Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 15
Can We Collectively Change the Internet?
Featuring Chris Anderson
Is there any good left on the Internet? Could we maximize it for generosity instead of conflict? And how do you stay connected in a seemingly ever-polarizing environment? Chris Anderson, author and curator of TED, joins us to discuss the Internet’s potential to create positive change, and why he hasn’t given up on big-money philanthropy.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by my co-host, the executive director of The Progress Network, Emma Varvaloucas, coming to us, I think, from Amsterdam because Emma in her endless peripatetic life can’t be in one city or one continent or one culture at any given time. We’re hoping for Asia at some point in the not too distant future, but for now, Amsterdam will have to do.
This podcast, for those who’ve been listening regularly, you know is animated by a desire to cut through the noise, the negativity. We are attempting to take a different tone about what’s going on in the world, not animated by outrage, not animated by fear, but animated instead by a more measured, what are we doing that may in fact lead to a future of our dreams and hopes and not the future of our fears. So what do we all do collectively to try to navigate ourselves in a better direction? And some of that’s just a sensibility. It’s how you have hard conversations. It’s not not having hard conversations; it’s how you deal with legit fears. It’s not pretending that those fears have no legitimacy. And the question of how one talks and what stories we tell and how we tell those stories and to whom I think has an outsized role in shaping what that arc is gonna be.
So on that, we’re really pleased to have this conversation today with someone who has been at the forefront of how we tell stories and how we tell stories online and how we shape the narratives about the world in the most effective and cogent and powerful and entertaining and interesting way.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we’re gonna talk to the head of TED, Chris Anderson. He had a long career in journalism and publishing before he became the curator of TED Conferences in 2002. And if you haven’t watched a TED Talk in the last 20 or so years, I don’t believe that you’ve been living on the internet. That global reach has large part due to Chris’s leadership. And so we’re gonna be talking to him today about TED’s role in a very partisan, divisive internet culture, as well as his new book, which is called Infectious Generosity. And it’s a manual, a guide, a path for turning the internet into a self-replicating world-changing place, or a positive impact, rather than the negative impact that many people see coming from the internet today.
ZK: Chris Anderson, it’s a pleasure to have you on What Could Go Right? today. I know for you this is a little bit of a switching of chairs, given that you’re usually the one asking the questions and conducting the interview. So I hope you’ll take your years of being on this side of the fence and, I don’t know, I mean, we’ll see how it goes, I guess.
Chris Anderson (CA): We’ll see how it goes, Zach. It’s very nice to be here. And hello, Emma.
EV: Hi, Chris.
ZK: Your new book, Infectious Generosity, what was the genesis of writing about this? I mean, I know in many ways you’ve been trying to, in various forums, various TED forums, in your own speaking and voice, you have been articulating many of the themes in this book for many, many, many, many, many years. Why now? What was the genesis?
CA: So the genesis was I would say the crucial few years of TED happened—gosh, it’s a long time ago now. It’s 2006 and the few years following that, when we had this dilemma that we faced, which was that we had a conference, people seemed to like it. We were a nonprofit. We were supposed to be running it for the public good. And suddenly we had this opportunity to share the content of the conference with the world through this curious new technology called online video that at the time was this little shaky pixels in the corner of your laptop, but was making progress. And we thought we could do this, but should we? We were worried that it would kill the conference. Why would people come to a conference if they thought they could see the talk’s periphery online?
But because we were a nonprofit and I had a good risk-taking team around me, we thought we should go for it. We went for it. And something amazing happened. Instead of demand for the conference being killed, it rocketed. And the reason it rocketed was because these talks went viral, and suddenly people around the world knew what TED was. And it really got me thinking. I’d heard TED Talks about how in this internet age, the rules around what you give and what you don’t, what you hold onto, had changed. But I hadn’t really felt that. And after this experience, I felt that, wow, this is really radically different. And we started at TED adopting this as a strategy. Give away the biggest thing you can think of and be amazed at what happens next.
