Scott Flansburg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Scott Flansburg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Scott Flansburg is an American mental calculator. Dubbed "The Human Calculator" by Regis Philbin, in 2001 he was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for speed of mental calculation. He is the annual host and ambassador for World Maths Day, and is a math educator and media personality. Flansburg has appeared on shows such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Larry King Live, and Stan Lee's Superhumans, and has published the books Math Magic and Math Magic for Your Kids.[1]



Early life

Scott Flansburg has stated that he was nine years old when he first discovered his mental calculator abilities, after he was able to solve his teacher's math question without needing to write down the calculations. Afterwards he would keep a running tally of his family's groceries at the store, so his father could give the cashier an exact check before the bill had been rung up.[2] In his youth he also began noticing that the shape and number of angles in numbers are clues to their value, and began counting from 0 to 9 on his fingers instead of 1 to 10.[3]

Early career

Flansburg can subtract, add, multiply, divide, and find square and cube roots in his head almost instantly with calculator accuracy. Around 1990 he began using his ability in an entertainment and educational context.[4] He was dubbed "The Human Calculator" by Regis Philbin after appearing on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee.[2]
The Guinness Book of World Records listed him as "Fastest Human Calculator"[4] in 2001,[5] after he broke the record for adding the same number to itself more times in 15 seconds than someone could do with a calculator.[6] In 2002 Flansburg invented a 13 month alternative to the Gregorian calendar that he called "The Human Calendar."[5]
In 1998 he published the book Math Magic for Your Kids: Hundreds of Games and Exercises from the Human Calculator to Make Math Fun and Easy[7] on Harper Paperbacks. A revised edition of his book Math Magic: How to Master Everyday Math Problems was published in 2004.[3]

As an educator

Since about 1990[3] Flansburg has regularly given lectures and presentations at schools.[6] He has appeared as a presenter at institutions such as NASA, IBM, The Smithsonian Institute, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics,[4] and the Mental Calculation World Cup. The latter has described Flansburg as "more an auditory than a visual [mental] calculator."[8]
According to Flansburg, one of his personal missions is to use education to elevate mathematical confidence and self-esteem in adults and children, stating "Why has it become so socially acceptable to be bad at math? If you were illiterate you wouldn’t say that on TV, but you can say that you are bad at math. We have to change the attitude." He is a proponent of students becoming comfortable with calculation methods instead of relying on table memorization.[3] Flansburg is the annual host and ambassador for World Maths Day.[9] He is also an official promoter of the American Math Challenge, a competition for students preparing for World Math Day.[6]

Media appearances

Flansburg has appeared on television shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Larry King Live. On April 26, 2009, while on the Japanese primetime show Asahi's Otona no Sonata, he broke his own world record with 37 answers in 15 seconds.[9] He was featured as The Human Calculator in the first episode of Stan Lee's Superhumans, which aired on The History Channel on August 5, 2010. Part of the episode analyzed his brain activity.[10] An fMRI scan while he was doing complex calculations revealed that his brain activity in the Brodmann area 44 region of the frontal cortex was absent. Instead he showed activity somewhat above area 44 losser and closer to the motor cortex.[11]

Personal life

Flansburg resides in San Diego, California.[10]


  • Math Magic for Your Kids (1998)[7]
  • Math Magic (2004)[12]


  1. ^ "Scott Flansburg". HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  2. ^ a b Smith, Jacqueline (August 17, 2009). "'Human calculator' looking for Kiwi mathletes". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  3. ^ a b c d "Scott Flansburg: The Math King". Children's Literature Network. March 21, 2011. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  4. ^ a b c "Meet Scott Flansburg". ScottFlansburg.com. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  5. ^ a b Noory, George (June 16, 2002). "Guests: Scott Flansburg". Coast to Coast AM. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  6. ^ a b c Reiter, Angela (October 22, 2010). "Woodlands Academy Mesmerized By The Human Calculator". Trib Local. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  7. ^ a b Scott, Flansburg (1998). Math Magic for Your Kids. Harper Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-06-097731-3.
  8. ^ Brain, Mr. (July 12, 2010). "Mental Calculation World Cup 2010". Mental Calculation World Cup. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  9. ^ a b "Scott Flansburg: The Human Calculator". ScottFlansburg.com. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  10. ^ a b "Featured Superhumans: The Human Calculator". History.com. Retrieved 2011-09-09.
  11. ^ "Electro Man: Episode 101". Stan Lee's Superhumans. August 5, 2011.
  12. ^ Flansburg, Scott (1993). Math Magic. Harper Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-06-072635-5.

