Some of you – hopefully most of you – will have read the much-circulated opinion piece from Benjamin Bratton: We Need To Talk About TED. If you haven’t yet, go and read it, then come back. It opens like this:

In our culture, talking about the future is sometimes a polite way of saying things about the present that would otherwise be rude or risky. But have you ever wondered why so little of the future promised in TED talks actually happens? So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change. Are the ideas wrong? Or is the idea about what ideas can do all by themselves wrong?

It is a stinging critique on the idea of TED talks – delivered via a TED talk. He gives a number of reason (seriously, go read it) but the central thesis is that TED talks oversimplify things so they can be presented in a way that makes a generally middle class audience feel both clever and like they are part of the solution.

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment … At a societal level, the bottom line is if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don’t work, and don’t invest in things that don’t make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems. In this case the placebo is worse than ineffective, it’s harmful. It’s diverts your interest, enthusiasm and outrage until it’s absorbed into this black hole of affectation.

So, where am I going with this? Well, after reading his last column in the Press, I’m convinced that David Killick is the TED Talk of the Christchurch rebuild. Killick is the editor of the “At Home” supplement, that comes with the Press monthly. Mid-way through 2012, he wrote a series about the rebuild that appeared in the Perspectives section. It was really popular, so the paper gave him a weekly slot. So he has had a regular 700-word slot since around the time the Blueprint came out, and many of the articles have been in response to that plan. He’s talked about architecture and urban design, transport and planning, other cities around the world that we could model the rebuilt Christchurch on – and yet, nothing he’s suggested has happened.

Is that his fault? Am I being too hard on him? Well, maybe. But this is where the parallel with Bratton’s piece on TED talks comes in. The Press is our daily paper, with most of it’s audience being drawn from the literate, middle-class of the city. They know things aren’t great, they can see it when they drive in to town or out to the East. Each week, they read Killick, with his innovative ideas, and they assure themselves that things will be fine. They write letters to the Press in support of him. Early last year, I remember seeing one which simply said “David Killick for Mayor”. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?

Yes, Killick in the Civic Chambers would be a fun idea. He’d walk in as the People’s Champion, and come out as tarnished as poor Roger Sutton. I’ve not met the man, and don’t have anything against him personally. I just don’t agree with what he has come to represent: the placebo rebuild. A weekly dose of un-costed, utopian navel-gazing that placates the masses whilst the real situation gets more and more bleak. The problems of the rebuild aren’t going to be solved by over-simplification and selective omission, as was the case with Killick’s most popular column, calling for a return to commuter rail. A nice idea, yes. Invoke an exotic city, whilst conveniently ignoring the glaring size and density differences between New Zealand and a country with 20 times the population. We’ve had this debate before, and instead of relying on a report from architects, why doesn’t he mention the response from traffic engineers? I think it’s a good argument to have, but before we talk about potentially billions of dollars of infrastructure, why don’t we have all the facts on the table?

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think.

After writing pretty much the same column every week for the last couple of years, Killick seems to think that we’re in need of fresh ideas. He’s right. He could start by taking his own advice, and letting someone with some fresh ideas – and also the determination to actually see through those ideas – take over writing his column.

 

Advertisements