We did the same thing by giving away our brand, TED, and allowed people around the world to organize these TED events with an x added in, TEDx, a free license. They controlled the content. We didn’t. It was high risk, and it screwed up horribly in some cases, but net-net it was incredible. It allowed our little org to suddenly be doing 3,000 events around the world. And many of the best TED speakers came through these events, not through our own curation. That experience of saying the rules have changed. In this connected age, we can be much, much, much, much bolder about how we think about generosity. And actually it’s in our own long-term interest to do that. So that was where it started.
EV: It’s almost like a return to the good old days of the internet, right? I feel like we’re in this—The history of the internet goes, everyone was so excited about it. It was a way to connect, it was a way to share. Then we got into the second phase, which was the internet as an amplifier of hatred and outrage and negativity. So is this like we’re trying to enter a new phase or is it you’re trying to balance out that image of the internet with something else?
CA: You’re exactly right, that back in the aughts, there were lots of people who were pretty optimistic about what the internet could do. I was certainly one of them. And the ugly truth is that for a lot of the last 10 years, that the story of the internet—the story of technology, generally—has been one of crushing disappointment. I think it’s correct to say that net-net social media, for example, has caused more division than benefit to humanity. And that’s such a crying shame.
So yeah, so the motivation for actually writing this book is to say, I can’t stand giving in to that narrative. I don’t think humans have to give in to that narrative. I don’t think it’s written anywhere in stone that social media and the internet will for always be a destructive force. I think these things are always changing. And what I’ve noticed is there’s enough going on under the radar to give me hope and belief that we actually could turn the tide here.
So that is the motivation for the book. On the one hand, it’s this intellectual conviction that our connected age changed the rules of the game, but then the observation that there’d been unintended consequences of that. And that often what was being spread was not kindness or knowledge of the good kind, but rather reasons to be fearful of each other. That was awful. What could we do about it? And so yeah. So in many ways, the riddle at the heart of the book is how do we make good compelling? As things stand, evil is compelling, good is boring. We need to do something about that.
ZK: Yeah. I once wrote a book called Peace Be Upon You about Muslim, Christian, and Jewish coexistence. And I mentioned the title to my friends, and they said, oh my God, that must be a really short book. And I actually said in the book that there reason why there’s no history of peace is because peace is boring. There’s no kinetic movement in peace. The story of peace is like two people wake up one morning and talk about the weather over breakfast and go about their days and then they say goodnight. It’s like a weather report in Southern California.
And so I wanna push back a little. Tristan Harris, who’s a member of The Progress network, who you’ve talked to and I’ve talked to over the years, he has been one of the people who has really raised the klaxons of alarm about the negative and deleterious effects of social media and the whole way in which at least the past 10 years has seen, in his view, really, a pernicious rise of the worst of human instincts fueled by the algorithms and the economic incentives.
I wonder though whether or not—To one degree, we’re in a cup half empty cultural moment, both in the United States and globally, and so we’re much more predisposed to see all the downsides. And I do wonder if it’s more like if you have a glass of crystal clear water and you add one drop of black dye, the entire glass becomes clouded even though the preponderance of it remains clear water. And I I wonder to what degree we’re overdoing it with, as Emma talked about and as you’ve just reflected on, all the negative things that have been born out of social media and then forgotten that daily—One of the jokes that one could make about Twitter and X and Elon Musk is everybody’s bitching about how bad that platform is on the platform.
CA: Actually, of late, a lot of people on the platform seem to me to be quite excited about it and finding lots of great content on there. So much depends on what you actually look for. I mean, look, I think this whole conversation has to start with an understanding of why it is that so often the stories we hear that we tell each other are making us blue and upset. And I think there’s two super powerful distortions that are causing that. One of them is reasonably well-known, which is just the psychological tendency and propensity we have to latch on to the dramatic. If it bleeds, it leads. There’s a reason why stories of destruction and violence and threat are what leads the news. It’s because that’s what sells. We’re tapping into deep biological instincts that we have to pay instant attention to a danger. Oh my God, look out, look out, look out, and the good stuff can wait.
