TNR Reviewer Takes Down TED Technobabble

by Mark Wilson

I love this takedown of 21st-century technobabble in The New Republic. Everything the author says about Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna could apply equally to Thomas Friedman, The New York Times‘ resident expert about everything from international banking to Middle Eastern diplomacy. And yet, despite people like Friedman and the Khannas, the world contains conflict.

It might seem odd that Parag Khanna would turn his attention to the world of technology. He established his reputation as a wannabe geopolitical theorist, something of a modern-day Kissinger, only wired and cool. For almost a decade he has been writing pompous and alarmist books and articles that herald a new era in international relations. He has also been circling the globe in a tireless effort to warn world leaders that democracy might be incompatible with globalization and capitalism. And that the West needs to be more like China and Singapore. And that America is running on borrowed time. And that a new Middle Ages are about to set in. (“When I look at the 21st century, I reverse the numbers around and I see the 12th century.”) This is probing stuff.

All of these insights are expressed in linguistic constructions of such absurdity and superficiality (“a world of ever-shifting (d)alliances,” “peer-to-peer micromanufacturing marketplace”) that Niall Ferguson’s “Chimerica” looks elegant and illuminating by comparison. Khanna must be a gifted schmoozer, too: the acknowledgments sections of his books are primary documents of contemporary name-dropping. Almost everyone he quotes can expect effusive praise. As I.F. Stone once said about Theodore White, “a writer who can be so universally admiring need never lunch alone.”

TED does inspire some really good lectures about interesting things. But it also allows snake-oil salesmen to wander the world, inserting buzzwords into speeches so that they can pretend to be important intellectuals. Note the difference between the intellectual and the academic. The latter group consists of people trained in a field of study; the former has read books about a particular field of study. It’s the difference between Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Krugman. (Also: Gladwell’s stuff is mostly an anthology of other people’s research, tied together around someone else’s thesis.)