External links

Video appearances


Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight | Video on TED.com

Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight | Video on TED.com

Quotes by Jill Bolte Taylor

  • “I am the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is.” Watch this talk »
  • “I realized, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke!’ The next thing my brain says to me is, ‘Wow! This is so cool! How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?’” Watch this talk »
  • “In the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.” Watch this talk »
  • “Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information … explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.” Watch this talk »
  • “Then it crosses my mind, ‘But I’m a very busy woman! I don’t have time for a stroke!’” Watch this talk »

Dr. Aretoula Fullam

Mar 20 2008 This is absolutely amazing! Dr. Taylor in 18 minutes has expressed so eloquently and scientifically what the Silva Method has been teaching for 60 years now through the course in Dynamic Meditation, or Self-Mind Control, which opens communication between the two hemispheres through the Corpus Callosum, so that the two hemispheres communicate with each other under the control of the “I AM” thus, having whole brain functioning. People learn to control the Alpha waves and experience through Dynamic Meditation and Self-Mind Control this wonderful place of creativity, wholeness and Oneness with the Spirit and all creation. I am very joyful and grateful that I myself know this wonderful level of bliss, enthusiasm and interconnection through dynamic meditation, so I dedicated the rest of my life to teach people how they can experience themselves this Oneness, expanded awareness and magical reality of the Spirit within. For any information about the Course visit http://www.GuideMind.com Dr. Aretoula Fullam -----------------------------------------------------------------------
6 days ago: It's a very moving talk, but the comments are a bit confusing to me. People seem to be assigning a religious or spiritual bent to the talk as though there is some evidence in the talk of a higher power etc. That is just projection imho. She quite clearly explains the brain in laymen's terms, then proceeds to describe exactly how her particular stroke shut down aspects of one hemisphere. And the result is a first hand account of what it is like to have half a brain. I was moved because she describes something we can all relate to, the loss of ego, the loss of "baggage", becoming an infant, dropping our worries, and embracing how we feel, and the now, and the sense of being connected and vast. Yes, many of us crave that. It is also touching because she felt lost, and surrendered to her fate, and that is very moving. And what she is saying quite eloquently, and touchingly, is that under the layers, physically, we have access to two very different means of being. She is suggesting that we find a way, that we allow, that we focus on the fact that we can feel more connected, that we can try to focus on that other voice. That isn't god, that's your brain. It is the perception from a physical manifestation of a healthy human brain, not some insight into the reality of the universe. If she'd had a stroke in the other hemisphere this talk would be about how to get things done, proper planning, and logical order of things... In the end up her experience didn't change the reality of the world she lives in. It gave her a chance to see a new way of looking at life, one with more connection and more compassion and as she said so well, that is an idea worth sharing. wonderful talk.
2 days ago: I don't feel that she implies existence of a higher power but rather indicates the immense power of human consciousness to experience a vast terrain of awareness from alternate perspectives. Higher power is a given, everything is powered by some obviously unknowable source. What Higher Power means to the linear experiential self depends on the local conditioning of the individual identity. One could even say that culture itself if a higher power. I didn't hear her mention the word God at any point or make specific reference to religion. She does mention nirvana, which is a basically a Buddhist term for nothingness, or experience empty of all stimulation recognized as such when the experience of stimulation returns. In any case she beautifully relates her experience and knowledge without making claims of absolute truth.
2 days ago: @Eric you should become a school teacher. Well summarised. I try every now and again to live as expansive as I can by viewing everything as being part of the same source. As having pervasive intelligent energy and identity. Life stops to have meaning. The litter stops being litter but intelligent individuation of primal energy seeking expression and being.It blends naturally with the spot its on and looks beautiful. And I no longer want to disrupt that space, that arrangement by picking it up. People just seem dull, no longer alive, lacking in context, without definitions, no judgement from me, they become juxtapositioned bland pieces of canvass, without a story, uninteresting. I loose any urge to do anything. I'm just transfixed in time and all I can do is observe and intuit with awe and wonder. My mind stops analysing and judging and I feel light and at peace. I can go on describing other aspects but I am sure you get the point. Life either looses all meaning or takes on a new meaningless meaning (I will always judge from my norm I guess). When I return to the world of separation, of meaning, of plans and tasks and relationships I heave a sigh of exasperation. I'm still not certain which world I dislike more LOL. Just kidding. I love both worlds. Both great movies just different genres. My ambition is in a manner of speaking, to grow a bigger Corpus Callosum - a bridge - to help me blend both worlds in one reality.