So there is that, and I think that’s one very real issue that Rupert Murdoch figured out early on how to exploit and social media algorithms have discovered their inner Rupert Murdoch and are turning people who are very good at communicating the world in a threatening way have made them social media stars. That’s half of it. The other half is almost a more fundamental fact about the universe itself that you alluded to, Zachary, which is the fact that in a sentence, good happens slowly, bad happens quickly. Most of the good things in the world happen because they are built over a long period of time. Someone dreams up an idea for the future, they think about it for a year, they then start talking to others about it, they persuade them, people get excited, they’re able to raise money, over many years, they build it, and suddenly you have this thing that’s built. And then boom, in one second, something can destroy something that’s incredibly complex.
So the relevance of that is this—that most news media are asking this question. What is the most dramatic thing that happened in the last few hours? The most dramatic things that happen are by nature almost always bad because good doesn’t happen dramatically and quickly. Good has to be slowly constructed. So you have this crazy paradox where so much of what we tell each other has just happened and the news is nasty. And there’s a big problem with this, which is that we are storytelling creatures. The stories we tell each other shape who we become and to an extent become self-fulfilling.
So this terrifies me. We are in a situation where we are telling ourselves stories that are needlessly driving us all to a darker place. You know this. In a way that’s what this whole podcast stands for, but in general, people don’t know this. And the tragedy is that just under the radar, there actually is a lot of really amazing and wonderful stuff happening that if we were to pay more attention to it, and if the people who were doing it understood better the playbook of how you make good things go viral, how you make generosity go viral, for example, we would hear those stories instead and we would think about each other and about the human race and about our future very, very differently.
EV: We will be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
Audio Clip: Hey, how’s it going? I’m a YouTuber. I mean, you can see the camera. So I’m just—so a series where I just be nice and just give people some help. So if you wanna take it, it’s about $10,000. I’m not joking. It’s real. So, yeah.
No it’s not, man.
I have about a million subscribers, so I just wanted to do some good.
Audio Clip: If I give you the choice to either buy 30 Lamborghinis or help save the lives of 10,000 people in one year, which would you choose?
Audio Clip: Wait, she gave people money, she gave it away. She’s giving people money. She’s just like you, dude. This is how the new Mr. Beast is reborn.
EV: So, Chris, I am very interested to hear your take on someone like Mr. Beast who might be the biggest example of someone that’s figured out how to make philanthropic efforts or good actions go viral. And his videos are fun in a way that a lot of good news content or generosity content is not fun. You’re like, ooh, I could be walking on the street one day and suddenly someone comes up and flies me to Paris and gives me $1,000, whatever. But he also gets a lot of pushback. I think particularly because the generous acts that he is putting up on his YouTube channel and on social, the benefit is redounding upon himself, and we’re kind of hardwired to view that suspiciously. So yeah, really curious for your thoughts on him and any others like him. Actually, I’m not even aware of many others like him.
CA: There are many like him. I’m a fan of Mr. Beast, and here’s why. Look, one of the key things to winning this battle of allowing good things to become infectious is to tap into human emotion. The reason that bad things go viral is not because they’re bad, it’s because they evoke strong emotions quickly and it’s emotions which fundamentally cause someone to say, wow, I wanna share this, or I want to pay more attention to it. So he has figured out the playbook to make amazing things, connect with people, make them excited, move them in some cases. And that is an incredible skill.
Now, to do that, he’s tapped into some sort of pretty basic human emotions. Here’s a blind person who’s recently been given their sight back, they’re shedding a tear. How does that make you feel? That makes you feel inspired, so you share it, but to someone who’s sophisticated, they look at that and they go, yeah, but they’re exploiting that poor blind person. They’re using that to manipulate and attract views for a video. So I think what you have to do, it is absolutely true that there’s a class of video that is exploitative where someone dashes out, does something that’s apparently good, and the person feels exploited and so forth. Most of the subjects in Mr. Beast’s video, I do not believe, feel that. I think they are excited at what happened. They’re grateful, they’re happy, and they’re pleased. And I think Mr. Beast himself, having spent a while talking, for example, to the man who runs his philanthropy, Darren Margolias, he’s convinced that he is for real. He is committed for his life to using the power of the internet to do good in the world.
