THOUGHT LEADERS AUGUST 2, 2012
Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization
By Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna
(TED Books, $2.99)
The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It
By Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan
(TED Books, $2.99)
Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act
By Ron Gutman
(TED Books, $2.99)
The new pamphlet—it would be too strong, and not only quantitatively, to call it a book—by Parag and Ayesha Khanna, the techno-babbling power couple, gallops through so many esoteric themes and irrelevant factoids (did you know that “fifty-eight percent of millennials would rather give up their sense of smell than their mobile phone”?) that one might forgive the authors for never properly attending to their grandest, most persuasive, and almost certainly inadvertent argument. Only the rare reader would finish this piece of digito-futuristic nonsense unconvinced that technology is—to borrow a term of art from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt—bullshit. No, not technology itself; just much of today’s discourse about technology, of which this little e-book is a succinct and mind-numbing example. At least TED Books—the publishing outlet of the hot and overheated TED Conference, which brought this hidden gem to the wider public—did not kill any trees in the publishing process.
It might seem odd that Parag Khanna would turn his attention to the world of technology. He established his reputation as a wannabe geopolitical theorist, something of a modern-day Kissinger, only wired and cool. For almost a decade he has been writing pompous and alarmist books and articles that herald a new era in international relations. He has also been circling the globe in a tireless effort to warn world leaders that democracy might be incompatible with globalization and capitalism. And that the West needs to be more like China and Singapore. And that America is running on borrowed time. And that a new Middle Ages are about to set in. (“When I look at the 21st century, I reverse the numbers around and I see the 12th century.”) This is probing stuff.
All of these insights are expressed in linguistic constructions of such absurdity and superficiality (“a world of ever-shifting (d)alliances,” “peer-to-peer micromanufacturing marketplace”) that Niall Ferguson’s “Chimerica” looks elegant and illuminating by comparison. Khanna must be a gifted schmoozer, too: the acknowledgments sections of his books are primary documents of contemporary name-dropping. Almost everyone he quotes can expect effusive praise. As I.F. Stone once said about Theodore White, “a writer who can be so universally admiring need never lunch alone.”
Khanna’s contempt for democracy and human rights aside, he is simply an intellectual impostor, emitting such lethal doses of banalities, inanities, and generalizations that his books ought to carry advisory notices. Take this precious piece of advice from his previous book—the modestly titled How to Run the World—which is quite representative of his work: “The world needs very few if any new global organizations. What it needs is far more fresh combinations of existing actors who coordinate better with one another.” How this A-list networking would stop climate change, cyber-crime, or trade in exotic animals is never specified. Khanna does not really care about the details of policy. He is a manufacturer of abstract, meaningless slogans. He is, indeed, the most talented bullshit artist of his generation. And this confers upon him a certain anthropological interest.
The “technological” turn in Khanna’s “thought” is hardly surprising. As he and others have discovered by now, one can continue fooling the public with slick ahistorical jeremiads on geopolitics by serving them with the coarse but tasty sauce that is the Cyber-Whig theory of history. The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms. With their never-ending talk of Twitter revolutions and the like, techno-globalists such as Khanna have a bright future ahead of them.
In their TED book, the Khannas boldly declare that “mastery in the leading technology sectors of any era determines who leads in geoeconomics and dominates in geopolitics.” Technology is all, the alpha and the omega. How to Run the World, which appeared last year, already contained strong hints about what would happen once he embraced the shiny world of techno-babble with open arms (and, one presumes, open pockets). There we learned that “cloud computing—not big buildings and bloated bureaucracies—is the future of global governance,” and, my favorite, “everyone who has a BlackBerry—or iPhone or Nexus One—can be their own ambassador.” Of their own country of one, presumably.
Hybrid Reality contains few surprises. Khanna and his wife fashion themselves as successors to Alvin and Heidi Toffler, an earlier fast-talking tech-addled couple who thrived on selling cookie-cutter visions of the future one paperback, slogan, and consulting gig at a time. Today the Tofflers are best-known for inspiring some of Newt Gingrich’s most outlandish ideas as well as for popularizing the term “information overload”—a phenomenon which, as numerous scholars have shown, was hardly specific to 1970 (which is when Alvin Toffler mentioned it in Future Shock) and is probably as old as books themselves. To embrace the Tofflers as intellectual role models is to make a damning admission: that one is far more interested in inventing half-clever buzzwords than in trying to understand the messy reality that those buzzwords purport to describe. In a recent article in Foreign Policy on the Tofflers, the Khannas are unusually candid about what it is they admire about them:
Need we say more [about this prediction]? Even though it was written during the Carter administration, if you remove the dates from the passage above you have a template for most of today’s editorial columns on the aftermath of the current financial meltdown. It’s all here: the identity crisis of corporations, skyrocketing commodity prices, morally bankrupt economists, and currencies in flux and free-fall.
