when technocrats think they’re better than you

There's a fine line between being an expert trying to simplify a complex topic and an arrogant snob lecturing down to your audience. TED's all-stars are starting to cross that line.
city macrocosm

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.

# tech // realpolitik / technocracy / technological singularity

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