In a parody of TED Talks, the Canadian satire group This Is That makes fun of the growing Thought Leader industry. One of the lines of their speaker points to the reason for the ennui that TED Talks bring out in me: “I’ve Made You Believe There Is a Point.” This woke me to my previously unexamined antipathy toward TED Talks.
Oh, “antipathy” is probably too strong a word: TED Talks simply bore me. They don’t even annoy me the way columns by Thought Leader leader David Brooks do. Thought Leaders, as they have developed, are skimmers, players at ducks and drakes, and Brooks is their master. What bugs me about him particularly is that he uses the pretense of thought for a particular political purpose while most Thought Leaders are simply involved in self-promotion. As David Sessions, in a discussion of Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry, writes, Thought Leaders “bloat their expertise and hustle in so many markets that they end up selling fakes.”
Sessions is talking of the specific bits of fraud, error and plagiarism in their work; I would expand that to include the Thought Leaders themselves: They are the fakes.
Sessions goes on to talk about one of my other favorite Thought Leaders, Claydon Christensen, he of “disruptive innovation,” pointing out Drezner’s argument that Christensen was “checked” by articles in The New Yorker and MIT Sloan Management Review. “Checked” or not, as Sessions continues, “Billions of dollars are still pouring into business schools to inspire similar claptrap.” And Christensen traipses merrily on as a Thought Leader. He has a spiel, and it sells.
The impact of the Thought Leader movement doesn’t stop at university doors (Christensen, after all, is a Harvard professor). Sessions blames this on governing boards which, “increasingly dominated by bankers, hedge fund managers, and real estate developers,” sweep aside “long-standing academic prohibitions against industry-influenced research,” against money as the driving force behind research. He’s right, of course. I don’t apply for grants because I don’t want my own work dominated by the interests of donors: I have enough trouble with the narrow interests of my publishers. The idea that I would have to follow the latest foundation fads in order to be able to write is just one bridge to far for me. But I am lucky: What I need more than anything else are time and libraries. New York City affords me the latter and my college gives me the former. Few other scholars have the same luxury. Those in the sciences can never expect it.
The intellectual institutions of postwar America were far from perfect; universities and think tanks accepted military-oriented funding from the U.S. government and often provided the intellectual foundations for American imperialism. Nevertheless, the three decades after World War II—when corporate power was checked by a strong labor movement, higher education became broadly accessible, and social services were expanded—were the most democratic in American history. Universities and think tanks were able to establish a baseline of public trust, in part because their production of knowledge was not directly beholden to the whims of idiosyncratic billionaires demanding that their “metrics” be met and their pet political ideas be substantiated.
The Thought Leader industry that has arisen over the past few decades has, through its clear emphasis on gathering riches, undermined that older, flawed (though somewhat effective) vision. Thought Leaders speak to the public at the behest of the rich and make no bones about it, justifying themselves as successes in a meritocracy where money is the only rating. “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” has become their mantra and the guiding question behind the success of their industry. As Sessions claims, the Thought Leader argues that all problems “can be solved with technology and rich people’s money, if we will only get our traditions, communities, and democratic norms out of the way.”
Sessions argues that there is a movement of “new intellectuals” rising among “editors, authors, organizers, and gadflies in the new social media ecosystem.” I’m not quite so sanguine. Though, as Sessions believes, they may want to expose the contemporary Thought Leaders, I think they are more like the pigs at the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, wanting to sit at the table with the Thought Leaders, to share in their riches by becoming one with them:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Until we can find a way to remove money as the driving force behind our intellectual pursuits, I fear this will always be the case.