So the Tofflers have much to teach us about the origins or the consequences of the current financial crisis! This of course is laughable. The fact that, three decades later, their glib, abstract, and pretentious writings can still serve as a template for the likes of the Khannas says more about the state of public debate in America today than it does about the accuracy of Toffler-style futurism.
When the Khannas discuss the charms of their newly found profession in Hybrid Reality, the whole enterprise is revealed as a jargon-laden farce: “Futurism is a combination of long-term and long-tail, separating the trends from the trendy and the shocks from the shifts, and combining data, reportage, and scenarios.” It doesn’t sound like a very demanding job: “It helps to travel and be imaginative, but it is even more useful to observe children.” And why all this effort? So that we can better predict the apocalypse. “Avoiding civilizational collapse will require harnessing technologies that help us decipher complexity, overcome decision overload, and produce comprehensive strategies.” The Khannas have come to accomplish nothing less than the rescue of civilization.
Toffler-worship and futuristic kitsch aside, what does Hybrid Reality actually argue? There are several disjointed arguments. First, that technology—“technology with a big ‘T,’” as they call it—is supplanting economics and geopolitics as the leading driver of international relations. This means, among other things, that Washington deploys tools such as Flame and Stuxnet simply because it has the better technology—not because of a strategic and military analysis. It is a silly argument, but wrapped in tech-talk it sounds almost plausible.
For the Khannas, technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes. Technology is the magic wand that lifts nations from poverty, cures diseases, redistributes power, and promises immortality to the human race. Nations, firms, and cities that develop the smartest and most flexible way of doing this are said to possess Technik—a German term with a substantial intellectual pedigree that, in the Khannas’ hands, can mean just about anything—and a high “technology quotient.”
Today, they believe, we are entering a new era, when humans will be so intricately dependent on technology that “human-technology coexistence has become human-technology coevolution.” This is what the Khannas mean by the “Hybrid Age”—a “new sociotechnical era that is unfolding as technologies merge with each other and humans merge with technology.” They proceed to outline its inevitable consequences. Designer babies? Check. Cloned humans? Check. Sex robots that “can be made to look like anyone you want”? Check. A paradise!
Any stretch of time that deserves a name of its own—an age, an era, an epoch—must have at least a few distinct characteristics that make it stand out from the past. The problem is that all the features that the Khannas invoke to emphasize the uniqueness of our era have long been claimed by other commentators for their own unique eras. The Khannas tell us that “technology no longer simply processes our instructions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback.” How is that different from Daniel Boorstin’s bombastic pronouncement in 1977 that “the Republic of Technology where we will be living is a feedback world”? And the Khannas’ admonition that “rather than view technology and humanity as two distinct domains, we must increasingly appreciate the dense sociotechnical nexus in which they constantly shape each other”—how is this different from what Ortega y Gasset wrote more eloquently in 1939: “Man without technology ... is not man”?
The idea of hybridity that the Khannas assume to be their sexy and original insight has been with us for a long time—long before social media and biotechnology. While some dismiss such theorists of hybridity as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, who have questioned the epistemological foundations of the modern scientific enterprise, as being on the wrong side of the Science Wars, hybridity is by no means a postmodernist idea. Here is Daniel Callahan—a respected bioethicist who can hardly be accused of PoMo transgressions— writing in 1971: “We have to do away with a false and misleading dualism, one which abstracts man on the one hand and technology on the other, as if the two were quite separate kinds of realities.... Man is by nature a technological animal; to be human is to be technological.... When we speak of technology, this is another way of speaking about man himself in one of his manifestations.”
