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Exposing the inner mechanics of the netarchical Ted experience

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
5th March 2013


Lots of swearwords, Californian hyper-individualism but also lots of genuine concern about a hyper-managed elitist machinery in the video below.

Eddie Huang, booted out as Ted Fellow explains his experience during the latest TED conference.

Hilarious, and worth watching:

For extra context, see Evgeny Morozov‘s take on the TED meme machine:

“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.”

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