“I’ve Made You Believe There Is a Point”

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.

Sessions writes:

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.

8 thoughts on ““I’ve Made You Believe There Is a Point”

  1. Amen! Today’s column by David Brooks is a good example of his inanity. I wondered how the Times could even print it. And don’t get me started on TED talks….

    Users who have LIKED this comment:

    • avatar
    • Yes, Marie Monaco, the Brooks column today is so simplistic that it… well, it is so simplistic that it doesn’t even matter whether he is right or not. There’s no point!

  2. Aaron Barlow, Daniel Drezner and David Sessions have all a point. However, their solutions and recommendations are equally flawed. The money is not anyone’s alone as “theirs” or that it is corrupting the youth. The money is everyone’s and can corrupt only to the extent that humanity is misled. What needs to happen is the revaluation of currencies periodically to restore it’s purchasing power. This phenomena of hiring thought leaders is not new. It is through that the rich of the past and present keep inflating the value of the currencies to make people poorer. By revaluing the present day dollar by a ration of 1:100 ( today’s American penny equal to today’s American dollar, for example) the purchasing power of the entire humanity can be restored to it’s legitimate value and purpose. This ratio of adjustment will prevent the concentration and one-sided view of power and make the entire global citizenry as well as the states solvent again. The best way to counter the “asset bubbles” is to empower the the mediums of transactions along with their rightful owners. As for technology, it should be available to everyone to augment their capacities. With the restoration of the purchasing powers the inequalities might become less effective and humanity can get back to pursuing passions rather than trampled by fear.

    Users who have LIKED this comment:

    • avatar
  3. This is also the fault of the general public. I find it deeply frustrating when I hear people talk about a famous historian writing a book ‘the X pieces of evidence for the whole of human history’ in terms that make it clear they believe that person actually wrote the book. It is a belief in the ‘general purpose scientist/historian’ of TV and movies – who is equally at home with mechanical engineering, AI, rocket propulsion, biology, etc. You need to be either quite stupid or quite ignorant to not realise that generalists are primarily communicators of other peoples ideas and that most original thinkers are going to be specialists. Yet this false understanding seems to be gaining every more ground – I have recently encountered it inside an academic institution.

    Users who have LIKED this comment:

    • avatar
  4. Hi, I really appreciated this comment and will follow up the references. But I am uncomfortable with this – ‘a movement of “new intellectuals” rising among “editors, authors, organizers, and gadflies in the new social media ecosystem.”….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’
    This suggests that academics of your (or my) type are the only people effectively opposed to the rich. But many academics are desperate to be rich thought leaders. And there is fantastic investigative journalism going on and many books etc that are contributing to debate that are not mere synthesis of academic ideas. Please don’t imply an intellectual caste system with (or without) academics at the top.

    Users who have LIKED this comment:

    • avatar
  5. PS By ‘comment’ in my previous post, I meant the blog post. And as opposed to an intellectual caste system, we have in reality a huge, varied field of contributors to thought – writers – some of whom earn very little money in exchange for their efforts. And academics constantly take ideas from the community and from media, as part of the process of developing their work. I am a historian and the impact of current culture on what people research and how they write about it is always present. We shouldn’t pretend the culture that influences us is not created by people with good ideas as well as by economic forces etc.

    Users who have LIKED this comment:

    • avatar
  6. Pingback: What I’m reading 8 Jul 2017 through 15 Jul 2017 | Morgan's Log

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.