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Amgad Muhammad

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Why Technology talks receive fewer standing ovations

I was introvertly celebrating watching over 200 TED talks last night on TED.com and I was visiting my profile to take a look at my 3.5 years of knowing TED and one fact just pop out: “Tech guys receive fewer standing ovation.”

I'm not talking about using technology as a platform for ideas (like Khan Academy). I'm talking about inventions and breakthroughs. The speaker -at best- gets a lousy 4 seconds clap in a conference where the T initial stands for Technology and were you can see tech elites like Bill Gates and Sergey Brin among the guests.

I don't have a research to support my allegation, just a mere observation. But I wanted to know why fewer people appreciate TED techies when they turn sci-fi into live demos on stage!

So there're basically two things to discuss here:

1) Are the tech speakers doing it wrong? Do they fail to make their inventions engaging? do tech inventions need special presentation skills?

2) Or are we becoming less inspired by what tech. provides, taking it for granted?

What's your thought on this?

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  • Jan 8 2014: Its due to the fact that the vast majority of the population knows very little of, and doesn't understand technology (at least on a more technical level, most of them know it on a user level just fine). On the other hand, most people know humanities just fine, because they're easier to grasp, and often more interesting for most people.

    Therefore, most people identify less with the more technologically oriented talks, in the same way they identify less with the people making the technology.
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      Jan 8 2014: Well said Nadav, and I agree.
      Being a right brain dominant person, technology often goes over my head.....so to speak:>)
      I appreciate it, am in awe of technologies and the creators of technology. While it is all interesting to me, I probably would not be moved to give a talk about technology a standing ovation because I do not always understand it:>)
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      Jan 9 2014: Nadav! excellent point.

      Do you think humanities are more represented in education than technology?
      I mean, shouldn't it be a little more important that children grow up knowing that technology is magical but also takes lots of effort? To give them the ability to sense the beauty of technology when it's presented in front of them?
      • Jan 9 2014: Most people simply don't have the mathematical nor the technical sense for the more scientifically oriented disciplines. How much this results from environment or genetics is hard to say, but one way or the other, we end up in a situation where only a small fraction of the populace knows the first thing about the technical aspect of technology, despite almost everyone being familiar with it on a user lever--somewhat absurd, really.

        Given that technology affects practically every aspect of our lives, and its improvement usually leads to an improvement in quality of living, getting more people involved in it to accelerate its development and use could do wonders.

        Educational systems typically being in the clutches of humanists doesn't help. Most of the more technically minded people prefer to work as things like engineers or programmers, whose pay is much, much higher then a teacher's. Amusingly, the lack of practical application of most humanities means that their role in education in increased.
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    Jan 8 2014: cynical theory: because people give standing ovations to talks that express their own views eloquently. and people don't have their own views about technology.
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      Jan 9 2014: Mmm, Don't know about that Krisztian.

      I mean, having a personal view about technology is like having a personal view about water.
      Maybe people need to view technology as a way that expands our views instead of a view in itself?

      Anyways, it's really annoying to think that people give standing ovation to those who're like them instead of those who made progress in a certain field. I like to think that TED audience is less cynical
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    Jan 24 2014: Science and Technology topics are complex and difficult to understand. Scientists and Technologists are also complex and difficult to understand and, generally, these people do not relish being on stage unlike athletes, singers, entertainers, actors, salesmen, and politicians.
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    Jan 9 2014: Amgad, I watched a talk where the speaker ask the audience to raise their hand if they were liberal and then those who were conservative ... there were three conservatives. He said he was not surprised by the outcome.

    So here is my "GUESS". If a technical speaker was on the subject of proving the Earth was experiencing global warming then he would get a standing ovation. However if he had three minutes to explain a theory that took years to arrive at and is highly technical he would leave most of us in the dust and scratching our collective heads. The applause would be courteous but with little enthusiasm.

    Liberal causes will always fair well on TED. When I first joined I went to the members site often and found that a very high majority were self confessed liberals and atheists. I do not think that speakers are getting it wrong ... I think that they are careful to align their talks to the audience. This much harder to strike that cord with technical subjects.

    There is nothing wrong with liberal people with the exception of Krisztian .... just because this will evoke a response. As much as it hurts me to acknowledge a good thought from a liberal ... his cynical theory is very good. Darn that hurt. Just messin with you big guy ... Here is his ... cynical theory: because people give standing ovations to talks that express their own views eloquently. and people don't have their own views about technology.

