Oh God: TED Makes A Book

Even if you never watched a TED talk, the explosive #fivewordTEDtalks hashtag perfectly captured the zeitgeist of TED and the growing backlash against its occasionally absurd breed of techno-utopianism. Well, welcome to TED Books, a whole new platform for posturing.

TED describes itself as devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, and that three word tagline sums up its style: Simple. Direct. Big. Since I cannot sustain such certitude myself, I’ll just say of this style: There are Pros and Cons.

And so Hybrid Reality, a new book by Ayesha and Parag Khanna published under the TED Books imprint, is 60 pages of declarative sentences, every one them a thesis. Like this paragraph:

At the same time, our own relationship to technology is moving beyond the instrumental to the existential. There is an accelerating centripetal dance between what technologies are doing outside us and inside us. Externally, technology no longer simply processes our instrutions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback. Internally, we are moving beyond using technology only to dominate naturestoward [sic*] making ourselves the template for technology, integrating technologies within ourselves physically. We don’t just use technology; we absorb it.

Those are some Big, Sweeping sentences, no? Yet the Khannas are not setting up what comes next. This paragraph is the argument itself — the thesis, support and evidence. And every paragraph in Hybrid Reality is like this.

Writing proclamations takes guts. Many of us prefer to hedge. But the Khannas use the audacious, grand theorizing rhetoric that TED is known for — and for which it is often mocked.

Hybrid Reality is a new futurist manifesto meant to update Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Futureshock, to which the authors pay homage. The book forecasts what our life will look like 10, 20 years down the line, as technology alters 20th century definitions of nature and the self. We will become more robotic, yes — and so will the land. Technology will drive these changes, but humans and the natural world will work with it to create a symbiotic feedback loop of evolution. Or as they put it, “a new sociotechnical era… is unfolding as technologies merge with each other and humans merge with technology — both at the same time.” If the 20th century was the Age of Information and the far-future is the Singularity, when machines will outwit us, we can look forward to a slightly less scary time in between where we are all a bit of everything. Technology will no longer mean iPad touch screens but extend to include “all the scientific fields and their technological inventions.”

The Khannas’ stridency is somewhat off-putting: it is hard to think in the face of such relentless asserting. However, by compacting such audacious ideas and concepts, they do manage to make you very scared and hopeful and sort of freaked out very economically. #TEDBooks.

Technology, they argue, “has always been a driver of history,” no more so than in our proto-Singularity times. But it is not deterministic, as their triangle showing MAN, NATURE and TECHNOLOGY, with arrows going in both directions, prove. Geotechnology will replace Geopolitics and Geoeconomics, the lenses of the previous two centuries. We will need new skills for our new age. Those skills are called Technik, or our technological quotient. “Whereas geotechnology is about power, Technik is about adaptability…Instead of West vs. East and democracies vs. dictatoriships, actors ranging from cities to diasporas to corporations to cloud communities will compete and collaborate to attain Technik.”

You will not be surprised to learn that the places currently best leveraging Technik are in Japan, China and Korea, where I now imagine everyone walks around speaking in Huge Scary Statements while talking to robots. (“More broadly, Japanese society has embraced robots to such an extent it seems to prefer a man-machine hybrid civilization to an ethnically mixed one. Robots are increasingly employed in building homes, caring for the elderly, and even entertaining the masses.”)

The masses?

The Khannas have a chapter on “Avoiding robocalyse” [sic] and ushering in Pax Technologica. Online learning is good. Klout scores will help employers determine candidate hires. Three3-D [sic*] printers will give rise to “a new class of small-scale entrepreneurs and artisans who market their wares on Etsy.com,” and “as the things that make things cheaply get cheaper, this peer-to-peer micromanufacturing marketplace could grow tremendously.” Meanwhile, “freelancer health” will make it easier for more Americans to work for themselves. We will become “cityzens,” more allied to our cities than our countries. “Lovotics” will combine psychology, biology, neuroscience with artificial intelligence and engineering. (It has something to do with pre-shaped matching lips activated by the Internet. Also they mention tele-dildonics, but thankfully do not — as they never do — go into detail about what this means.)

Is this how they talk at Davos? I am feeling overwhelmed. The stuff in my house suddenly looks very old and dirty, and my prose seems way too modulated.

But then again, and with this I agree: ours is a Hybrid Reality. And that does not mean everything is going to ruin. As the Khannas declare, technik marries values and ethics with scientific progress. “Technik is the way we bridge the unfolding design of generative systems and the values we seek to achieve.” I may require a bit more finesse and a bit less table thumping than do they, but I get their point.

*copy-editing is not a strength of TED Books; there are numerous errors.

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