The money he makes, he is going to ultimately contribute back, et cetera. And I’ve spoken with people who’ve been inspired by Mr. Beast to do videos that also have turned the tide on certain social media trends. I think he’s persuading a whole generation of kids coming through that generosity can be cool. And I think there’s a lot of people coming through who are sick of the meanness of the internet. And precisely the reason they love these videos is because they offer an alternative to a cynical, gray, older world. Here is how you could use the internet the right way.
So one of the issues I think we have to deal with more broadly is to let go of our perfection filter on generosity. Traditionally, you are right, Emma. You look at someone and if you can find some additional motivation other than the purity of their heart of giving something away just because they are being generous, then we can quickly get cynical. But every act of generosity ever in history has always had some additional motivation, even if it’s only to solve a conscience. We do things always for a reason.
I think in the era we’re in, especially, because generosity can have so many additional effects that actually accrue to the benefit of the person giving, they basically enhance reputation precisely because they can scale, we should actually embrace that, not be cynical about that. And that suddenly gives us freedom to welcome so many more acts as being contributive to the public good. And by the way, the mental state of doing that is itself an act of generosity. Instead of taking a cynical view of people’s actions, give them the benefit of the doubt, and we all start to feel better about each other. So that’s my fundamental belief is that we’re in an era where it’s in your own interest to be generous. It will boost your reputation, it will actually boost your long-term happiness. The fact that that is part of your motivation is 100% okay. And if we spread that knowledge, more people are going to do that. The world gets better. So that’s where I stand. [laughs]
ZK: You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned the tendency, particularly in real-time, to discount any acts of generosity if there’s evidence of self-interest. And that’s certainly true with very wealthy people giving lots of money today in the United States, which has engendered really a cacophony of criticism, and yet a few generations removed, people tend to forget all of that and simply enjoy the benefits of the largesse. Many people go to Carnegie Hall to listen to a concert or music and I don’t think many of them are sitting back in their seats going, oh, Andrew Carnegie did this whole thing, and I don’t know whether we should be here and whether this is good. Or people go to the University of Chicago and I don’t think are spending days walking across campus really deeply worried about John D. Rockefeller’s legacy.
CA: [laughs] I get the irritation, honestly. I get that people are irritated that billionaires, for example—I mean, first of all, why should they have all that money? Secondly, why should it be they who decide how to make the world a better place? It all seems unfair and annoying. And yet if that is our only position, that’s where we stop. Let’s say we stop at saying there shouldn’t be billionaires. Let’s just change the tax laws, tax it away, and do that. Well, fine, do that, but good luck with it. There are many reasons why that is an incredibly hard thing to pull off. It’ll probably take you decades. Meanwhile, there is $13 trillion of private capital sitting there. Do you want that just sitting there accumulating and making the billionaires you hate even richer? How about a different stance, which is to say, your philanthropy may not be perfect, but bring it on. We want more of it, not less.
And by the way, it should be a public conversation about how billionaires can spend their money, but let’s actually embrace it, not shy away from it. And I think that would be a much healthier situation. I think many of the ultra-rich would welcome input and the chance to be involved in a broader conversation about how they should spend their money. I think many recognize that they’ve been incredibly lucky to have it, and that they do have an obligation to give back. But the current cultural moment makes it incredibly hard to do that. And so the unintended consequence of this level of cynicism is that we’re just letting the rich get richer instead of actually engaging with them to do some good in the world. And the amount that could be achieved with that philanthropy is mind-boggling. I think.
