This past Monday, a lot of people in my social media feeds were passing around this Benjamin Bratton piece about the problems with TED, blasting the whole phenomenon as “placebo technoradicalism.” The whole thing, he claims, is shallow pseudo-inspirational bullshit that makes people feel nice, but doesn’t actually lead anywhere. As he notes at the opening, most of the grand promises made in TED talks have yet to pan out: “So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change.”
I found this kind of amusing, because a day earlier the link being passed around a lot of my social media feeds– including by some of the very same people approvingly linking the Bratton piece– was this online transcript of Richard Feynman’s “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. This was a 1959 talk at an American Physical Society meeting (on December 29, which is why it was circulating this week), in which Feynman promotes the great potential of miniaturization. These days, this is considered one of the founding documents of nanotechnology, and in some circles he’s probably more famous for this than his actual claims to fame among physicists.
What’s amusing about this is that Feynman’s famous speech is, essentially, a TED talk. Okay, he does a few more order-of-magnitude calculations than you would expect from a typical TED speaker, and it’s way too long for TED, but in spirit, it’s pretty much exactly the sort of thing TED promotes and Bratton is inveighing against. It’s pure gee-whiz techno-optimism– Feynman himself says “What would be the utility of such machines? Who knows?”– with only hazy ideas about what this would accomplish, or how you would do it. The few suggestions he makes about concrete ways to proceed are mostly wrong, or at least bear very little resemblance to what people actually doing nanotechnology research do these days.
And for a very long time, none of the stuff Feynman talks about went anywhere. You could easily argue that we still haven’t done most of it. If you’d pointed to this talk in, say, 1979 and said it would be one of Feynman’s most enduring legacies, most physicists would’ve said you were crazy. It had basically zero practical impact for decades, but now is trotted out as an example of the prescience of genius, and an inspiration for all sorts of amazing new science.
You might be tempted to write this off as a fluke, of course, but Feynman also did this a second time, with a 1982 paper (PDF) on quantum computing. This one is, at least, an actual academic article, with equations and diagrams and stuff, but again, it’s spiritually not too far off a TED talk. He pretty much admits in the paper that he’s just speculating– “Such nonsense is very entertaining to professors like me”– and a lot of the specific things he discusses bear very little resemblance to the modern field of quantum information. But again, this is regarded as one of the founding documents of the field, and an inspiration for a lot of people.
You might say that this was just Feynman, but you can come up with other examples, as well. In some ways, Schrödinger’s What Is Life? (PDF) might be an even better analogue of a TED talk– not only is it grand speculation with no immediate practical impact, you can find examples of people huffily objecting that it was mostly taken from other authors, and the little that was original was wrong. But it’s also cited as inspirational by people like Watson and Crick who went on to do transformative work.
To be sure, the vast majority of grand speculation from eminent physicists turns out to be crap, in much the same way that the majority of inspirational TED material will probably go nowhere. But I think it’s a mistake to completely write the whole genre off. Sometimes, stuff that looks like speculative inspirational piffle in the moment turns out to be foundational for a whole new field. TED and TED-like material has a role to play, as well.