Musing on political culture and TED in Stubb’s Finland

Most Helsinki residents have left their city to tourists. It’s a good moment to reflect on some of the things going on. Like on the difference a perspective makes.

Take Alexander Stubb, our newly minted right-wing prime minister, as an example. While national radio YLE’s  blogger Pekka Ervasti writes about Stubb’s embarrassing Yankee-style posturing on social media, UK’s Channel 4 news captures him as an eloquent and thoughtful statesman.

Some other things open to totally opposing views:

1) Helsinki’s proliferating luxury shops are a sign of economic health vs. they indicate the end of retail and urban street-life as we know it.

2) Immigration is good vs. immigration is bad.

3) Helsinki needs to invest in building “destinations” like a Guggenheim museum, temporary ferris wheel or a local version of Madison Square Gardens [seriously] vs. Helsinki needs to protect what is unique and special about it, develop the city in keeping with its its low silhouette, enhance its quirky home-grown arts and cherish its urban forests.

4) Helsinki needs tall buildings because only that way can the city accommodate the 400 000 new residents in the next 25 years it needs to be viable vs. the tall buildings and the population targets are ideological claptrap that will destroy much of value.

Renderings

Visions of Helsinki’s more urban future in Suvilahti

My sense is that Finnish political culture needs more, not less, practice in debate and disagreement. A country used to consensus for so long, we now tend to produce shrill disagreements not unlike the indignant tussles to be heard in a children’s playground.

Campaigns for teaching debating and philosophical skills in schools could eventually bear fruit, and decision making might start to build on more thoughtful exchanges.

But the trend is actually towards a market and marketing driven culture of declamation. One doesn’t argue a case, one simply declaims, or “utters it in an impassioned way”. One sells it. Even Finns recognise that the world is gripped by multiple crises, but talking about them is usually done in a tone that gels with the wholesomeness of our nature-loving past and wellbeing-obsessed present.

The best vehicle for this declamatory politics is the TED talk.

TED talks, from Technology, Entertainment, Design talks, initiated in 1984 in California, are short (maximum 18 minutes) inspirational and educational presentations on topics related to innovations for planetary good, accessible online and on radio.

In a brilliant online essay, architectural theorist Simon Sadler has polemicized that we “live in an era of counterculture lite” and that we “are living through the era of the TED Talk, much like an earlier generation lived through the era of the World’s Fair, wondrous about our new world in the making” (Sadler 2014, no page numbers). It is hard to disagree with Sadler’s characterisation of TED’s techniques: 1) Pollyanna-ish optimism, 2) taking the really long view and giving the really big picture, addressing human-kind as a whole, 3) arguing that exceptions are or can be rules, which means that crowd-sourcing and brainstorming of themselves will lead us out of adversity, 4) passion, 5) the imperative and joy of turning everything into data and uploading it onto the web, 6) and, quoting Sadler directly, “Every successful TED Talk is an epiphany. The speaker is at once a charismatic guru and yet so self-effacing that she or he talks for us, through us.” It’s not just about Ideas Worth Spreading but specifically American transcendentalist Christianity updated… 7) though actually usually the TED success comes with a gizmo, a gadget, and TED itself is, for Sadler, a gizmo gizmo.

What Sadler dubs TEDification is replacing edification. It offers “open-ended education to time-crunched citizens through the communication of mostly serious and interesting viewpoints”.

In Finland, promised land of engineers, Sadler’s seventh point – the gizmo argument – is really seductive, after all, the nation seems to be waiting for the next innovation that will lift exports and help maintain it in the comforts to which it has become accustomed.

Alex Stubb

Stubb himself is an apparently inspirational and fluent speaker in the TED-mode. Nothing wrong with this, rhetoric is necessary to politics.

But the big smiles, slick packaging and grandiose dreams of future metropolitan wellbeing typically delivered in the TED style, are just one side of the story. Parts of Finnish society are getting more and more distant from and hostile to each other.

TEDification is unlikely to reorient Finnish politics in a more dialogical or constructive direction. With division looking likely to dominate for a while to come it is worrying that our political culture hasn’t yet found more constructive ways forward.

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