I’m an admirer of social gadflies everywhere and in particular have been following Evgeny Morozov’s work with interest.
His review and take-down of TED media and Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, by Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna is excellent. More than just a book review, it reveals the culture perpetuated by TED, its ties to venture capital, and the political implications of its political “neutrality.” It’s endlessly quotable:
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.
Morozov is throwing down a gauntlet at a social class–Silicon Valley techno-elite–and the culture that it propagates. What’s striking to me, as somebody who moved to the West Coast a year ago and started graduate study in what I guess is this “field”, is the identification of this social class as an intellectual or cultural enemy. Frequently, there is a populist angle–intellectuals will attack the wealth of “Silicon Valley” the same way East Coast intellectuals will attack “Wall Street”. There is also a political frustration with their libertarianism–a faith in human genius unleashed with no regulatory intervention. Morozov writes:
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.
Aha! We discover here that these “objective” advocates of open government and a technically empowered civil society are in fact making money publishing media and are ideological. We should be skeptical of anyone claiming expertise in technology policy who has ever taken a liking to Ayn Rand, of all pseudo-philosophical intellectual hacks, whether or not they were instrumental in inventing Wikipedia.
But wait just a darn minute. Are we supposed to believe that The New Republic, which has published Morozov’s piece and is presumably making money from it, are un-ideological? As I just learned from reading Wikipedia, The New Republic was founded by no less a politically astute intellectual as Walter Lippman, as well as somebody less famous, and its “modern liberal” outlook is “associated with the Democratic Leadership Council.”
Which is to say, Morozov’s take-down of TED and the Khanna’s is itself an expression of a class interest, the “liberal elite”. As everyone knows, the astute intellectuals (I’ll call them “literati”) have been in the business of providing cultural homogeneity and moral high ground for this class for ages, because it funds their academic positions and media outlets (e.g. the aforementioned BBC threatened by Jimmy Wales’ consultation with the British government, in the case of the UK).
So, perhaps this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Yes, a debate about politics is ideologically charged. So what?
If anything, the conflict is surprising. Last I checked in with the local chapter of the liberal elite politburo, we were supposed to embrace both public funding for media and education and the inexorable march of technological progress. What is there to gripe about?
Maybe the problem is that Silicon Valley’s intellectual culture is just too dumb or uneducated for the literati.
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.
While all this is fair criticism, I’m going to hazard a guess that the Khannas’ lack of familiarity with nineteenth century literature is all but irrelevant to their audience. Just as the book could just as well be irrelevant to Morozov, if he were not situated as a defender of genuine intellectualism against improperly incented “literary rubbish”. It is certainly, by his accusations, irrelevant to any real progress or real solutions.
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.
I find the bitterness of this paragraph telling. Implicitly for Morozov, “genuine thought and serious action” most involve politics. Politics will tell us whether to fund the BBC or support “citizen-investigators.” Politics will make us aware of insidious plots to dumb down the American mind. Good old politics, where nineteenth century literature is relevant to action and “the scientist, the coder, and the engineer” don’t hold all the answers. Politics, the sphere of educated, nuanced debate.
Here I read Morozov as echoing other complaints from literati intellectuals I’ve heard over the past year or so. The complaint is that popularizers of technology-as-social-panacea are not informed by sociopolitical literature, and so must therefore lack political insight. Therefore, experts in sociopolitical literature conclude, they must be wrong and dangerous.
But I think they miss the point. For TED, TED isn’t where the action is. TED is just the media arm of industry, of research, of engineering. Naturally, TED doesn’t have intellectual subtlety. All the intellectual subtlety is going into business strategy and sciences. Or, “increasingly”, to design.
I used to work with people from industry. I’ll tell you–they aren’t the biggest readers. A lot of them like science fiction more than Walter Lippman. They like fun presentations of where technology is going so that they can anticipate how to strategically position and advance their technical work. And they like celebrating their successes when they perceive that they have solved a personal or social problem.
And they do, frequently, perceive those successes. Perhaps because they see themselves as part of a complex system for which they cannot take fully personal responsibility, they percieve them as successes of ‘technology’. Though they may not be able to succinctly define this term, nevertheless ‘technology’ is a useful concept with practical relevance for them. Occasionally, they make vast fortunes on the basis of their confidence in technology.
I should stop beating around the bush: I think that the literati might just be the tiniest bit jealous.
Because, in truth, so many of the claims made against the digerati can be made back at the literati. “Politics” is a problematically abstracted “keyword”, leveraged in opposition to “technology”. Both sides attempt to take an objective stance that obscures political connections. And while the digerati become “increasingly” “politically” influential as the scope of technology expands, so too does the “political” influence of the literati become more “technologically” determined. (Here I sit writing a blog post linking to a web page that I discovered initially using Twitter. In the process of writing it I have consulted Wikipedia and an on-line dictionary several times. I trust WordPress to provide adequate Search Engine Optimization in its default themes because I am too cheap to spring for a more technologically sophisticated one. As I write, I depend on an automated spell-checker in my browser….)
The resulting tussle is necessarily both political and technological. Because, as Morozov and the Khannas would agree, we live in a “sociotechnical era that is unfolding as technologies merge with each other and humans merge with technology.”
So what is all the fuss about?
I have a theory, offered for contemplation and discussion. I think the fuss is about who is in power. Surely, a “technological” advance and control over the resulting technology is empowering. So to is mastery of “politics” in the sense of an articulated, dialectical exchange between different social interests, according to social relationships. The latter is especially true in a democracy, where legitimate power theoretically comes from consent of the governed.
But as technology disrupts older ‘political’ networks and “increasingly” mediates communication, the balance of power is shifting. “Politics” is being confronted by its negation, an anti-politics wherein social conflict is made irrelevant by the march of objective natural forces.
Morozov’s complaints only make sense if this shift is actually happening. Because if it is, the persuasive power of the literati will become increasingly irrelevant, as citizens begin to unconsciously accept a technological apparatus that can provide for them better than they could themselves. Or, one that enslaves them. Hard to say at this point, really.
Which means that the underlying problem with TED is not that it expresses untrue or useless or uneducated ideas. The problem is that it is a popular platform on which technologists can gloat about how they are winning.
And, man, does that make the literati mad.