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Techno-utopianism is a dead end, and so is TED

Umair Haque suggests that ‘TED thinking’ — the sort that underlies the techno-utopianism behind the TED conference and much of the triumphalist ‘we can do anything’ discourse on the web — does an injustice to the power of ideas, and trivializes the issues we are confronted with.

Umair Haque, Let’s Save Great Ideas from the Ideas Industry 

TED thinking assumes complex social problems are essentially engineering challenges, and that short nuggets of Technology, Edutainment, and Design can fix everything, fast and cheap.TED thinking assumes complex social problems are essentially engineering challenges, and that short nuggets of Technology, Edutainment, and Design can fix everything, fast and cheap. TED thinking’s got a hard determinism to it; a kind of technological hyperrationalism. It ignores institutions and society almost completely. We’ve come to look at these quick, easy “solutions” as the very point of “ideas worth spreading.”

But this seems to me to miss the point and power of ideas entirely. Einstein’s great equation is not a “solution”; it is a theory — whose explanations unravel only greater mysteries and questions. It offers no immediate easy, quick “application” in the “real world,” but challenges us to reimagine what the “real world” is; it is a Great Idea because it offers us something bigger, more lasting, and more vital than a painless, disposable “solution.”

Yet in the eyes of TED thinking, it is of limited, perhaps little, value. One can imagine Einstein being invited to give a TED talk on E=MC2 — and the audience wondering “Well, what’s the point of this? What can we use it to do? How can we make megabucks from this, next year?” When ideas are reduced to engineering challenges, the focus naturally becomes near-term utility in the so-called real world. We focus on implementation without ever stopping to question our assumptions. But Great Ideas don’t resound because they have “utility” in the real world — they are Great for the very reason that they challenge us to redefine the reality of our worlds; and hence, the “utility” of our lives.

So Great Ideas aren’t just “solutions”. Indeed, many of the Greatest Ideas are problems.

[…]

Great Ideas, then, don’t merely easily please us with their immediate utility — often, they break our hearts with desperate futility; with both the aching impossibility and sure inevitability of the trials and tests of human life. But that’s precisely what makes them Great.

[…]

That is precisely how Great Ideas change us: not merely by pleasing us, but by challenging us. That is precisely how they elevate us: not merely by pandering to us, or by provoking us, but by enlightening the whole of us. That is precisely what makes Great Ideas truly worthy — not just easily palatable, and commercially profitable.

We have moved into a time where our biggest challenges are not problems to be solved, but dilemmas that cannot even be explained in 18 minutes, let alone ‘solved’ in human lifetimes

We had great success in the industrial age by seeing the world in terms of engineering problems, and finding scientific means to solve them. (So long as you carefully avoided looking into the externalities that were mounting along with the slag heaps, C02, and income inequity.)

However, we have slipped into the postnormal, and out of the postmodern (more or less synonymous with late industrialism). And now, we have moved into a time where our biggest challenges are not problems to be solved, but dilemmas that cannot even be explained in 18 minutes, let alone ‘solved’ in human lifetimes.

Consider this example: How will we govern the Earth so that its resources and posterity are held in common for all people, and not exploited by a few to the detriment of all? 

We are polarized around these issues, because the machinery that has brought us — unwillingly — into the postnormal is based on growth. TED thinking is tied inexorably to new ways to make growth work, in a time when we need to stop growing. 

As Umair points out in another part of his essay, TED thinking is all mind and no heart, all heroes and no villains, good but no evil. 

And there is the quick fix illusion that 18 minutes of glitter, rhetoric, and simplistic parsing of ‘problems and solutions’ makes us part of the illuminariat: that we are joined in a movement of the awakened. 

But this is just another kind of sleeping, another way of pulling the blanket over our heads, merely a soporific to deaden the pain, and avoid wrenching open our hearts and minds to the realities that confront us. 

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