What’s Wrong with TED Talks? Benjamin Bratton (Transcript)

The future on offer is one in which everything can change, so long as everything stays the same. We’ll have Google Glass, but we’ll still have business casual. This timidity is not our path to the future. This is incredibly conservative. And more gigaflops won’t inoculate us. Because, if a problem is endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore’s law also amplify what’s broken. It’s more computation along the wrong curve, and I hardly think this is a triumph of Reason.

A lot of my work deals with deep technocultural shifts, from the post-humanism to the post-anthropocene, but the TED version has too much faith in technology, and not enough commitment to technology. It’s placebo technoradicalism, toying with risk, so as to reaffirm the comfortable. And so our machines get smarter and we get stupider. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Both can be much more intelligent. Another futurism is possible.

A better ‘E’ in TED might stand for Economics — and yes, imagining and designing, new systems of valuation, and exchange of accounting for transaction externalities, of financing coordinated planning, and so on. Because states and markets, states versus markets, these are insufficient models, our thinking is stuck in a Cold War gear. And worse is when economics is debated like metaphysics, as if any real system is just a bad example of the ideal.

Communism in theory was an egalitarian utopia. Actually existing communism meant ecological devastation, government spying, crappy cars, gulags. Capitalism in theory is rocket ships, nanomedicine, Bono saving Africa. Actually existing capitalism is Walmart jobs, McMansions, people living in sewers under Las Vegas, Ryan Seacrest. Plus ecological devastation, government spying, crappy public transportation, and for-profit prisons.

And yet, the alternatives on offer range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why? The recent centuries have seen tremendous advances in improving the quality of life. But the paradox is that the system we have now — whatever you want to call it — is in the short term what makes these new technologies possible, but in the long term it’s also what suppresses their full flowering. A new economic architecture is prerequisite.

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‘D’ — Design. Perhaps our designers, instead of prototyping the same “change agent for good” projects over and over again, and then wondering why they aren’t implemented at scale, we should acknowledge that design is not some magic answer. Design is very important, but for different reasons.

Getting excited about design is easy because, like talking about the future, it’s more polite than dealing with the real white elephants in the room such as phones, drones and genomes. That’s what we do here in San Diego and La Jolla. In addition to all of the amazingly great things that these technologies do, they’re also the basis of NSA spying, flying robots killing people, and the wholesale privatization of biological life. That’s also what we do.

So you see, the potential of these technologies is both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, and so to guide them towards a good future, design as “innovation” just isn’t strong enough of an idea by itself. We need to talk a lot more about design as “immunization,” actually preventing certain “innovations” that we don’t want from happening.

So as for one clear takeaway, one magic idea, I don’t really have one. That’s kind of the point.

Perhaps I might venture that if our species were actually to solve its most dire problems, perhaps a lot of us in this room would be out of a job, or perhaps in jail. But it’s not as though we don’t have a lot of really important things to be talking about. We need a deeper discussion about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and cloud feudalism. And towards that, a queer history of computer science, Alan Turing’s birthday as a holiday. I would like new maps of the world, ones not based on settler colonialism, legacy genomes, and bronze age myths, but something more scalable.

But TED today is not that. Our problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. This metaphor implies that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.

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“Innovation” defined as “puzzles”, as rearranging pieces and adding more processing power, is not some Big Idea that’s going to disrupt the broken status quo — that precisely is the broken status quo.

One TED speaker said recently about his work, “Now that this boundary is removed, the only boundary left is our imagination.” Wrong.

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff — the history, economics, philosophy, art, the ambiguities, and contradictions. Because focusing just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. We need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. And this is not about “personal stories of inspiration”. It’s about the hard difficult work of demystification and reconceptualization. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

At a societal level, the bottom line is that if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don’t work, and don’t invest in things which don’t make us feel good, but which may solve problems, then our fate is that in the long run it will just get harder and harder to feel good about not solving problems.

And in this case, the placebo is not just ineffective — it’s harmful. Because it takes your interest, and energy and outrage, and diverts into this black hole of affectation. “Keep calm and carry on innovating” — is that the real message of TED? To me it’s not inspirational, it’s cynical.

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