For modern theorists of technology, hybridity is an ontological—not an emergent—property. They believe, to quote Callahan again, that “to be human is to be technological,” and that it has always been thus. As it turns out, this seemingly innocent assumption about the world can have serious implications for how we think about politics, morality, and law. It inspired Latour’s notion of “distributed agency”—in its crudest form, the idea that neither guns nor people kill people but rather a fleeting, one-off combination of the two. (The entity that shoots is a “gun-man.”) This is not meant to suggest that people no longer have to go to jail for murder. It is only to point out that, if we really want to explain a particular act of shooting, we need to account for factors like the material design of the gun, the marketing considerations of its manufacturers, the severity of anti-gun laws, and so on.
The latest technologies might make us more aware of this hybridity—of the techno-human condition, if you will—but to speak of the Hybrid Age makes as much sense as to speak of the Nature Age: the fact that climate change makes us more aware of the air we breathe or the water we drink does not fundamentally alter the dynamics of our dependence on these resources. To posit that we are moving into the Hybrid Age is to assume that there was once a time—according to the Khannas, it was just a few years ago—when such hybridity was not the case, when man and technology trod their separate paths. It is to believe that human nature changed sometime last year or so. This, of course, is nonsense—even if makes technology companies feel important. As the Dutch philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek puts it in his fine book Moralizing Technology, “We are as autonomous with regard to technology as we are with regard to language, oxygen, or gravity.”
But still the Khannas roll dizzily along. “The Hybrid Age is the transition period between the Information Age and the moment of Singularity (when machines surpass human intelligence) that inventor Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, estimates we may reach by 2040 (perhaps sooner). The Hybrid Age is a liminal phase in which we cross the threshold toward a new mode of arranging global society.” These are end times. The Hybrid Age is the preparation for the apotheosis of the Singularity— a Singularity-lite of sorts. (Ayesha Khanna serves as a faculty adviser to Singularity University.) This periodization of history is just a marketing trick. Those who believe in Kurzweil’s ugly and ridiculous thesis, which at TED conferences is probably the majority, have already grudgingly accepted the fact that a few unexciting decades will transpire before it comes to pass—and so the Khannas move in to claim these decades as their own, as their brand, while promising us that all the fun of the Singularity—who doesn’t fancy uploading his soul to the cloud so that it can commingle with the soul of Steve Jobs?—will happen even sooner than we think.
As the Hybrid Age sets in, inaction is not an option. “You may continue to live your life without understanding the implications of the still-distant Singularity, but you should not underestimate how quickly we are accelerating into the Hybrid Age—nor delay in managing this transition yourself.” Sinners, repent! The day of the Lord is nigh! And in case you wonder where you might turn for assistance in “managing this transition,” the Khannas are there to help. They are eschatological consultants. They run a for-profit consulting firm “providing insight into the implications of emerging technologies” that bears the proud name of the Hybrid Reality Institute. So far the firm’s main accomplishment seems to be convincing the TED Conference to print its verbose marketing brochure as a book. But perhaps this is what the Hybrid Age is all about: marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths.
This book is not just useless piffle about technology; it is also an endorsement of some rather noxious political ideas. Those already familiar with Parag Khanna’s earlier celebrations of autocracies in Southeast Asia will not be surprised by some of the most outrageous paragraphs in his TED book. China is one of the Khannas’ role models. They have the guts to write that “a decade from now we will look back at China’s 12th Five-Year Plan as the seminal document of the early 21st century.” Take your pick: 12th Five-Year Plan or Charter 08. Somehow the latter never gets a mention in this book. Perhaps it is not seminal enough, or it is insufficiently driven by technology. And what makes the Five-Year Plan so seminal? “It pledges $1.5 trillion in government support for seven ‘strategic emerging industries,’ including alternative energy, biotechnology, next-gen IT, high-end manufacturing equipment, and advanced materials.” Would it really surprise anyone if in a few years some of that $1.5 trillion were to trickle down to the Hybrid Reality Institute?
The Khannas also heap praise on Singapore, “a seamlessly efficient cosmopolitan world capital of finance and, increasingly, innovation.” Alas, they do not explain how Singapore has become so “seamlessly efficient.” Perhaps this quotation from Lee Kuan Yew, its first long-time ruler—conveniently omitted by the Khannas—may shed some light: “Everytime anybody wants to start anything which will unwind or unravel this orderly, organized, sensible, rational society, and make it irrational and emotional, I put a stop to it without hesitation.” The Khannas approvingly note that Singapore is “the leading role model in city-state Technik for entities from Abu Dhabi to Moscow to Kuala Lumpur.” That all three aforementioned cities are situated in despicable authoritarian regimes—which might explain why they look up to Singapore—does not much trouble the Khannas. They recently announced that they are moving to Singapore. Good. The autocratic city and the apologists for autocracy deserve each other.
