Evgeny Morozov rips up the latest iteration of tech-worshipping futurism
There is a major wave right now of backlash against the shallow analysis of science and technology as a route to understanding the future. There are several prominent writers such as James Howard Kunstler, Charles Hugh Smith, Chris Martenson, Gregor MacDonald and others who reject the breathless claims of elite technocrats that everything will work out if we keep complex information technologies going. Technophiles usually refer to our saviors as "technology" but often just mean "info-gadgets," ignoring some of the slower innovations and real limitations of materials science, energy, chemistry and biotech which may be less likely to solve our problems just because we want them to. Kunstler, Smith et al. have done a great job pushing back against this view with some much starker view of what could be next if we don't shake our belief in what Kunstler calls Too Much Magic.
But here comes Evgeny Morozov in the New Republic, dealing brutal axe blows to the edifice of technophile pseudo-futurism and the TED conference empire itself.
The “technological” turn in Khanna’s “thought” is hardly surprising. As he and others have discovered by now, one can continue fooling the public with slick ahistorical jeremiads on geopolitics by serving them with the coarse but tasty sauce that is the Cyber-Whig theory of history. The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms. With their never-ending talk of Twitter revolutions and the like, techno-globalists such as Khanna have a bright future ahead of them.
Oh, there's much more, as Morozov prepares to defenestrate the Tofflers, paragons of 20th century popular futurism.
Hybrid Reality contains few surprises. Khanna and his wife fashion themselves as successors to Alvin and Heidi Toffler, an earlier fast-talking tech-addled couple who thrived on selling cookie-cutter visions of the future one paperback, slogan, and consulting gig at a time. Today the Tofflers are best-known for inspiring some of Newt Gingrich’s most outlandish ideas as well as for popularizing the term “information overload”—a phenomenon which, as numerous scholars have shown, was hardly specific to 1970 (which is when Alvin Toffler mentioned it in Future Shock) and is probably as old as books themselves. To embrace the Tofflers as intellectual role models is to make a damning admission: that one is far more interested in inventing half-clever buzzwords than in trying to understand the messy reality that those buzzwords purport to describe. In a recent article in Foreign Policy on the Tofflers, the Khannas are unusually candid about what it is they admire about them:
Need we say more [about this prediction]? Even though it was written during the Carter administration, if you remove the dates from the passage above you have a template for most of today’s editorial columns on the aftermath of the current financial meltdown. It’s all here: the identity crisis of corporations, skyrocketing commodity prices, morally bankrupt economists, and currencies in flux and free-fall.
So the Tofflers have much to teach us about the origins or the consequences of the current financial crisis! This of course is laughable. The fact that, three decades later, their glib, abstract, and pretentious writings can still serve as a template for the likes of the Khannas says more about the state of public debate in America today than it does about the accuracy of Toffler-style futurism.
You know, in case people noticed, futurism has been alternating between being ignored or being a laughing stock - but this type of rhetoric shows us that perhaps it is more of a battleground than people realize. There are plenty of people entering the wheelhouses of "traditional" futurism - from analysis of science and tech to scenarios of geopolitics to potential utopias, and so on. I submit that it has been invaded by people such as the recently discredited Jonah Lehrer and the type of TED-friendly pseudo-scientific technocrats that will throw out an incremental technological advance (usually in infotech!) and then predict that "this will solve the so-called peak oil crisis" or "death with be a thing of the past." Oh, there is plenty of action in futurism - and it is about to bubble to the surface.
The old statues of the Tofflers and Peter Schwartz may come down - though perhaps not without a fight. The deer-in-headlights stance of the world since the financial catastrophe of 2008 may finally give way to a real struggle for whose vision of the future will hold sway. And then, the battle will be joined.
Anything but what we have had - which is the remnants of Cold War futurism being mocked by the technophile media, with all of the dialogue being of minimal value. Things could get ugly and interesting.
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This is my last posting for the next few days. I will be taking my office apart so that we can move to our new apartment downtown next Tuesday. I will be unplugged and disconnected except by tablet. Expect me to be back in the saddle before the end of next week probably in time to provide you with some more headlines. In the interim these are the stories I share with you this week:
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