What the Khannas’ project illustrates so well is that the defining feature of today’s techno-aggrandizing is its utter ignorance of all the techno-aggrandizing that has come before it. The fantasy of technology as an autonomous force is a century-old delusion that no serious contemporary theorist of technology would defend. The Khannas have no interest in intellectual history, or in the state of contemporary thought about technology. They prefer to quote, almost at random, the likes of Oswald Spengler and Karl Jaspers instead. This strategy of invoking random Teutonic names and concepts might work on the unsophisticated crowds at Davos and TED, but to imagine that either Spengler or Jaspers have something interesting or original to tell us about cloning, e-books, or asteroid mining is foolish. “A new era requires a new vocabulary,” the Khannas proclaim—only to embrace the terminology that was already in place by the end of the nineteenth century. They may be well-funded, but they are not well-educated.
Their promiscuous use of the word Technik exposes the shaky foundation of their enterprise—as well as of many popular discussions about technology, which inevitably gravitate toward the bullshit zone. To return to Harry Frankfurt, the key distinction between the liar and the bullshitter is that the former conceals “that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality,” whereas the latter conceals that he is not interested in reality at all. The bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” To suggest that Parag and Ayesha Khanna—and numerous pundits before them—might be pursuing purposes other than describing—or improving—reality is almost self-evident. (A look at the website of the Hybrid Reality Institute would suffice.) The more interesting question here is why bullshit about technology, unlike other types of bullshit, is so hard to see for what it is.
It is here that the Khannas stand out. Technik, as they use this term, is something so expansive and nebulous that it can denote absolutely anything. Technik is the magic concept that allows the Khannas to make their most meaningless sentences look as if they actually carry some content. They use Technik as a synonym for innovation, design, engineering, science, mastery, capital, the economy, and a dozen other things. It is what fixes cities, reinvigorates social networking, and grants us immortality. Technik is every pundit’s wet dream: a foreign word that confers an air of cosmopolitanism upon its utterer. It can be applied to solve virtually any problem, and it is so abstract that its purveyor can hardly be held accountable for its inaccuracies and inanities.
Of course, any discussion of embarrassing ddulite hype will include an inevitable section on TED Talks,,,
I can surmise why the Khannas would have wanted to write this book, but it is not immediately obvious why TED Books would have wanted to publish it. I must disclose that I spoke at a TED Global Conference in Oxford in 2009, and I admit that my appearance there certainly helped to expose my argument to a much wider audience, for which I remain grateful. So I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.
Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”
So much BS, so little time.