Richard Feynman, Placebo Technoradical

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.

5 thoughts on “Richard Feynman, Placebo Technoradical

  1. The trouble I have with TED is that, from the TED videos I’ve seen, it appears to be very much “celebrity-oriented” in its presentation: focused on “personalities” first, ideas second. We’re given to believe that the ideas are important because the people are important. The “exclusivity” of the venues themselves, reinforces the “VIP” or “celebrity” aspect.

    No doubt Feynman wasn’t introduced with lighting and special effects reminiscent of a live music performance for television. And his 1959 talk survives as a transcript, rather than a video, so what we see today is not the man himself (even though he is an endearing personality to many) but his ideas in their most “impersonal” (or if you prefer, “transpersonal”) form, as text.

    This is not to criticize the quality of ideas presented at TED talks: often it is very high. One of the strong points of TED is precisely that it spans the range from the practical to the theoretical to the speculative. That mix is probably one of the keys to its success.

    But what would also be highly useful is a kind of inverse-TED, where ideas can be presented in greater detail and at greater length, and where “personality” is in the background. The key to this, as distinct from science conferences as such, is that the presentations would have to be made in a manner that was at least conceptually accessible to intelligent laypeople (plus or minus looking up keywords later).

    “Special effects” would be limited to posting keywords below the screen that laypeople might need assistance in spelling and looking up for further reference. One way to do that might be to give audience members (live and remote) various means to hand in questions in realtime or nearly so. Presenters would have access to whiteboards and projection screens but no obligation to use either. Broadcasting these talks in realtime over the internet would also give a much wider audience the chance to send in their questions and comments, subject to moderation.

  2. Ironic…..

    My students just read, “There’s Plenty of Room…”

    I teach a course on the intersection of nanotechnology and experimental art/design here at UCSD. The Visual Arts department shares half it’s space with the Nanoengineering department.

    My point is certainly not that far-reaching insights explained clearly is insufficient, in and of itself. TED, however, epitomizes an obligation toward facile and comforting fairy-tales: Capitalism’s Lysenkoism.

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. “To be sure, the vast majority of grand speculation from eminent physicists turns out to be crap”

    As they say, a stopped clock is right once per day.

  4. The trouble I have with TED is that, from the TED videos I’ve seen, it appears to be very much “celebrity-oriented” in its presentation: focused on “personalities” first, ideas second. We’re given to believe that the ideas are important because the people are important.

    This problem is not unique to TED; it’s also pervasive in the news business–so much so that even news outlets that should know better (I’m talking to you, BBC: Who is Mark Mardell and why should I trust a word he says, when I can get similar inane commentary from American media?) have fallen into the habit. Which means that there is a significant risk that TED could go the way of punditry. The truth is the truth, whether the person stating it is Joe Schmoe or $FAMOUS_PERSON. There is a balance to be had, in that you want some assurance that the speaker knows what he’s talking about, but the focus shouldn’t be on the person.

  5. The big problem TED has is that they have pushed to expand drastically. Sturgeon’s law still applies, so the quality of talks becomes much more variable, and they stretch to fill all the spots of many many smaller conferences instead of maintaining the quality they had before the TEDxblahblahblah began.

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