Five years ago Francisco Dao wrote an excellent piece for PandoDaily in which he opined about the popular TED conference and what it means for thought and ideas. TED is, of course, the almost religious series of conferences (really, it’s more of a business franchise but anyway) that focus on the none-too-humble goal of finding “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

In his piece, Dao raised the notion of the cult of ideas, the trend towards people attending these events not to learn new ideas and explore opportunities, but rather to simply find a thing to believe in. As he put it, this cult of ideas presents itself as a roomful of people who have a “dogmatic devotion to the new and novel.” A kind of event where, by virtue of the fact that one is lightened enough to be there, that the message must be bona fide. Dao raises a relevant question:

Practitioners of the cult of ideas will dismiss anyone who dares to question them as an ignorant non-believer. For example, any time I’ve questioned anything about Burning Man I’ve been attacked and accused of being close-minded. Shouldn’t a culture that is supposed to be based on open mindedness be open to questioning?

I’ve talked to people about the article ever since it was published, as it really resonates with me. TED is the epitome of a societal shift to a place where talking about stuff seems more valid, somehow, than actually doing stuff. I’ve often wondered just how many of the disciples at a TED or TEDx event actually “do” anything with their newfound idea trove, or do they simply move on to the next idea event.

Maybe the later, if the recent investment of over $30 million into Singularity University is anything to go by. Singularity University (SU to the disciples) was co-founded in 2008 by futurists Ray Kurzweil and Peter H. Diamandis as a non-profit before becoming a benefit corporation in 2012. Now it’s grown to 100 chapters in 55 countries, whose summits gathered 8000 people in 2017. Its mission is to tell the world all about “exponential change” – into that falls a plethora of very real technological and societal trends – cloud computing, analytics, AI, robotics etc etc. It seems that SU practitioners have made a very lucrative business out of selling their own style of ideas to large organizations everywhere who are seemingly in perpetual fear of being disrupted.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m very aware that every organization is indeed facing disruptive forces – it’s a cliché, but an accurate one that every organization has its Uber or Airbnb moment. Someone is coming to get you and if you don’t innovate now, someone will do it for you. But we all get that, waving arms around and fitting every technological innovation into the moniker “exponential change” doesn’t actually help organizations to change, it’’ just encourages them to jump on this new bandwagon.

As a sure sign that something here doesn’t add up, in an interview for TechCrunch about the organization’s recent fundraise, Josh Constine spoke with CEO Rob Nail. According to Constine:

Twenty minutes into my interview with CEO Rob Nail, and I still couldn’t cut through the buzzwords about his online and in-person education startup. So I asked him straight up, “with as little BS as possible, what does Singularity University do?” He told me “You learn to read the news differently and how to identify which of all the crazy breakthroughs might be relevant to you. The most powerful thing we do is give people hope for the future and a credible path for getting there.”

…Got it.

And when you consider that TechCrunch is the height of Silicon Valley exuberance and the torch bearer for buying into new ideas with little critical thinking about their actual relevance or applicability, that a pretty damning comment.

SU is a business, selling hope to a downtrodden populace. If that sounds very much like religion, there’s a reason for that. Throughout history, Religion was often misused as a way to keep people oppressed: if you’re a middle ages indentured worker, you have little hope of a better future, the idea that you’ll end up in heaven after shuffling off this mortal coil is a powerful one and makes you less likely to break out of your current situation. SU plays on the fact that there are lots of people fearful about the future, and happy to spend USD14,500 for a week-long executive training course.

I mean what the hell does Nail’s statement that “…we’re trying to frame the problems and create a future of abundance as a real possibility” even mean? As the TechCrunch author commented:

Teaching the unpredictable can be a dicey, though, since you encounter a lot of charlatans on the way. You know the type. A guru for whatever people want. Always running some company with no clear product. And so I worry that some people might throw themselves into SU’s programming under the false promise that they’ll be shown the light when we’re all fumbling in the dark to some degree.

Charlatans, gurus, religious mentors, guides – call them what you will but people are making significant amounts of money off of the fear of others. In doing so, there is every potential that they do nothing to actually accelerate progress, but merely add another brick in the wall celebrating the cult of ideas.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.


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