The Death of Spontaneity

Published: July 6, 2012

Communications technologies may expand the public sphere, but they’re destroying the quality of our conversations.

People have been making their ideas public for as long as there’s been conversation. There’s nothing new about that. What is new – or, rather, what’s constantly changing – is the technology that we use to share those ideas. Advances in technology have rapidly expanded the public sphere, particularly in the last 150 years. But while these technologies may improve our reach, they also increasingly encourage pre-meditated – and perhaps even dishonest – communication.

When I set up the original TED Conference back in 1989, it was with the idea that we needed to encourage sincere, spontaneous communication. But now, the TED Talks have turned that into a static conversation – something that is planned, rehearsed, recorded, and then placed in an archival state online with no connection to the rest of the conference.

We’re seeing this same trend in other areas: While many people are becoming better connected through Facebook, Twitter, email, text messages, and other platforms, these technologies in many ways screen the ideas that we’re sharing. We’re no longer speaking candidly, or engaging in spur-of-the-moment debates. Instead, we’re training ourselves to become strategic communicators, presenting our ideas – and ourselves – in the way we want people to perceive them.

This sort of communication isn’t going to get us anywhere. What we need is a 19th-century salon on steroids, where the brightest minds get together to informally exchange ideas. When people sit around and talk to each other in an unrehearsed way, they’re more likely to tell each other what they really think. Truly great ideas are created when you have people from disparate backgrounds, from disparate places, engaging in honest and spontaneous conversations.

Although I invented TED, I’m no longer associated with it. I chaired my last TED conference in 2002. It’s no longer accomplishing what it was intended to: The talks that are taking place aren’t real conversations any more. They might as well be recordings. There’s no room for debate, and there’s a falsehood to the pre-planned nature of the talks.

Conversation is fundamental. Interest, dialogue, curiosity, and innovation are the resultant threads that can arise from thoughtful, improvised public conversations. That’s what I’m trying to foster with my new WWW conference series. I’m not trying to create a better version of TED or anything else – what I am trying to do is explore alternative modes of conversation. I’m innovating by subtraction: I’m removing all the sales pitches, the PowerPoint presentations, the videos, the editing, and the rehearsals. When you clear away the rubbish, all that’s left is people talking to people, as they’ve been doing for centuries.

Yes, the public sphere is inextricably linked with the technologies of the day, but those technologies are constantly changing. Certainly, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and all the technologies we currently think are vital parts of our lives will not exist in 20 years.

We tend to think that the technologies we have today will be around forever, but that’s simply not the case. We thought that about the fax machine when it first came out, and now the Internet has rendered it obsolete. And this is far from an exception to the rule: Already, texting is replacing email, and mobile phones are replacing laptop computers. The public sphere is a continuum, and it’s often only in hindsight that we recognize the flaws of the technologies that shape it.

Much of what the Internet has done, for instance, is trivial. What’s the purpose of Google telling you it can find 400,000 hits on a search term in 0.028 seconds? No one would ever look at them all. So while this may be an impressive technological feat, it’s essentially meaningless junk data.

Having a wealth of data at your fingertips is not enough: You also need to have information that’s relevant and engaging and, more critically, understandable. It should resonate with you personally. When you pull up 400,000 search results in Google, you’re likely to be so overwhelmed by it all that you don’t actually absorb any of it. The emphasis on quantity over quality is damaging to our public sphere, and unlikely to lead to any brilliant new ideas – and those ideas are what move us forward.

None of this, of course, is permanent. Our public sphere is constantly expanding and changing alongside our technologies, and who knows what tomorrow will bring? People who were wowed by the invention of the telephone never imagined that a World Wide Web would one day enable people to communicate, in an instant, with networks of people across the globe, spurring uprisings and revolutions, and spreading ideas like wildfire.

But just because we don’t know what’s coming next doesn’t mean we should simply “wait and see.” As our public sphere continues to expand, we would be wise to be aware of the impact that our communications technologies are having on the quality of our conversations, and, in turn, on the clarity of innovation and creative invention. In all this, we may observe the value of the truth, and of engaging in spontaneous conversations as we exchange authentic ideas.


Richard Saul Wurman is the creator of the TED conferences. An architect and graphic designer, he coined the phrase “information architecture,” and has written and designed more than 83 books. He is currently developing the WWW conferences, celebrating improvised conversations.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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