Pax Technologica

September 17 2012

Evgeny Morozov’s enjoyable demolition of Parag Khanna reminds us how good the Russian education system (and here) is or was. Morozov was born in Soligorsk in Belarus and, judging by his accent, spent much of his life there. He’s in his late twenties.

“The new pamphlet [Hybrid Reality] – it would be too strong, and not only quantitatively, to call it a book – by Parag and Ayesha Khanna, the techno-babbling power couple, gallops through so many esoteric themes and irrelevant factoids (did you know that ‘fifty-eight percent of millennials would rather give up their sense of smell than their mobile phone’?) that one might forgive the authors for never properly attending to their grandest, most persuasive, and almost certainly inadvertent argument. Only the rare reader would finish this piece of digito-futuristic nonsense unconvinced that technology is – to borrow a term of art from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt – bullshit. No, not technology itself; just much of today’s discourse about technology, of which this little e-book is a succinct and mind-numbing example. At least TED Books – the publishing outlet of the hot and overheated TED Conference, which brought this hidden gem to the wider public – did not kill any trees in the publishing process.”

I don’t know how much of his life Khanna has spent in India. He’s 35. He was born in Kanpur in UP. His career has been built in the US and Europe. He has just moved to Singapore.

There is probably something wrong with a person who mentions Arnold Toynbee twenty-eight times in a not very long book on modern geopolitics. That is what Khanna did in The Second World (2008). I put it down, patronisingly, to youth (though he was 31) and reviewed the book kindly even though everything he said about Toynbee was wrong. But it was not as if The Second World did not have a powerful underlying idea. It was fast, furious and extremely superficial, but in time, I thought, Khanna would discipline himself.

I’d said that Toynbee had “an unusual appeal to the partly-educated outside the West”. I could have phrased that as “the, in western terms, partly-educated”.

There are two things here: the appeal to the non-westerner and the appeal to the half-educated autodidact who is impressed by the scale of Toynbee’s writing.

It would be patronising to put Khanna into the first category, but he may belong in the second despite his academic qualifications. I am not saying either that Toynbee was of the stature of a Paulo Coelho, but that “half-educated” people are, for the most part, the ones still praising him, because his reputation among so-called “educated” ones was destroyed by Trevor-Roper and others.

Khanna’s second book was How to Run the World. I mentioned it here.

There’s no point summarising Morozov. He reviews three TED publications, but mainly the first:

Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization
By Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna
(TED Books, $2.99)

The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It
By Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan
(TED Books, $2.99)

Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act
By Ron Gutman
(TED Books, $2.99)”

Hybrid Reality is by Parag and his wife Ayesha. The couple are modelling themselves on Heidi and Alvin Toffler. Toffler-worship has replaced Toynbee-worship and is more bankable.

What Morozov does not find ludicrous in Khanna’s opus 3 he finds sinister, viz (in short) worship of authoritarian Singapore-style technocracy. There is a connection between Khanna politics and what a Pole of the same age (apparently as well-educated as Morozov), Piotr Czerski, writes in his manifesto We the Web Kids, to which I have referred.

The idea of citizenship, and the messy, inefficient, imprecise politics that goes with it, is breaking down. Instead, membership in society is regarded as something like an account. The account-holders play by the rules, click, expect results. Czerski does not identify himself with oppressive regimes, but there is a traceable line between the e-government Khanna would like to see and the citizen as atomised account-holder. Czerski:

“We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.

“What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is, and that it is our duty to protect that freedom. We owe that to next generations, just as much as we owe to protect the environment.

“Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy. Democracy that, perhaps, is more than is dreamt of in your journalism.”

So Morozov says that the Khannas have contempt for democracy, because they “profess their deep and inherently anti-democratic admiration for technocracy”. Czerski is asking for true democracy, as if this might for the first time, in a Pax Technologica (Khanna’s Toynbeeish phrase), be possible.

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