Ideas. Big, glib, unsupported ideas

Evgeny Morozov on the cult of 'TED.'

Evgeny Morozov, scourge of techno-utopianism and flabby writing, has produced a great read on the cult of "ideas" that is TED, the conference and publishing empire. 

No not ideas, those brainwaves that have sparked human progress and upheaval throughout the centuries. But "ideas," the modern facsimile of the real thing that all too often lack the intellectual heft, the research rigor, and the plain old genius of the ideas that really matter.

Do ideas change the world? Of course. The enlightenment was a set of ideas that changed the course of history. Great ideas led to the modern container ships and ports that transformed global commerce. Evolution, the plate tectonics revolution in geology, special relativity, these are profound ideas. The impact of the internet and communication technologies on the modern age hardly needs to be stated. 

But much of the discussion about ideas now burbles around ideas about ideas, grand visions, and sweeping promises that more often than not fade away like so many late night college bull sessions in the light of day. Mr. Morozov, author of 2011's The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, sets his sights on three new books published by TED in an amusingly written essay for The New Republic. He is withering about Parag and Ayesha Khanna's Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:

"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.... 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." 

His lengthy examination of the Khanna's new book, with its admiration for autocracies ("technocracies" as the Khannas have it) like China compared to "the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy" is worth reading in full.

But he's at his most engaging when he takes on the TED phenomenon itself. After acknowledging that a TED talk he gave in 2009 was helpful to his own career, Morozov writes:

"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.”

Felix Salmon, the Reuters columnist, nods approvingly at Morozov's piece, and links it to the recent travails of Jonah Lehrer, a peddler of "ideas" who lost his job at The New Yorker this week after he was proven by Michael C. Moynihan of Tablet to have fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in Lehrer's book Imagine: How Creativity Works (one wonders if there are more falsehoods to be uncovered).

Mr. Salmon views Lehrer as a product of the TED age, where narrative rules, and easily digestible explanations of complex reality are taken for the real thing. He writes that the TED approach "devalues intellectual rigor at the expense of tricksy emotional and narrative devices."

"For all that Jonah Lehrer ultimately wound up blogging for the New Yorker, he has always been a creature of TED much more than he has been a creature of journalism. Check out Seth Mnookin’s post, today, on Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass: the way that Lehrer remixed facts in service of narrative is very TED. Mnookin says that Lehrer had “the arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater”. A journalist would call that arrogance — would call it, indeed, the action of a man with no moral compass. On the other hand, a TED curator, or a monologuist, might see things very differently."

It isn't just TED of course. We live in an age of the grand "idea", and that can do far more harm than leading a young writer down the path to fib-town. The so-called neocons who dreamed big dreams of transforming the world, with the Iraq war at the center of their cleansing, revolutionary vision, could slot in nicely here. And today, many of them remain as committed to their vision as ever. At the Aspen Security Forum, another "ideas" shop, Stephen Cambone this week called the US invasion of Iraq "“one of the great strategic decisions of the first half of the 21st century, if it proves not to be the greatest... it will be one of the greatest strategic victories of the United States because…. of the aftershocks that you see flowing through the region, whether it be in Libya, or in Egypt, or now in Syria."

Mr. Cambone was Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence from 2003-07. Iraq today is riven by sectarian tensions. Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, is living in exile avoiding what he claims are entirely politically motivated terrorism charges from the country's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a closer friend to Iran (which is alleged to be shipping weapons to Bashar al-Assad over Iraqi airspace) than he is to the United States. July was the most violent month in the country since 2010 and its post-Saddam order is wobbling.

That Iraq had something to do with the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last year is a powerful meme that's hard to kill. But economic desperation and sclerotic regimes had far more to do with it. Will Iraq come good? More on that Monday.

Ah, the power of ideas. Good ones and bad ones.

The below video released by TED earlier this year was not intended as a parody. Really.

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