It only gets worse, as the Khannas proceed to profess their deep and inherently anti-democratic admiration for technocracy. That they can spit out the following passage without running any risk of being disinvited from respectable dinner parties and television shows is a sign of how well our debate about technology—a seemingly neutral and nonpolitical issue—conceals deeply political (and, in this case, outright authoritarian) tendencies:
Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens.... To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.”
Things in Hungary are pretty bad, but to suggest that Hungarians would be better off with China-style governance is really reprehensible. And to imply that China’s technocrats have term limits is outright offensive.
In the domestic American context, the Khannas also celebrate the infusion of “experts such as Tim O’Reilly and Craig Newmark [who] ... stepped in to advise Washington on Gov 2.0 technologies such as open-data platforms.” “Such citizen-technologists,” we are told, “are crucial ... to [improving] government efficiency.” Once again, the technologists—and the technocratic agencies they are enlisted to support—are presented as objective, independent, and free of any ideological leanings. Nowhere do we learn that Tim O’Reilly runs a profitable corporation that might stand to benefit from the government’s embrace of open-data platforms, or that Craig Newmark is a committed cyber-libertarian who used to worship Ayn Rand. Or that Jimmy Wales, who is advising the British government, is so enthralled with Rand and objectivism that he named his daughter after one of the characters in a Rand novel. Nor do the Khannas tell us that the public embrace of “open-data platforms” is often accompanied by an increase in government secrecy or a growing reluctance to fund public journalism. (Why fund the BBC if “citizen-investigators” can now be asked to do all the digging for free?) The pursuit of efficiency alone cannot guide public policy—this is why we have politics; but technocrats rarely want to hear such truths. And the Khannas cannot be trusted to tell them.
As is typical of today’s anxiety-peddling futurology, the Khannas’ favorite word is “increasingly,” which is their way of saying that our unstable world is always changing and that only advanced thinkers such as themselves can guide us through this turbulence. In Hybrid Reality, everything is increasingly something else: gadgets are increasingly miraculous, technology is increasingly making its way into the human body, quiet moments are increasingly rare. This is a world in which pundits are increasingly using the word “increasingly” whenever they feel too lazy to look up the actual statistics, which, in the Khannas’ case, increasingly means all the time.
What the Khannas’ project illustrates so well is that the defining feature of today’s techno-aggrandizing is its utter ignorance of all the techno-aggrandizing that has come before it. The fantasy of technology as an autonomous force is a century-old delusion that no serious contemporary theorist of technology would defend. The Khannas have no interest in intellectual history, or in the state of contemporary thought about technology. They prefer to quote, almost at random, the likes of Oswald Spengler and Karl Jaspers instead. This strategy of invoking random Teutonic names and concepts might work on the unsophisticated crowds at Davos and TED, but to imagine that either Spengler or Jaspers have something interesting or original to tell us about cloning, e-books, or asteroid mining is foolish. “A new era requires a new vocabulary,” the Khannas proclaim—only to embrace the terminology that was already in place by the end of the nineteenth century. They may be well-funded, but they are not well-educated.
Their promiscuous use of the word Technik exposes the shaky foundation of their enterprise—as well as of many popular discussions about technology, which inevitably gravitate toward the bullshit zone. To return to Harry Frankfurt, the key distinction between the liar and the bullshitter is that the former conceals “that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality,” whereas the latter conceals that he is not interested in reality at all. The bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” To suggest that Parag and Ayesha Khanna—and numerous pundits before them—might be pursuing purposes other than describing—or improving—reality is almost self-evident. (A look at the website of the Hybrid Reality Institute would suffice.) The more interesting question here is why bullshit about technology, unlike other types of bullshit, is so hard to see for what it is.
It is here that the Khannas stand out. Technik, as they use this term, is something so expansive and nebulous that it can denote absolutely anything. Technik is the magic concept that allows the Khannas to make their most meaningless sentences look as if they actually carry some content. They use Technik as a synonym for innovation, design, engineering, science, mastery, capital, the economy, and a dozen other things. It is what fixes cities, reinvigorates social networking, and grants us immortality. Technik is every pundit’s wet dream: a foreign word that confers an air of cosmopolitanism upon its utterer. It can be applied to solve virtually any problem, and it is so abstract that its purveyor can hardly be held accountable for its inaccuracies and inanities.
