Thinking is in short supply

#idea_creator  #digital_skeptic  #optimist

Today’s mediaverse of shouting heads cries out for reasoned, careful reporting. And this can be found, says TED’s European director Bruno Giussani, but viewers must dig harder than ever and in unconventional places.

Text: Eric Johnson | Images: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Trust in the Digital Age – December 2017

Only a decade or two ago, trusted information was fairly uniform. Public debate was framed by TV-news networks, leading newspapers, prominent academics and governments. At the end of each day, after the evening news, everybody had been updated on the relevant issues and their underlying facts, says media-expert Bruno Giussani. Opinions based on these could of course differ, at least they rested on a common pillar of ‘received’, somewhat neutral reporting. It was imperfect, but it provided a common basis of facts and news on which public debate could evolve.

“People give us their time and attention: we want to use them well.”

Not anymore. Newspapers are disappearing, traditional TV networks are challenged, fragmented viewers are ever more sceptical of so-called authorities as these see their credibility and legitimacy under attack. And while the platform of ‘received’ reporting crumbles, dissonant new voices are cranking up their volume. “Today’s public discourse is dominated by the loudest, crudest talkers,” Giussani notes. Shouters, gags, hate speech and celebrity klatsch clog the channels. “Opinions are everywhere, we are all in data and conversation overload,” he says. “The only element in short supply is thinking.

After his 1989 graduation in Social & Economic Sciences from the University of Geneva, Bruno Giussani first wrote about political affairs, then made his name as an observer of the Internet and its impacts on business and society, writing for publications such as L’Hebdo, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The New York Times, Il Sole-24Ore and NZZ. He continues to lecture and write, and meanwhile he founded a conference program design and business consult­ancy (which he still runs) and was an executive at the World Economic Forum and a Knight Fellow at Stanford University before becoming European Director and International curator of TED, a conference group. The 53-year-old Swiss national shuttles between his native Ticino, the Lake Geneva region, and TED’s headquarters in New York.

Search for intelligence

Dabei ist der ernsthafte Journalismus nicht ausgestorben. Dieser sei heutzutage einfach schwerer zu finden, ist Giussani überzeugt. Während renommierte Blätter wie «The New York Times», «The Guardian» oder der «Spiegel» weiterhin hohe Standards pflegen, konzentrieren sich andere traditionelle Medien vermehrt auf oberflächlichen Lifestyle- und Promi-Klatsch. Nicht traditionelle Formate bewegen sich in die entgegengesetzte Richtung. Das Resultat: Ernsthafte, verlässliche Nachrichten und die Orientierung, die diese bieten, drohen in der Nachrichtenflut unterzugehen. «Es gibt da draussen immer noch zahlreiche Beispiele für ausgezeichneten, faktenbasierten Journalismus», so Giussani weiter, «doch heute muss man sich durch einen Ozean aus medialer Schlacke wühlen, ehe man fündig wird.»

Some of the non-traditional media also offering quality news, Giussani opines, are Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox, among others. But their branding doesn’t clearly reflect that. High-quality content often is posted right next to the latest gossip on the Kardashians or an equally vacuous ‘Listicle’. “Some of the best reporting on Syria for instance,” Giussani points out, “has come from sites that are mostly populated with click-bait.” What hasn’t changed, he says, are the basics of good journalism. Careful research, in-the-field reporting, probing interviews, rigorous fact-checking and logical exposition are as valuable as ever. Precisely those features are what Giussani and his colleagues are insisting upon in their own new-media endeavour: TED.

Annual conferences on ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’ (TED) started 33 years ago in idea-rich Silicon Valley. Since then the topics have broadened out to most anything intellectual, the yearly gathering has decamped to Vancouver and spin-offs now number well into the thousands, with billions of views online. The non-profit’s turnover is around US dollars 70 million, full-time employees number about 200, and volunteers number into the thousands.

The TED effect

Good information is at the heart of TED’s talks. “The main difference to my former work as a journalist,” Giussani says, “is that now I put my sources on stage instead of quoting them in an article.” There is an attempt to uphold high standards: for instance, every talk at an official TED event is fact-checked before it is given on stage – not to undermine a speaker’s credibility, rather to ensure it. And in addition to good, TED also insists that talks are interesting. “When people attend one of our events, or watch a TED Talk, they give us some of their ultimate resources, their time and attention: we want to use them well.”

Just as the old media relied on viewers’ trust that its content would be relevant, robust and stimulating, so too does TED. In the event, it’s a triangle of trust between the presenters, the audience and the organisers. Lose one angle, and the whole thing falls apart.

“Opinions are everywhere, we are all in data and conversation overload. The only element in short supply is thinking.”

Seven short years after going online with its talks in 2006, TED reached one billion viewers. Its independent local offshoot, TEDx (run by unpaid volunteers), now creates nearly 3600 conferences a year. TED has achieved almost mythical status among curious and worldly types, including recognition of the so-called ‘TED effect’ – a surge in popularity experienced by formerly obscure academics whose talks go viral.

TED’s motto is ‘ideas worth spreading’. Seems it is also worth trusting.

Bruno Giussani
Short questions – short answers

What is your favourite app?
I travel very often by train, so it’s the Swiss railroad app (SBB), especially the amazing touch-timetable.

Can you still remember your very first mobile phone? Which model was it?
I believe it was the Nokia 8110, slightly bent, with a sliding cover to protect the keypad, and that would automatically answer and end the call when opened and closed. Year of construction must be around 1996.

What is your screen saver on your mobile or laptop?
Swiss mountains – on my laptop a photo of the Matterhorn at night; on my phone one of the Pizzo Molare high above my native village in Ticino.