when technocrats think they’re better than you

August 8, 2012

microcosm

If yours truly is supposedly a wet blanket when it comes to the long awaited and near imminent technocratic utopia of the post-Singularity world, Evgeny Morozov is a torrent from a firehose as he delivers one verbal body blow after another to the technocrats so vocally praised at TED conferences, and the TED concept itself, railing on their abuse of technobabble with the same scorched earth approach I reserve for post-modernist woo. Using a slim e-book praising the idea of autocratic technocracy by two of the disciples of the Kurzwelian Singularity Gospel as a jump- off point, he tries to tear through the pompous overuse of unnecessary jargon and present the book and its promotion by TED as evidence that the technocrats who run it think they’re better than you. Front and center is this quote he chose to highlight…

Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy.

And you know what? I think I agree with his point. Even if we look past the double-speak in this proposal, which says that citizen feedback should be incorporated into a technocracy and yet discards it as quite possibly useless at the same time, we’re still left with the disturbing thesis that the opinions of citizens living in a sovereign state and paying taxes for its upkeep shouldn’t have much of a say in how it’s run. Instead, they should just sit back and let the “smart people” — you can just imagine the author resist the urge to add “to use a term the simpletons can understand” in the final draft — handle it. Seriously? No, no, back it up, back it in, where do we even begin with this mess? For the love of FSM’s left meatball, are these really the kind of people with which my profession associates on a regular basis nowadays? Do people really think that those in the T part of STEM tend to agree with this outlook on democracy? I’d certainly hope not.

We could go out on a limb and say that yes, swaths of the voting public can be very ignorant and the choices they make can create gridlock in government. We could even argue further that the stagnation of the political process in the United States today is a real consequence of partisan zealots electing only the most hard-line politicians into power because rather than dealing with the pressing issues of the day, we’re blasted with the 24/7 blame game and political horse races. The partisans want new roads but they want someone else to pay for them, they want social safety nets if they’re disabled or laid off thanks to outsourcing, but they want to pay less taxes to fund them while balking at the debt incurred by catering to their whims, and they want to cut crucial R&D budgets because they won’t even educate themselves on how little is actually spent on them. Yes, all of this is horrible, but how would taking away their right to vote make things any better or ensure that the supposedly well-meaning technocrats at the top of the suggested New Techical Order won’t be ignorant about something crucial as well and make very poor decisions as a result, all the while smugly that they really know best?

Now, lest you think that the haughty Silicon Valley types who run ventures like TED to spread the message of the future as the inevitable Singularitarian utopia in which the technocrats know all and see all aren’t necessarily as condescending as they come off, allow me to present the following snippet regarding TED organizers’ response to the question of why they wanted to publish short e-books rather than full tomes trying to advance a complete idea in sufficient detail to be dissected by those who actually make and study technology, rather than buzzword-spewing think tank fellows who give themselves weighty titles with the word “technology” in them and have zero experience with anything technical outside their word processors and kitchen appliances.

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.”

There you have it folks. Elaborations on fluffy technobabble are simply too much for your puny little attention span. Why, you might just wander off like Nicholas Carr when he tries to read a book so they’ll just talk down to you… err… I mean “engage” you at the level they think you can manage to grasp. Were they to actually detail their ideas down to how they see them being implemented, they might have to defend them from criticisms levied by people who actually understand how technology works and spent time outside the recursive hype chamber of Silicon Valley. While disciplines like medicine, history, and physics have to deal with post-modernist pretention, the tech world’s curse are these vainly self-absorbed, arrogant, condescending meanderings of those who think that if only everyone did what they told them to do, the world would be a better place. It’s one thing to challenge ideas to which you’re opposed and advocate solutions from your research. But demanding the power to do as you wish while deeming those you’d govern as incapable of making good decisions would just make you a power-hungry dictator to those outside your circle of like-minded sycophants.

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  • Brett

    Great post.

    We could even argue further that the stagnation of the political process in the United States today is a real consequence of partisan zealots electing only the most hard-line politicians into power because rather than dealing with the pressing issues of the day, we’re blasted with the 24/7 blame game and political horse races.

    It’s more that we have an increasingly partisan Party System with a Congress whose institutions and norms are still built around centrist consensus from the mid-twentieth century (before that, the Party System could be plenty partisan). Openly partisan governments can work with the right institutions, such as Britain (where the PM and his/her cabinet of the majority party effectively get to make policy and submit it for up-and down votes in the House of Commons, and votes frequently line up on party lines).

    While disciplines like medicine, history, and physics have to deal with post-modernist pretention, the tech world’s curse are these vainly self-absorbed, arrogant, condescending meanderings of those who think that if only everyone did what they told them to do, the world would be a better place.

    I tend to have more contempt for the journalists free-riding on this and spouting condescending nonsense about this or that trend of the time (the Thomas Friedman School of Journalism). At least with the techies I suspect they’re just too optimistic coming out of the rapidly advancing Computer, Software, and Hardware Industries.

  • Greg Fish

    At least with the techies I suspect they’re just too optimistic coming out of the rapidly advancing Computer, Software, and Hardware Industries.

    Well, the problem here is that many of those at TED spouting the ideas being questioned aren’t really techies and those in the Valley who follow Kurzweil are just a fraction of a fraction of those who have real-world tech experience. They’re not so much optimistic as they’re naive and clueless. And they do seem to be right form the Friedman School of Journalism themselves, just taking it down one notch not to portray themselves as jet-setting, globe-spanning experts in everything under the sun…

  • Professor Layman

    Okay, I have a point of contention. I get the impression you’re perhaps quite insenced at the belittling nature of this e-book idea, because you’ve got a good and healthy attention span for the works TED might put out, and an equally good level of comprehension for the stuff.

    I myself actually like the idea they present here, because it applies to my situation. I know I would sooner read numerous magazine articles (New Scientist’s a weekly publication after all) and complete (my preferred digital alternative to) crossword puzzles all days before I considered diving into a big fat techo-tome unless I had to. I tell myself it’d be good for my mind if I hunkered down with something really big and challenging, the same way I tell myself it’d be a great idea to go commit myself to the gym, but I don’t have to, so I don’t. Actually I’d rather have a little brain challenge and go for a walk, because I enjoy things in moderation.

    I understand that what they’re saying here isn’t that I’m too stupid to read this kind of book, because I have a “modern attention span”, actually the way I feel over-worked in everyday life, it’d feel too much like hard work to get into it with no guarantee that I’m going to fully understand, appreciate or enjoy what I read.

    Now, as for a more compact and bite-size version of the same material, yes, I think I would be interested, because for me it’s something of a taster that I can read at my own pace and be pretty much guaranteed to finish within a reasonable amount of time. Now if I didn’t understand, appreciate or enjoy it, that’s no massive loss, but if I did, I’ll probably go and hunt down more in-depth works because I’m already invested. Whether it’s innocent or not, the point made in that TED quote about matching modern attention spans, I think is pretty sound.

    HOWEVER, if a work is put out, as you suggest, in a brief format, to simply hide the fluffy bullshit you could weed out if you really went into depth with it, yeah, that’s obviously a terrible way to go about getting your ideas proliferated and tantamount to propaganda. Like all things it comes down to balance and intentions really.

    So yes, sorry to derail the entire point of the article (Technocrats are pricks sometimes) but I really do feel the idea that not every proper book these days has to be a 300 pager, is a good idea in an age of information (overload), and not necessarily belittling to the intended casual audience.

    (Here I am talking about brevity and this has to be the longest comment I’ve written on weird things, go figure…)