Sunday, January 5, 2014

Another view on TED talks, from a TED talk

In a past post I referenced the TED talks, and gave my agrarian take on them.

Now I'd like to share a presentation from someone (Benjamin Bratton) discussing the shortcomings of the TED talks, which he describes as "middlebrow megachurch infotainment".  I think that many of his critiques of TED are spot-on, especially his central thesis that TED is a form of self-congratulatory sterile exercise in which we are lulled to social and political inaction by the promise of a bright, innovative technological future that is just around the corner.  "Placebo politics and placebo innovation" is his term for it. 

I love his opening comment that few of the techno-futurist dreams laid out in TED talks or elsewhere ever actually materialize, and that perhaps this is due to the fact that just talking a lot about abstract ideas cannot actually change realities.  I love his condemnation of TED's smug oversimplification of complex problems (I also got a kick out of his characterization of Malcolm Gladwell as "a journalist who recycles cheap insights").  He's also right on in seeing this oversimplification of problems as itself one of our larger society's major problems, and as such a very weak tool for facing society's other problems. 

Bratton makes an observation that at the same time as we become more technologically dynamic, our society is becoming more culturally static ("our machines get smarter and we get stupider").  I don't know how you might quantify or measure the truth of this, but it does ring true to my anecdotal experience.  Furthermore, the forecast he draws from this assertion is very prescient and indicative of our times, namely that employing more computing power along the same grooves of old, stale ideas won't take us to a very good or different future.

Bratton makes a noble call for a focus on economics in TED, and particularly an effort for thinkers to get away from the same old economic models in order to conceive of "a new economic architecture".  I really like his critique of the metaphysical bent to much economics, the insistence on a perfect, coherent ideal whose inapplicability to reality we label as a shortcoming of reality, not of the ideal.  More relevant still to my profession of economic development is Bratton's observation that we keep putting forth ostensibly well-thought, well-designed solutions that then fail when we try to scale them up, and then wonder why the next new solution doesn't work either. 

Perhaps his most heterodox, taboo assertion is that we should not only recognize and admit the negatives inherent in many new technologies, but actively prevent certain innovations that we know will cause harm.  Such talk is totally unacceptable to the modern technoworshipping ethic that imbues much of our culture in the modern US.

The speaker often lapses into language that, while seemingly pithy and searing, doesn't really mean much in the end.  He lost me at "when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation".  He convinced me for a moment that we should indeed debate the difference between "digital cosmopolitanism and cloud feudalism", though on further analysis I'm not quite sure what either of those things mean.  I've noticed that this type of powerful but abstruse language is common in a certain brand of academic cultural critic.  At any rate, this talk is a nice antidote to the complacent nonsense that usually comes out of TED.

Perhaps the best summary of this wide-ranging talk is that our problems are not puzzles to be solved by rearranging the pieces and adding a faster computing capacity, but rather that they need new pieces in order for us to solve them.  I agree with this, though in some ways it seems to go against my belief that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we usually, mistakenly, try to invent something new instead of taking advantage of preexisting, proven (but unglamorous) ways of solving old problems.  Perhaps the synthesis of my and Bratton's positions is that sometimes we must look to tradition and established techniques to solve problems, and sometimes we should look to truly new, groundbreaking thought.  And never should we ignore the existing, larger context (socioeconomic, natural, artistic, historical, etc.) that informs and creates the problems we're trying to solve. 

But in no case will we be favored by the TED and the techno-worshippers' approach of merely applying bigger motors to systems that are inherently flawed.  Such a philosophy at once scorns the old while it is too distracted and smug to explore the new.  It diverts productive inspiration into what Bratton calls "a black hole of affectation".

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