EV: Well, I think the billionaire pushback too is a bit—Some of it’s transparency, and some of it’s accountability. It’s curious to hear you say that you think that they would love to hear a crowd consensus about what to do with their money. I would love to hear more about that ’cause I think what people coalesce around with someone like Mr. Beast for instance—I mean, first of all, he was just a regular dude before he started out, right? But also, at the end of the day, he is accountable to his audience. I mean, I guess he would get rich enough to a point where he doesn’t really need anyone anymore if he’s investing the money, let’s say. But if he loses his audience, he loses everything, basically. And that kind of accountability doesn’t really exist when it comes to people that are independently wealthy.
CA: Yeah, I think one reason why I said what I said about the rich welcoming input has been my experience running a thing called The Audacious Project, where we specifically go out and try to identify truly amazing philanthropic projects. We try to find the world’s best change-makers and challenge them to dream bigger than they’ve ever dreamed before. What could you do if money was no object? And then select from hundreds of sort of applications, if you like, a small number of imaginable, credible plans that can be turned into say like a five-year project. Now, we take those two groups of high-net-worth individuals.
So these are projects that donors themselves have not sourced. We’ve sourced them. But when we put them to those groups of people, they get really excited. They embrace the idea of supporting something that is big and bold and has been independently due diligenced. They give to it anonymously. I mean, in terms of the public, as a group, they see what their peers are doing. But in the conversations that go into making those decisions, they are all about will this work? Will it be effective? Will the world get benefit as a result in some way? Whether it’s millions of children avoiding worm disease or the elimination of trachoma, the eye disease, or the creation of a new branch of science that could have incredible future potential. It’s those conversations. It’s not what’s in it for me, not for one moment is it that.
I think big philanthropy is really hard to do right. I think it’s incredibly hard to do right. And I think people would be shocked at how much, not every wealthy person, but certain wealthy people are determined to try to play a role in doing it the right way. We should not give up on big philanthropy. We should try and have a much, much, much better conversation about what it could achieve. And I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what it could achieve.
ZK: And for those who are listening, in Chris’s book, Infectious Generosity, you do have a whole chapter about this and these questions about philanthropy and the challenges of it, and you do address some of these. I think you preemptively address some of these critiques about the nature of wealth and philanthropy. But you also have insights into what we can all do to foster a community of philanthropy, an instinct of philanthropy. I mean, granted that’s—in many ways, you’re simply enhancing what has been true in religious communities historically. That was one aspect of at least—Actually, I think all Eastern and Western religious traditions have had a philanthropic giving alms, giving back, that’s been ingrained in human culture, which I think we tend to forget in the modern age, meaning human beings trying to deal with wealth, generosity, community, private and public, is not a conundrum that’s endemic to our particular moment in time. Human beings have been bouncing around these needs and instincts forever.
CA: And one of the exciting things about the current moment is that there are more ways now by far to be generous than certainly giving money because we can share with an indefinite number of people anything that you could package and share online, which is, by the way, most things that people actually care about—a piece of knowledge, a piece of video, or beautiful art, or recipes, software. Any non-material thing that can be shared online can be given away in unlimited numbers. And I think that blows my mind that that can be done. And I think more people, and certainly more organizations than currently spend time thinking about it, could really benefit by thinking about how they might give away something spectacular and they might be surprised and amazed at what comes back as a result. I think it could be transformative to someone’s life, certainly to an organization’s life, to ask that question because people have incredible assets. The surprise of what can happen i, I think, can easily be underestimated.
EV: And just the gift of our attention too, right? I think it gets forgotten about a lot in these conversations about social media. It used to be—What is that quote from of where speech is expensive and listening is cheap, but now it’s reversed, that speech is everywhere because there’s so much stuff getting put out onto the internet every day, but listening is expensive and getting someone’s attention and engagement is really the most powerful thing. And it sounds so fluffy to say, but it really is true that as users, we hold a lot of power in this system that is not often acknowledged.