Garrick Sitongia

Mar 20 2008
  The state of mind of euphoria and oneness with all, described by Dr. Taylor during ensuing brain damage due to stroke somewhat disturbs me. Imagine yourself as a person walking around in the right-brain only perceptual state, being attacked by robbers, hucksters who want money, or any type of opportunist seeking an advantage. In this state, one would simply give them whatever they wanted. One’s survival probability would be close to zero. Even if one dies happy, that is still death and therefore immoral. The method of cult religions is to make people into thought slaves by forcing victims into this same perceptual blindness in which one gives up the “self”. This facilitates turning the victim into a physical slave who does not complain and with behavior that is always compliant, even against the victim’s survival needs. Also, a person in this state is not likely to solve problems of the world such as disease no matter how willing one is because solving problems requires insight from realistic analysis of the past and prediction of consequences, a left brain skill. And how likely are people in this state to be motivated to do physical labor such as farming or building structures for shelter, unless they are forced by others who are not in a right-brained perception only state? While I greatly respect and admire Dr. Taylor’s presence of mind to explore and report publicly her experience, I also cringe at her conclusions about her experience. I fear that Dr. Taylor’s enthusiasm will invite misguided abuse, and may even result in psycho-surgery based religious cults that convert people using permanent brain damage, with or without consent, at a new level above today’s brainwashing or indoctrination techniques which are reversible.

Tina Brewer

May 26 2008
  This is very illustrative of the goal of meditation. If you can close down your left brain briefly, you can experieince the reality of the wholeness and absence of separation of “self” and “other”. This state can be achieved by regular and long practice of various types of meditation, including “moving meditations” such as yoga or T’ai Chi. Yoga literally means “union with” and T’ai Chi loosely translates tot the “Ultimate Supreme” (all things in balance, reality as it should exist for us). I have had this briwef experieince twice only. Once through T’ai Chi practice, another in a time of just waking during a time of extreme stress (the death of my father a few days before). I woke to not knowing what/who I was. for a brief moment. The fright of such an unusual realization literally killed the joy of the experience. BUt all of this is to say: THIS STATE IS VALID, and ACHIEVABLE through dedicated practice. And it is the reality underlying what our left brain organizes into reality for us, so that we can function within our bodies. It is the experieince we all should be seeking, because then we would all finally inderstand that we are all part of the same creation, we are all units of energy that have a “separate” consciousness. When we hurt, kill or pollute, we are actually doing it to our larger “Self”, the one body of energy that encompasses all of us.

james debar

Jun 18 2008 Ms. Taylor, Thank you for sharing. It is unfortunate that a stroke or heart attack provides direct “access” to one’s Soul. Fortunately the experience leaves an irrevocable and irreversible imprint on the Self. The world would be a very different place if we could all commune with our Souls. The insight would bring some harmony, within each of us which would then reflect to the other six and half billion. I would welcome all thoughts on such endeavor at: http://myselfmysoul.blogspot.com/

