Evgeny Morozov’s has been making the rounds as the latest of 2012 TED-bashing. Morozov is a little too pleased with his own scorn here, but if you keep reading, you’ll come to a pretty clear indictment of the tech-innovation gospel that’s plaguing a lot of the “ideas worth spreading” culture. There’s surely much to consider here about what an alternative technical research agenda would look like—and what critical writing can do (following Bruno Latour) to avoid merely popularizing or, alternatively, crying foul about the politics of techno-science.
Morozov reviews three books from the TED publishing arm, but he reserves his most withering critique for Parag and Ayesha Khanna’s The Khannas’ book, he writes,
“…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.
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