It is Technik that makes much of the Khannas’ writing circular and simplistic. Take this highly confusing sentence: “Good Technik requires a combination of the attributes that deliver high human development, economic growth, political inclusiveness, and technology preparedness.” Translation: “Good Technik requires Technik.” As for the simplistic part, try this: “Technik unites the scientific and mechanical dimensions of technology (determinism) with a necessary concern for its effect on humans and society (constructivism).” If I read the Khannas correctly—and I cannot be sure, for they seem confused about the terms “determinism” or “constructivism,” at least as those are used in the philosophy of technology—their novel interpretation of the old German term Technik proposes to reveal that technologies are material and technologies have effects. Is this insight so profound that it needed a high German word to explain it?
But the Khannas do not want to abandon the simpler term “technology,” either, so they try to inflate it, too. Remember, “the Hybrid Age is the era when we renew our thinking about technology with a big ‘T.’” Sticking to the notion of “technology with a big ‘T’” yields insights such as this: “From the printing press to penicillin and now Twitter and genomics, technology ceaselessly demonstrates its transformative impact.” The printing press and penicillin and Twitter and genomics do indeed have transformative effects, but to assume that they all matter in the same way—which is the inevitable result of lumping them under the rubric of “Technology,” the one with its own rules, wants, and agendas—is as stupid as it is dangerous.
Perhaps, if one had to give a three-minute TED presentation about penicillin, Twitter, genomics, and the printing press—but why would anyone ever want to give such a talk?—a catch-all term such as “technology” might be of some help. But analytically it is useless, in the way that lumping Warhol, Chardin, hip hop, Chaplin, Haydn, and science fiction under the term “arts” is useless. At such a level of generality every fool can sound brilliant. The unfortunate thing is that, while few people would grant any substance to an argument that identifies a common meaning in Warhol, Chardin, hip hop, Chaplin, Haydn, and science fiction, we easily fall for grand theories that mysteriously connect humans and material artifacts to some grand narrative about the universe, be it the Singularity, Toffler’s Third Wave, or the Hybrid Age. When, fifteen years ago, Leo Marx accused technology of being “a hazardous concept” for leading precisely to this kind of addled thinking, he was too polite. In the hands of skilled hustlers such as the Khannas, technology is itself a counterfeit concept, which does little but make complex ideas look deceptively simple. Much like Glenn Beck’s magic blackboard, it connects everything to everything without saying anything significant about anything.
I can surmise why the Khannas would have wanted to write this book, but it is not immediately obvious why TED Books would have wanted to publish it. I must disclose that I spoke at a TED Global Conference in Oxford in 2009, and I admit that my appearance there certainly helped to expose my argument to a much wider audience, for which I remain grateful. So I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.
Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”
The Khannas’ book is not the only piece of literary rubbish carrying the TED brand. Another recently published TED book called The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It—co-authored by Philip Zimbardo, of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame, is an apt example of what transpires when TED ideas happen to good people. One would think that a scholar as distinguished as Zimbardo would not need to set foot in Khanna-land, but, alas, his book brims with almost as many clichés and pseudo-daring pronouncements. Did you know that “in porn, male actors have enormous penises,” and that “porn is not about romance”? The book’s main premise is that the Internet and video games are re-wiring the brains of “guys,” much to the detriment of civilization. Read and be terrified, especially if you are a “guy,” because “[guys’] brains are being catered to by porn on demand and by video games at a flick of the switch or a click of the mouse.” This is almost as good as Allan Bloom’s admonition in The Closing of the American Mind that Walkman headphones lead to parricide. The evidence presented is inconsistent and all over the map. As the science journalist Carl Zimmer has noted, The Demise of Guys gives a Daily Mail column as much credibility as a peer-reviewed paper. And a new TED book on the science of smiling—Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, by Ron Gutman—contains even more banality than the Khannas’ little masterpiece of TED emptiness—a remarkable feat. There one may read, for example, that “under certain conditions, when men see women smile at them they interpret that as a sign that the women think they are attractive.” This is what passes for advanced thinking.