CA: That’s absolutely true. And where we give our attention to really matters. The fix of the internet, if you like, will come about, I think partly from the companies, social media companies making certain changes. My own view is that the mess that was created was not intended. There are commercial reasons why it’s hard to extract from it, but I don’t think it was intended. And I think there’s lots of people in the companies who are working on trying to solve the problems, but a big part of the problem can be done by all of us, just by who we choose to follow, the kind of language we use when we respond to things online. If the pendulum can swing a bit and people can find joy and excitement in bringing out the good side of the internet, I think things can change really quickly. It’s not like we have to go from black to white. There’s already so much happening under the radar there that just needs better amplification.
Audio Clip: Social media—we rightly blame it for so many things, but look under the surface and there are amazing people out there sharing with the world, dozens of examples of the awesomeness of the universe like GivingTuesday. How awesome is it that a single hashtag spread around the world and persuaded millions of people to donate literally billions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of organizations and is now going beyond that to spread a global movement of kindness? I’m in awe of what they’ve achieved.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: In your book, you do have a—well, you do have a manifesto, but you also have a pathway for a reformed internet. Of course, at this point, the internet is simply a digital variant of all of us, right? So much of our lives are now being lived digitally, and that’s only gonna increase both in a AR world and a AI world, right? I don’t see that trend changing at all in the next 20 years. But the question then is, is that change really gonna happen from Facebook, Google, et cetera, suddenly radically changing their business models? Or is it gonna be much more a product of what we would think of in political terms as grassroots activism? Meaning it’s just human beings changing their behavior?
CA: Yeah, I think it’s gonna be a mix of both. I mean, look, to me, the key thing that got forgotten is I think that the whole of the internet was built on a very naive view of human nature—that people are people, they’ll make choices if we go along with their choices, what can go wrong? People aren’t people. People are confused mixes of all kinds of different ingredients. There’s lots of us inside each of us. And specifically, I think we’ve built an internet that empowers our lizard brains over our reflective selves. That’s the piece we need to flip. And that is doable through careful design decisions. And it’s doable on an individual level by us each paying more attention to how we actually plan.
Daniel Kahneman has written very clearly about System 1, System 2 thinking. And I think so much of life is about giving, empowering your System 2 self over your System 1 self. Whether you look at diet, exercise, how you plan your day, but definitely social media, it’s our lizard brains that get angered and irritated and respond resentful and all the rest of it. Our effective selves are well capable of overcoming that, but we have to give them a chance.
Funnily enough, the same idea carries over when we start thinking about AI. Often the best way to get a good response out of ChatGPT-4 is to say, stop, think, think carefully, count to 10, and then answer. And it will actually direct it to a different part of the language model. And you get reflective thinking out instead of just instinctive thinking.
One reason why I feel urgency around this book is that how we train AIs right now is going to impact the entire future of humanity. And I think we’re in danger of teaching them to think that humans are level one beings and to just, you know, watch human behavior. You see how they get irritated with each other? This is who we need to optimize for. No, no, we’re more sophisticated than that. We need to find a way to train AIs on our best selves, not our worst selves.
ZK: I love that as a way of thinking about it because so much of the current debate around AI is binary and black and white. It’s gonna be a tool that will enhance humanity or it’s going to be a tool that will destroy humanity. And often these debates were down into a not just cup half full, cup half empty, but depending on your individual predilection, that then shapes the entire conversation. So if you’re predisposed to seeing the downsides, you’re gonna think that AI is potentially the final tool of our destruction. And if you tend to see the best in things, you might see it as this is gonna unlock amazing human potential. But your way of articulating that, which is how we enter into literally the structuring of this environment and essentially what the raw materials that we’re putting in and what assumptions we’re making will become its own sets of self-fulfilling prophecies rather than there being one pathway or another.
Look, I do think part of this is a cultural moment. 1999, if we’d been having this conversation about AI, theoretical other universe, we would’ve been talking about the endless potential of unlocking humanity, solving disease, genetically mapping all of us down to the last strand of DNA so that we could perfect individualized medicine, all the things that we would’ve been talking about at potential. And now we’re talking about terminator and the rise of the machines and we’re on the verge of the apocalypse, and both are probably untrue. There will be an end of the world at some point, but I really do like that framing of it, that there is a—what assumptions we make about human nature will in many ways dictate what these tools are. They are of us. They are not external to us. Do you think that’s happening?