    I wish you well. Bob.
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      Jan 9 2014: Hey there Robert!

      Mmmm, I don't know, you guys keep pointing out the relation between political views and technology and I'm not sure they're in anyway relevant.

      How do political views influence my judgment on whether a certain innovation on stage is worth my respect?
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        Jan 9 2014: First we are speaking of standing ovations ... not personal respect.

        Second in a room full of super liberals and atheists is a bad time to evoke a deity or present conservative ideas ... so what we have suggested is that the speaker needs to be aware of the audience ... and knowing that a speech about global warming and the conservatives failure to admit to this and their failure to act are going to kill us .. would get a standing ovation longer that the speech.

        So we are back to Krisztian's reply: cynical theory: because people give standing ovations to talks that express their own views eloquently. and people don't have their own views about technology.

        It really is not about either technology or politics ... it is about pleasing the crowd and in this case it is a super liberal atheist audience called TED members.

        Does that help. Bob.
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    Jan 8 2014: I don't want to start a political debate in an otherwise apolitical discussion, but this is my observation.

    It's a given fact that TED participants tend toward a more liberal worldview, and I've observed that liberals as a whole are somewhat suspicious of technology (GMOs, nuclear power, biotech, high-tech farming, space exploration, oil and coal production, high-tech water management, the mining of rare earth elements, automated manufacturing, laser and microwave transmission, megawatt power lines, etc.) believing them to be the root of some of the evils in the world. That may be the reason why tech talks get fewer standing ovations.
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      Jan 8 2014: what's wrong with liberal people
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      Jan 9 2014: Good morning Lawren (It's morning in Egypt anyways)

      I don't interact as much as some of you guys do here in TED conversations so I don't really know about that TED-liberal thing. But I find it interesting that liberals, to you, are less tech-friendly. Actually, that political views have anything to do with being pro or against technology. Did you read something about that anywhere, I could use some insights.
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        Jan 9 2014: Hello Amgad

        No, sorry, I haven't read anything. It's just been my general observation. Here in the US we have liberals both individually and in organized groups fighting to halt, or to stop the proliferation of the specific technologies I listed.

        I'm not saying that they shouldn't, or that there's something wrong with it, just that the people involved are always liberal.
  • Jan 8 2014: Yes?Technology talks are my favorite:),because I teach Information Technolgoy subjects at middle schools,I like to know more about newest innovation,technology,inventing information from TED talks,some of them really are very inspired:).I want to show my thanks to them here.Thank you,guys,thumb up
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    Jan 8 2014: i wonder if it takes less courage to innovate in the tech field? Maybe it's harder to innovate in the humanities because you have to deal with people and dealing with people takes courage.
    • Jan 8 2014: Has nothing to do with it. There are plenty of technical disciplines where innovating requires a lot of courage.

      Innovation is usually designed at changing the existing order of things, and nothing makes enemies quite as fast as trying to change something. New energy technology--good luck fighting the existing energy companies and infrastructure. New medication--you render the existing treatments that are making someone a lot of money obsolete. And that's without getting into the more politically charged technologies, like stem cells, abortions, nuclear energy, and genetic engineering for example.

      If anything, you'll likely have to confront even more people then your humane counterparts--they only have to deal with other experts, and don't have entire corporations resisting change to the existing system.
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        Jan 8 2014: I have some doubts here, Nadav. On new energy technology, a lot of existing companies have a research wing and are trying to develop new energy technologies. If you are trying to develop a new energy technology as a scientist at Shell, for example, and you succeed, you're not particularly going to have to fight the other big energy companies, are you? Same thing on new medications, stem cells, and so on. I still would think that someone in the humanities has to deal more with people and people's emotions than a scientist in a lab, and that does take an extra measure of courage.
        • Jan 9 2014: Not everyone developing new technology or doing scientific research is part of some corporation. A lot of them work in small teams and often form their own small start ups, which are just as likely to succeed as they are to crash and result in everyone involved being either out of work or in debt.
          Computer start ups in particular are (in)famous for their potential to either take off like a rocket, or crash and burn just as quickly. Humanists, by comparison, often fall back ten-year in some university or another when things turn sour.

