Thomas Frank Says TED Talks Are Lying To Us

My daughter directed my attention to this article on SALON and I found it an interesting assertion.  But I am not sure that I would have gone quite so far as to say that those people who do the TED Talks are really lying.  The issue is really one that has been around for millenniums, sometimes known as thousands of years.  One can read Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun and it is difficult to argue with that point of view.  And when one is talking about creative processes and invention and innovation, well, the processes aren’t really all that new.  True, those who make their livings trying to convince us that somehow they know the keys to success, creativity, spirituality, and the like would certainly like us to perceive that their ways of thinking, their books, talks, and the like are original.  But is that really true?

Back when I had been working for the telephone company for a couple of years I noticed some of the guys I worked with used the wax twine or the other cordage we carried to make pieces of macrame.  I picked up the skill and then took it one step further.  I started using copper with.  I was a cable splicer and we had plenty of copper wire for me to experiment with and I found that 30 gauge copper wire was easy enough to work with.  Pretty soon I was making bracelets and necklaces and adding garnets and having a fine time with my creations, some of which became very involved.  Then one day I picked up an art journal published in Berkeley and saw that another artist had stolen my idea.  Well, I mean I thought it was mine.  There we were, both doing roughly the same thing.  And about ten years later I saw in an archaeological journal that several thousands of years ago artisans had done much the same thing, only in gold and silver.  Nothing new under the sun.

Now I see that there are quite a few individuals writing books and giving talks about how to obtain happiness.  Strangely, their methods are like those of Norman Vincent Peale.  Okay, Peale was a little more religious minded, but it is that element of belief that links these individuals together.  As for creativity, one can go back to Copernicus and read his work on how to be creative.  Inventions are discovered by looking around the corner, on a par with thinking out of the box.  For some it is that flash in insight that solves the immediate problem and allows for further refinement of a process or thought for that invention that changes the way we think about something.  This flash of insight is rather rare and not something that one gets every day or ever year or once a decade or two.  And innovation is the improvement on that basic invention idea.  By definition, at least in my mind, innovation is the refinement of the basic idea.  When I was in the military a corporal once told me that the Japanese did not have typewrites that would write Japanese characters.  They really have the Japanese Navy to thank for using the English Alphabet and Phonetics to send messages by wireless or telegraph.  Think of it.  The dots and dashes of Morse code or the five one and zero code that Bardot invented was used to convey information.  It is a simple digital on/off type of code.

Well, I had put some thought into that problem for it seemed to me that one could invent a Japanese typewrite that typed Japanese characters.  I play with the idea off and on for about six years.  I did a great deal of research on the Japanese characters and how they were written manually by brush strokes.  And then I thought about how we group of alphabet characters into words.  A Japanese character can represent one of our words or several depending on the character.  And the standard set of characters a child must know is over four thousand.  Add to that problem a couple of technical glitches such as the character order, top to bottom and right to left, you can see that such an invention must solve several tasks.  But finally I had that flash of insight I needed to solve the problem, not that there are any Japanese typewriters and I hold any patents.  The insight was brush strokes.  Each character is written in a very precise way.  The strokes are numbered and no one deviates in that order.  The fact that there are approximately sixty four different strokes and a few special ones meant that the number of keys on the keyboard must number no more than thirty two.  One also needs a space bar and a shift key.  After the particular strokes are completed one advances by use of the space bar to the next character site.  It is a very simple and elegant solution.  Except that the Japanese had solved had solved that problem by inventing the fax.  And laser printers with a large enough pixel count can print out the characters as well.  It seems my invention wasn’t really needed as long as computers could be used.  Now one can use character recognition when one writes the characters on paper and scan that paper into the computer memory.

But even though I tell you something of my process and thinking about that flash of insight and problem solving it will not make you have one as well.  So many people claim to teach creativity but those claims cannot be substantiated.  So in a way Mr Frank is right, the individuals giving TED Talks may be lying.  For the most part they believe their own processes, their own words and ideas.  If I believe I am a spiritual person and tell you haw ti be one am I really lying?  Or do I believe in my own lie so much that I cannot see the truth when it smacks me in the face?  People believe in conspiracies that never are, they believe, or want to believe that what they have learned as children is true.  They will believe that religious leaders can talk to god or perform miracles.  Humans believe all manner of nonsense.  What Mr Frank has shown, if one actually reads the article and gives it a bit of thought, is that we can see patterns and all these various books and talks that make the rounds existed in some form several decades ago.  Perhaps what he should have said is that most of us do not do the required research to be original.  We may become taken with our own discovery that we think we are the first to have ever thought of it.  If we are academics we will resist to the death any one that tries to tell us we got it wrong even when the truth stares us in the face.  Of the papers published in peer review journals approximately in twenty five percent of those papers the experimental results cannot be duplicate.  That the results are insignificant and just as easily due to chance.  Yet those researchers rarely take back their work, preferring to claim that their research is not understood or that their hypotheses is really true.  When one’s career and income are at stake one does not admit error.  Perhaps Mr Frank is closer to the truth than we, at first, perceive.  It depends on your belief system.


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