October 14, 2013

In case you have not yet witnessed this, Drexel University recently hosted TEDx, a series of independently organized TED Talks, and comedian Sam Hyde crashed the event and delivered 15 minutes of pretty much continuous subversive brilliance. Whoever was checking backgrounds failed to notice that Hyde was not, in fact, a “video documentary filmmaker and journalist from Brooklyn” who had just made it back from Mogadishu “where he shadowed the heroic al-Mahamud women on their quest to clean up their streets and restore humanity to their war-torn country.” Nope. What Hyde was, was a troll. And, as the modified version of Poe’s Law states, any sufficiently advanced version of trolling is indistinguishable from genuine thought leadership.

It’s the Emperor’s New TED Talk.

Hyde went on to deliver a basically spot-on demolition of the TED Talks tropes, first instructing the audience to pat themselves on the back, then waxing lyrical about futurist chestnuts from sea farming to population explosions to 3D printing to the accuracy of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Albert Einstein keeps popping up.

“Facebook as your birth certificate!” “3D printers are kids’ toys!”

“Soda Stream will do for soda what 3D printing did for assault rifles,” he predicts.

This isn’t even subtle. He’s wearing greaves and a breastplate, for pete’s sake.

As he points out, the future has its own cliches. For every guy who genuinely has created a revolutionary new invisible nanofiber for the Emperor to wear, there can be dozens weaving garments out of nothing. Toss enough keywords in and it all blurs together. Yes, often truly groundbreaking ideas sound completely insane when initially presented. But at the rate people with body microphones and Steve Jobs demeanors are coming up with groundbreaking ideas, there’s no ground left to break.

The trouble is that everyone insists on being a genius these days. I don’t know when it started, exactly — maybe when people began Einsteinizing their babies and playing us Womb Mozart? But the result is a whole nation bursting with Deceptively Simple Insights. What if we made plants do our thinking FOR us? Can Hyde’s “bulletproof coffee” be so far away? Everywhere you turn are people urging you to Eat Like A Genius and Work Out Like A Genius and — for crying out loud, even the people in our Apple stores are Geniuses. After a certain point, all these words become meaningless. Tell us more about this counterintuitive flute that will lead us out of Hamelin town! Of course we see your invisible nanofabric made from sea coffee! We’re geniuses, and we get you! Yes, we are all geniuses, but we have not ceased to be idiots.

What Hyde lampoons particularly well is that almost anything can be a counterintuitive future vision. Prophecy, no matter what channel you’re on, is always a fertile field, because you are so seldom wrong. Only amateurs put dates to doomsday. You can suggest anything. You need never be found out. This, it turns out, is how far you have to go not to be taken seriously.

It’s pretty far. If he’d worn slacks and a black t-shirt and ditched the 9/11 references, who knows? He might still be undetected.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.