CA: I mean, I do. I think you can actually see in a lot of the responses of AIs that they are trying to find that reflective response. In fact, they’ve been fine-tuned to do that to some extent. If you poke one and say something rude about identity X or whatever, they’ll come back and say, well, I mean come on, there’s actually very good things to be said about that. And they get accused of being woke or whatever. But I think what they’re trying to do is to find that sort of step back way of not falling into the classic human biases if you like. And are they being successful? Not all the time, but it’s an important effort that’s going on there. And I think we’re gonna have to continue with that.
And you could picture the hopeful version of the future is this, it’s that AIs are not subject to the kinds of emotions that I referred to earlier that drive our obsession with all this narrative around threats and anger and discuss with each other and tribalism and so forth. They’re not driven by that. They don’t feel any of that at all. And there is every reason to think that we could build a world that is based on more reflective values. Wow. If we could do that, you could genuinely picture a world where AIs are helping us to be our best selves.
EV: Kind of like how they’ve trained Alexa not to answer questions about the Holocaust, right? It’s like we’re not gonna go there. We don’t wanna help you go down that direction. [laughs]
EV: Chris, just to shift gears a little bit to talk about TED, it does relate to this conversation that we’re having about the good sides and the bad sides of the internet. TED, I feel like, has a pretty universal amazing brand reputation as far as the stuff that you guys put out. And there was I think a relatively rare brouhaha towards the end of 2023 about Coleman Hughes’s talk. People weren’t aware, what happened is basically that he gave a talk for TED about colorblindness. There was a lot of internal dissent from inside TED about publishing it and there was a chain of events after that. There was a lot of criticism around TED and around you with that. But you also gave an astoundingly gracious response that I think earned a lot of respect. But now that you’ve had some space to reflect from that and probably having seen all the different sides of the internet during that, how do you see TED’s role in an internet space that does seem to many people increasingly less comfortable and flexible with views, with the complexity of views and perspectives?
CA: Yeah, I think TED’s been through what many organizations or companies in America, Europe have been through, which is trying to figure out how you navigate divisive political waters. Like it or not, most of the world has become much more tribal in the last seven years, especially. Some of it driven by social media, some of it driven by how lots of subjects are taught at university and so forth. So any organization that recruits college graduates and then tries to build things has wrestled with different versions of this issue, which is that a lot of people can’t see the world in a way that just says that there’s a wide array of views there. There is a right view and a wrong view. The stakes have got really high and a lot of people want to view the world—a couple decades before, you’d have called it a political lens.
TED has traditionally been nonpolitical. We’ve taken the view that politicians come and go, ideas are forever, but it’s been impossible in the last decade to be nonpolitical. Some people have accused TED over the last 10 years of swinging to the left a bit, becoming woke. And there’s probably some truth to that. If you look at the relatively small percentage of talks that can be placed on a political spectrum, those talks, more of those use the language of the left, if you like, then of the right and are diverted to things like different kinds of social justice type causes and so forth. And so that has caused criticism from some quarters. For other people, that is absolutely the most essential ideas worth spreading that TED should be focused on.
Internally, we’ve had, I think, a really healthy debate in the last few years. We recognize and we want as a nonprofit org or a non-partisan org, we want to be open tent, we want to appeal to a broad audience. And what that means is often the very language that we live in or some of our employees live in, we have to pay special attention to, all of which meant that I for a while was trying to find voices who would be clearly centrist or right at center so that if we were to cover political issues, it wasn’t just from that sort of progressive side.
Coleman Hughes, I’m a fan of. I think he’s a brilliant person. I’ve supported him on Patreon. And I think even though some of his thinking is controversial, he’s incredibly insightful. Whenever I hear his podcasts on anything that is outside the politics of race, for example, and in scientific areas, I think, wow, he’s absolutely got a good insight there. His talk was A Case for Colorblindness and he was arguing that we needed to adopt that stance instead of the more recent trend towards very specifically looking at racial identity in terms of addressing whether it’s who you employ or who you recruit to a university, et cetera.