Denise Bem David

Feb 11 2009 JBTaylor is the most amazing and important talk I saw in many years. She described the neurophysiological basis of the Nirvana experience. I have been thinking a lot about the impact of her experience of an almost pure right-brain function, and meditation techniques, NLP techniques, and the perceptions one can achieve while practicing those. We do need a well functioning left hemisphere to be able to live. How can the balance be achieved? How can the perceptions obtained with the right brain be balanced with the practicalities of the left hemisphere function. Is the religious experience born of those right-hemiphere perceptions ?What is/exists beyond the balanced perceptions of a well functioning brain/mind, and that gives origin to it? Eckhart Tolle has some interesting insights about similar issues. I would be interested in knowing the comments of neuroscientists about her experice, and the mystical experience.

Steven Song

Jun 17 2009 Sometimes I have a shift in perspective. Nothing dramatic, but everything appears smaller, further, and more detached. I can force myself (sometimes it randomly happens) to see something as foreign (I.e. a face, words, anything *same feeling as you described for seeing your leg/arm during the stroke*). What would you call this?
1 day ago: Absolutely beautiful talk! Just in case this book hasn't been mentioned yet (it probably has been), I highly recommend "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. He explains the value of the present moment and teaches you how become one with it as well as how to use your newfound power to radically increase your quality of life (almost completely eliminate stress and anxiety) as well as making you a more vibrant, compassionate person. I don't mean to shove anything in anyones face, but the book has taught me so much and has helped me to have many of the same experiences Jill speaks of, so I almost feel obligated to make it known to anybody interested in the subject. Mental silence is, in my opinion, the most beautiful thing a human.


Jill Taylor's right hemisphere 'La-la land' depiction is reminiscent of the Near Death Experience stories. Could there be a link?

Most Near death experience (NDE) story tellers have one thing in common: they feel this immense peace and happiness as they travel towards the 'light'. I am wondering if this is a phenomenon of the left brain shutting down first when a person dies allowing the right 'nirvana' half to be fully experienced before the body completely shuts down. I wonder if the mystical experience they so vividly remember is nothing more than the brain slowly shutting down as they slip into death. I don't want to discredit any NDE since I have no clue what happens after you die. I am simply curious to see the scientific explanation to the phenomenon.

Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor studied her own stroke as it happened -- and has become a powerful voice for brain recovery.

Why you should listen to her:

One morning, a blood vessel in Jill Bolte Taylor's brain exploded. As a brain scientist, she realized she had a ringside seat to her own stroke. She watched as her brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory, self-awareness ... Amazed to find herself alive, Taylor spent eight years recovering her ability to think, walk and talk. She has become a spokesperson for stroke recovery and for the possibility of coming back from brain injury stronger than before. In her case, although the stroke damaged the left side of her brain, her recovery unleashed a torrent of creative energy from her right. From her home base in Indiana, she now travels the country on behalf of the Harvard Brain Bank as the "Singin' Scientist."
"How many brain scientists have been able to study the brain from the inside out? I've gotten as much out of this experience of losing my left mind as I have in my entire academic career."
Jill Bolte Taylor

Has TED 'Become An Insatiable Kingpin Of International Meme Laundering'? - SVW

Has TED 'Become An Insatiable Kingpin Of International Meme Laundering'?

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 2, 2012
(Gopi Kallayil, head of Google+ speaking at TEDxBerkeley earlier this year.)
TED, the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference, has expanded its brand across the globe over the past two years, with hundreds of local TEDx conferences, and more recently, with its own books imprint, TED Books.

