Behind the Curtain

Posted: January 4, 2014 in Culture, Debate, Idealism, Media, Narrative, Nomenclature, Science, Technophilia
Tags: , , , ,

I have watched, blogged about, and embedded my share of TED Talks over the years I’ve been active as a blogger. As a cottage industry for the cognoscenti, TED is an impressive, multinational undertaking being fed into by lots of impressive scientists, researchers, and know-it-alls. What’s not to like? One spends about 12 min. watching and listening to someone simplify complex issues, recommend a handful of impossible solutions, and make promises to roll up one’s sleeves and do the hard work, but then one forgets about it all the next day. Or one might watch another talk, or a series of talks, to get the brain goosed before moving on. The most succinct criticism I have heard of the phenomenon called it insight porn. So after my initial excitement with TED and its voluminous insights, I grew to be more and more skeptical of various speakers’ claims. This was especially true after I learned that Allan Savory admitted to having been instrumental in wholesale murder of 40,000 African elephants — a massacre undertaken with the full authority of scientific consensus (at the time, which Savory is now attempting to reverse — oops, his bad).

In light of my misgivings about TED, I found it curious that a TED Talk by Benjamin Bratton has attracted lots of positive attention. His subject is TED Talks themselves, and he makes his case in a TED Talk, which is reproduced as a transcript in an article by The Guardian. There is much to admire in Bratton’s analysis but more perhaps to find objectionable. He occupies a difficult position, both behind the curtain and before it, which creates recursive conflicts. (I’m rather fond myself of busting through rhetorical frames, but I try not to stand inside them at the same time.) Further, I read the article before watching the talk in video form and found quite a difference between the two media. The lack of visual distractions and audience response to the jokes in the transcript allow me to penetrate much deeper. I suspect that a large part of that is not being entrained by sympathetic response.

Bratton offers several worthwhile insights, among them the cult of the solution (my term, not his), which becomes hypothetical since implementation rarely goes forward. This is true especially when it comes to reconceptualizing fondly held myths and self-delusions about what science and sociology can really do for our understandings about the ways the world really works. That’s one of Bratton’s related criticisms: the nonworkability of TED Talk solutions. It’s ironic that Bratton observes so many TED Talks founder on practicality when at the same time his initial anecdote about a scientific presentation failing to motivate the listener (be more like Malcolm Gladwell and engage the emotions, transforming epiphany into entertainment) receives serious derision. There’s room for both interpretations, but some circumspection is needed here. Nothing could be more obvious than how various political and corporate entities have succeeded in motivating the public into action or inaction through propaganda, marketing campaigns, and emotional manipulation, whereas the sober, objective posture of scientific inquiry has failed utterly to get action on an extremely pressing civilizational disaster quite different from the one Bratton envisions. (Regular readers of this blog know what I’m referring to.) Bratton actually takes note of GOP dominance of messaging (what he calls bracketing reality) but fails to connect the dots.

The T-E-D in TED

Bratton also objects that the technology-education-design orientation of TED ought to be instead tech-econ-design. This reconfiguration got by my internal bullshit sensor on video, but the transcript fares less well. For instance, he notes that TED often delivers placebo technoradicalism (no lack of clever word formations) but concludes that it fails precisely because we’re too timid to actually embrace technology with enough gusto. He doesn’t seem to get that technological advance is at best mixed and at worse disastrous (e.g., hypercomplexity, WMDs, nuclear mismanagement and accidents, overconsumption of resources leading to population overshoot leading back to overconsumption). Bratton apparently still worships the tech idol, failing to recognize that the world it has delivered serves us rather poorly. Further, neither education nor economics have turned out to be much of a panacea for our most intractable problems. I’m unsure what Bratton thinks exchanging one for the other in the context of TED will accomplish. Last, redefining design as immunization rather than innovation sounds like something worthwhile but is the same hypothetical, unrealizable solution he criticizes earlier. The notion that we can engineer our way out of problems if only designers wise up and others stop gaming systems for profit or self-aggrandizement begs quite a lot of questions that go unaddressed.

In spite of his disavowal of a simple takeaway, Bratton offers standard PoMo word salad filled with specialized jargon:

… it’s not as though there is a shortage of topics for serious discussion. We need a deeper conversation about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and cloud feudalism … I would like new maps of the world, ones not based on settler colonialism, legacy genomes and bronze age myths, but instead on something more … scalable … 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. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think …

Really changes how we think? For someone who writes about “entanglements of technology and culture,” Bratton has a serious misconception about how the brainchild of the Enlightenment can ultimately win the day and deliver salvation from ourselves. Myth and story and narrative are not mistakes to be replaced by rationalism; they are who and how we are in the world. They don’t go away by wagging the bony finger of science/tech but are only slowly forgotten, revised, and replaced by yet other myths, stories, and narratives. The depth of our entrenchment in such cultural baggage is one of the very things forestalling change. We can peer behind the curtain or see from outside the bubble sometimes, but we can’t escape them. We never could.

  1. Apneaman says:

    I have this fantasy of watching Guy McPherson give a TED talk on near term extinction. Actually, the fantasy is watching the audience watch Guy. Who knows, maybe one of them will run back to Silicone Valley and develop a NTE app.

    • Brutus says:

      Guy has been on the road almost continuously for a while now giving the same two or three basic presentations. His message has gotten more and more refined, but the general audiences he addresses are typically coming to the ideas for the first time. Jumping straight into NTE would be, I dunno, pointless? Almost no one is prepared to hear it.

      I can’t imagine that Guy’s approach is at all amenable to the TED way of presenting information and arguments. If the audience were truly engaged and didn’t reflexively fend off the truth (since it’s not uplift), I daresay they would be stunned into silence. No standing ovation.

  2. leavergirll says:

    Why in the world do you hold the elephants against Savory? This is what he was taught; that’s the academic tradition and eco-praxis he inherited. He’s always been upfront about it, in fact he stresses that this was part of his motivation to develop a whole other way to rehabilitate the drylands. I wish every one of us who makes a terrible mistake because of previous indoctrination had what it takes to admit it and turn around.

    • Brutus says:

      I’ve been puzzling overnight as to why I’m so incensed at the hubris of scientists who believe it their warrant to manage, shepherd, and control nature, dealing no small amount of death in the process. It doesn’t matter to me that Savory was trained to think in a certain way, though it’s worthy of him to admit and redress his wrongs. After all, we’re all products of our upbringing, education, and environment. The only ones who can legitimately take refuge behind that argument are children up to age 14 or so, when responsibility begins to shift onto them from parents and guardians. Of course, kids can be utterly ruined by that age, too, making it impossible for them to ever assume adult responsibilities, but that isn’t Savory’s M.O.

      Let me suggest then that we ought perhaps to just let things unfold without undue interference. Goethe has a few lines to that effect:

      So must thou be. Thou canst not self escape.
      So erst the Sibyls, so the Prophets told.
      Nor Time nor any Power can mar the shape
      Impressed, that living must itself unfold.

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