But the thing is, this issue’s really complex and people who have lived with it and worked with it over a couple of decades, many people have come to a very different conclusion that colorblindness has failed and that actually, we do need to pay attention to race and to be more proactive across the board, in policies that we make in that area. And so there was a big debate on what should we do with this. Our mantra for a long time has been ideas worth spreading. We have to accept that there are ideas—we won’t always know which of the ideas are worth spreading. What we know is that some ideas are worth debating and that there is a lot of passion on this topic and it’s important that we open to a broader audience.
ZK: And I think that, the ideas worth spreading and the ideas worth debating, it’s not a caveat, it’s an enhancement on that. Many organizations have been struggling with this. There was that intense divisive moment in The New York Times a few years ago and James Bennet, the op-ed editor, ran the Tom Cotton editorial about using the Insurrection Act to suppress protesters. And that may not have been an idea worth spreading, but it was clearly an idea that was being debated.
And in fact, the challenge is not all ideas that once spread are you endorsing, but you are acknowledging, as you did before, whether you call it level one, level two, as you just described, whether it’s acknowledging that human beings are, I think you said, a messy mix of internal impulses, we all contain multitudes, and finding a way to honor that in a way that yes, people are gonna have judgments and they have shame and they have the fear that an idea once unleashed can lead to all sorts of bad things in action. All true, right? But one of the ways in which we collectively figure out our direction is usually in the clear light of day and not in the hidden corners of the dark.
So I hope you keep doing that. I hope you find a way that no one has really found a good way to square the circle of broadening out the spectrum of ideas that need debating, particularly in a world where people are, as Emma talked about, more people than ever have the ability to have a voice. But that means there’s also a lot more voices and a lot more noise and a lot more division. Back to that part of human nature.
CA: I actually think that one of the big acts of generosity in the age that we’re in is from people who are willing to try and bridge. If the actual truth is that the majority of people in America and in Europe are not extremists politically, they see wisdom from all quarters. They just don’t have a chance to have their voices heard because the louder voices, because of this dynamic of if you can use the language of fear and threat and disgust and anger, that is what gets you the followers and the votes. So that has led to this completely artificial and horrible situation where the conversation is being led by the more extreme viewpoints. Courage is needed for what is an incredibly important act of generosity, which is to seek to bridge, to listen to each other with respect, and to give people the benefit of the doubt. This is so important. It is so important that more people try and do this, and it’s hard to do. We’ve tried occasionally and got it wrong to some extent, but we’re not stopping. And I think TED is absolutely determined to be one of the media orgs, if you like, that is determined to carve out a sort of centrist space and to have the conversation even if it’s painful.
ZK: Well, on that, I guess we’ll say thank you for the conversation, and it’s one that I hope we continue, so.
CA: Thank you. Thank you, Zachary and Emma, and thank you for what you’re doing. I think that this question of looking for the possibility space of things that could be good in this world, unless you can see those things, no one has the energy or the motivation to work to towards them. And so that’s how humans work. Now you start by exploring that possibility space, looking for something that can excite a group of people and pour them in that direction. Unless we tell those stories to ourselves, we ain’t got no hope. So thank you for what you’re doing.
EV: Thank you so much, Chris.
ZK: Thanks so much, Chris.
CA: All right. Take care.
ZK: Well, that was a conversation that I simultaneously don’t have a lot more to say about and could also have had another two hours of.
Anyway, that’s it for us this week. We want to thank you again for listening. We want comments, questions. Go to theprogressnetwork.org, send those in. Please sign up for the newsletter, What Could Go Right?, and it’s free and weekly. And we’ll bring you stories you might not have seen that have been happening around the world at that point in a more constructive direction. So thank you, Emma. Thank you all, and we’ll talk to you soon.
EV: Thank you. See you next week.
What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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