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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: 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?

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