When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think. I don’t know if the crossword puzzles are rewiring our brains—I hope TED knows its neuroscience, with all the neuroscientists on its stage—but anyone who is seriously considering reading Hybrid Reality or Smile should also entertain the option of playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja.
Parag Khanna’s writings on geopolitics never amounted to much of anything even before his turn to technology, but it is instructive to see how his presentation has changed now that he has embedded himself in the TED firmament. Save for a hackneyed nod to the “world’s chessboard,” he now makes only cursory references to power structures and strategic alliances. Instead he strikes all the right chords to elicit approval from the TED crowd—musing on genetics, neuroscience, synthetic biology—all in order to inform us that “our ability to augment ourselves” is growing by the minute. As is customary in such discourse, no mention is made of the fact that the Human Genome Project, for all the hype it generated a decade ago, has not accomplished much. Likewise, MRI scans are celebrated as if they offered direct and immediate access to truth. (“Harnessing fMRI mental scans, companies ... are gathering the ‘unspoken truth.’”) The Khannas’ Japan—as packaged for TED consumption—is the land of cutting-edge technology: you would never know that 59 percent of Japanese homes still have (frequently used!) fax machines.
The Khannas are typical of the TED crowd in that they do not express much doubt about anything. Their pronouncements about political structures are as firm and arrogant as some scientists’ pronouncements about the cognitive structures of the brain. Whatever problems lurk on the horizon are imagined primarily as problems of technology, which, given enough money, brain power, and nutritional supplements, someone in Silicon Valley should be in a position to solve. This is consistent with TED’s adoption of a decidedly non-political attitude, as became apparent in a recent kerfuffle over a short talk on inequality given by a venture capitalist—who else?—which TED refused to release for fear that it might offend too many rich people.
Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action.
Another fine example of the TED mentality in the context of global affairs is Abundance, a new book co-written by Peter Diamandis, the co-founder of the Singularity University. He is a TED regular and the person who blurbed Khanna’s book as “an enormously important contribution to our thinking about how to create a better tomorrow.” (Singularity may rid us of death, but it won’t abolish backscratching.) Diamandis delivers an abundant list of pressing global problems accompanied by an equally abundant list of technologies that can fix them. Here, too, politics rarely gets a mention.
Given TED’s disproportionate influence on a certain level of the global debate, it follows that the public at large also becomes more approving of technological solutions to problems that are not technological but political. Problems of climate change become problems of making production more efficient or finding ways to colonize other planets—not of reaching political agreement on how to limit production or consume in a more sustainable fashion. Problems of health care become problems of inadequate self-monitoring and data-sharing. Problems of ensuring one’s privacy—which might otherwise get solved by pushing for new laws—become problems of inadequate tools for defending one’s anonymity online or selling access to one’s own data. (The Khannas are not alone in believing that “individuals [must] gain control over the value of their time, skills, data, and resources. We must be ruthless in earning from those who want our attention.”)
It is in the developing world where the limitations of TED’s techno-humanitarian mentality are most pronounced. In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets. According to the Khannas, “centuries of colonialism and decades of aid haven’t lifted Africa’s fortunes the way technology can.” Hence the latest urge to bombard Africa with tablets and Kindles—even when an average African kid would find it impossible to repair a damaged Kindle. And the gadgets do drop from the sky—Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say “no” to MIT’s (and TED’s) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.
It is hardly surprising that the Khannas’ deep admiration of Singapore’s technocratic authoritarianism is well-received by the TEDdies—after all, they prefer to fix broken countries as if they are broken start-ups. That solving any of their favorite global problems would require political solutions—if only to ensure that nobody’s rights and interests are violated or overlooked in the process— is not something that the TED elite, with its aversion to conventional instruments of power and its inebriated can-do attitude, likes to hear. Politics slows things down; but technology speeds things up. TED’s techno-humanitarians—that brigade of what the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has dubbed “The White Savior Industrial Complex”—would defer to China’s “technocrats with term limits” and have them bulldoze entire villages in order to build another Foxconn plant rather than bother with the slow progress of political reform. The Khannas are on to something when they write that “the Hybrid Age ... might also become a Pax Technologica,” but there are pitifully few reasons to believe that a Pax Technologica would do much good for the world. Techno-humanitarianism is much more techno than humanitarian.
Evgeny Morozov is the author, most recently, of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs). This article originally appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.