          Researchers are also just as liable to have their theories ridiculed as the humanists. Or worse still, have their theories discredited by some new empirical evidence down the line. Humanists have ambiguity to hide behind, but in science, being proven wrong is a very real possibility.

          Though to be honest, I never found one group to be particularly brave, humanists or scientists. The worse they potentially have to face is public humiliation or falling into debt.
          If bravery is what people would cheer for, you'd get the most applause for TED talks about emergency service workers, military and fearless fools, not humanists or scientists (with the exception of the odd fearless fool of a humanist or scientist, proving their points through suicidal experiments).
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        Jan 9 2014: actually, Nadav, I expect that if an emergency service worker gave a TED talk they would get a lot of applause?

        I'm sure it takes courage to work in technology. In fact, it takes some courage to work in every job. I would still think it takes more courage to work in the humanities, with people, as people can bite you harder than an inanimate object can. Actually, I would think an emergency services worker is working more in the humanities field than they are in the technology field.

        Working in the humanities you are often working with people's emotions, and people are interested in their own emotions, perhaps more strongly than they are, for example, in their cell phone. So a talk that speaks to their emotions is going to draw more response? But as I say, working with emotions can be difficult as you will encounter many negative emotions.

        But if you don't agree with my answer, how do you answer the question?
        • Jan 9 2014: Look above, I think it has to do with the overall limited technical aptitude of the population.
          People don't like to applause what they don't understand. Everyone understands humanities, at least at their basic, as they're more intuitive; hard sciences and technology, not so much.
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      Jan 9 2014: Hey Greg, thanks for joining the conversation!

      I think tech innovation needs LOTS of courage. Actually any creation needs lots of courage.
      It took courage to go to the moon, it took courage to build computers, it took courage to believe in any big idea then going through the process of making it happen (including the internet that's hosting this conversation). Dealing with machines need as much courage as dealing with humans. As users that sounds odd, but for developers it's true.
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        Jan 9 2014: well, at many points I'm sure it does. But it could be more demanding to deal with people all day. For example, if you were a psychotherapist who sat in an office and helped people with their problems all day, that might be more draining and demanding than working in a lab on a better telephone? Or maybe it's just more obvious that it's draining and demanding, I'm sure working on a telephone has its drains and demands as well. But it could be Amgad, that when you deal with people's emotions you are dealing with something that is very primary to them, in this world, everybody has emotions, whereas not everybody has a telephone. And people are dealing with their emotions all the time, whereas only occasionally are they using their telephone. So maybe it moves people more to have their emotions spoken to?

        But if you disagree with my reasoning, how do you answer your own question?
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          Jan 9 2014: I kinda disagree Greg, first of all we can't divide talks into emotion-related and technology-related, we see lots of standing ovations for talks in medicine, business, entertainment, creative fields, etc.. So it's not that emotional talks attract standing ovations but that somehow tech. talks are not.

          My other point is, people are dealing with technology all the time, when we say "not everyone owns a telephone" we basically say "not all of us notice that we own a telephone". And lets face it, the TED audience is rich, [they paid lots of money to get access to the conference] so I don't think that their lack of interest in technology for instance is caused by their inability to experience what's on stage.

          I still don't know why tech. talks are underrated, that somehow the magic few of us see in these talks passes unnoticed by the majority. I personally feel that the connection I've with the "telephone" presented on stage is ecstatic, and the experience is directly correlated with my human emotions.
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        Jan 10 2014: well, every other field you mentioned I think deals more often and directly with people, medicine deals more with people, business deals more with people, entertainment, creative. No doubt techies deal with people as well, they deal with their co-workers and also their customers, but a lot of their focus is on machines. Possibly when it gets right down to it, the help we need the most in life comes from dealing directly with people. For me, machines have helped me, for instance sometimes I've needed to call family and friends to talk about a problem I had, and I was glad to have a telephone to do it on. But the telephone was a means to the end, the most important thing was that someone on the other end of the line was willing to listen. If I hadn't been able to call someone on the phone, I still would have found someone to listen to my problems, I just would have found someone more nearby. Or I would have traveled to where my family and friends were, and talked to them there. But the crucial part in this relationship is the people, not the telephone; I can do without the telephone, but I can't do without the people.

        Or, to put it another way, machines make our life easier, but people are really crucial to having any sort of life at all? Any of this work for you?