his own argument by pointing out this fact.
And this illustrates the problem with TED: the format of TED videos makes this kind of sleight-of-hand easy to pull off. A couple of pretty slides, a nerdy joke or two to disarm the audience, and an appeal to your authority as a Famous Person are all it takes to paper over fundamental weaknesses in your argument.
There's a lot more to pick apart in Ferguson's terrible TED talk. Nobody should be surprised that he worships Adam Smith, but taking time to insult Gandhi for being poor? Classy.
Then he tops himself, when talking about property rights (which he says are more important than democracy itself: an interesting glimpse into the priorities of the ultra-rich.) He says one of the reasons America was able to "generate" so much wealth is because "most people in rural North America owned some land". Uh, yeah, they had lots of land after fucking stealing it from the American Indians. He's using land taken by force, and taken by broken treaties, as his example of the importance of property rights. Which presumably include the right to not have your property stolen. The audacity of this guy!
Then we get to the moral panic -- "is the west deleting its own apps?" OH NO! Here is a picture of some teenagers wearing hoodies! I'm not sure what that's supposed to prove, unless it's a clever way to invoke racism against black teenagers without actually showing any black teenagers. Ferguson then talks about the rest of the world catching up, which is a wonderful thing, a happy thing, what we should all be hoping for. Then he segues straight into "but Western decline isn't inevitable". Interesting that he equates worldwide equality with Western "decline", like we're only doing OK as long as we can keep the rest of the world poor.
He finishes with a picture of Obama bowing to Hu Jintao to illustrate that the great divergence is over. (Like no world leader ever bowed to another world leader during the last two centuries? It's a meaningless gesture to grease the wheels of diplomacy.) Nice way to invoke both Siniphobia and the baseless right-wing meme of Obama being apologetic for America.
So that's Ferguson's TED talk. That's the kind of thing TED thinks deserves a megaphone.
Ferguson teaches at Harvard. He's not dumb. He's not overlooking the history of colonialism by accident; he's trying to construct an explanation of the wealth gap that very specifically avoids mention of colonialism. This is part of a project to whitewash history, to promote a world view where the rich and the privileged are not beneficiaries of historical injustice but rather deserve to be rich and privileged due to their superior moral qualities.
That TED gave him a pulpit for this project says a lot about TED. Either they share his views, or they just don't care. At the very least, it says that TED doesn't care enough for this massive level of intellectual dishonesty to disqualify anyone from speaking there.
I have written software that has been featured in a TED talk on two different occasions: Ubiquity was shown off in a TED talk by Aza in 2009, and Collusion in a TED talk by the Mozilla CEO in 2012. But after seeing this video, I'm embarassed to have been associated with TED in any way.