TED organizers always choose their speakers well and there is rarely a dud among them. It is excellent curation under the aegis of "Ideas Worth Spreading."
But choosing which authors to publish under the TED Books brand appears to be more challenging than booking a speaker for a 17 minute talk.
Evgeny Morozov, writing in The New Republic, tears TED Books a new binding with his demolition review of Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization - By Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna.
After taking apart the dreary technobabble and recycled ideas in Hybrid Reality, he attacks TED for agreeing to publish such "useless piffle about technology."
He exposes the Khannas' endorsement of "noxious political ideas" related to China, Singapore, and their anti-democratic positions related to Hungary, Thailand, and Argentinia.
He writes,
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."
He points to two TED books that along with Hybrid Reality are "literary rubbish."

-The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It - by Philip Zimbardo
- Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act - by Ron Gutman
Foremski's Take: I've been to a lot of local TEDx conferences and I spoke at one in San Francisco (photo below) on the topic of activist media. I like many of the talks I've seen, even though the quality of some TEDx events can be uneven. I very much like the people that volunteer to create the local TEDx events.
However, I've been critical of the "Golden Arches of TED" approach that governs the licensing of the brand, best observed in the typical 17 minute TED presentation -- a formula and format that at times seems to have become a parody of itself through common repetition
TEDx should be experimental...
TEDx should be allowed to experiment, and that experimentation should represent the "x" in TEDx, rather than the "x" of an X Factor -- endless auditions in identical styles, all trending towards a monotonic mediocrity because there's nowhere else to go; there's no room to experiment, or to innovate.
Surely there's more than one format for sharing ideas? Shouldn't TED be more than just a well designed Powerpoint presentation?
Where are the TED conversations?
Another one of my peeves is that there's no engagement between speakers and audience, or audience with audience, offline and online.
There's no debate about the ideas presented. Each talk is a performance on a stage, usually in a large theater.
As the audience, we recieve the ideas in silence, from unquestionable experts; we're in the dark and largely invisible to the presenters, lit by powerful spotlights (top photo).
Sometimes the audience applauds, titters, often the audience gives a standing ovation -- but that's the extent of engagement between the podium and the seated.
It seems a wasted opportunity for moving good ideas forward, that there is only a theatrical performance, while hundreds of people sit so close to the action.
They attendees were willing to sacrifice much of their day to come to the TED events, they are motivated and interested in TED ideas, but they aren't allowed to contribute anything except their money, for a silent seat in a dark room. Unseen and unheard is not a good place to be.
I'm very hopeful that these wasted opportunities will become opportunities, to create a new TED, a better TED. I'm especially encouraged to see some of the local TEDx organizations shifting to smaller, salon-like events, where conversations are accorded as much space as the presentations, and where new ideas can be incubated.
McDonalds and TED...
As it expands its events, and moves into other areas such as books, podcasts, and prizes -- TED risks damaging the high quality of its brand if any of those ventures fail to meet the high standards associated with the TED brand. As many Fortune 1000 companies have discovered, It's not easy to maintain consistency at scale.
TED has no choice but to impose the same high standards of curation that it is known for, to TED Books, and in every single one of its ventures.
Protecting the TED brand from mediocrity is what comes with the territory, with the decision to grow global, and to franchise its organization.
It's a big job for McDonalds to ensure that its french fries taste the same everywhere. TED needs to do the same.
Tech, tech, tech, the Singularity countdown...
TED Books can be fixed but I don't think that the TED culture of apolitical, techno-optimist geek-philosophers, will ever change.
Mr Morozov rightly criticizes TED's decision to stay away from politics as a mistaken trust that technology alone, can solve big problems, without engaging any political process.

Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED's techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer.
This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED's preferred redeemers.

In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets.
And the gadgets do drop from the sky -- Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say "no" to MIT's (and TED's) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.
It's a fun read with important things said: Evgeny Morozov: The Naked And The TED | The New Republic

I Point To TED Talks and I Point to Kim Kardashian. That Is All. - Download The Universe

I Point To TED Talks and I Point to Kim Kardashian. That Is All. - Download The Universe

The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan. TED Books. Kindle, Nook, iBooks, $2.99
Reviewed by Carl Zimmer

Tonight, I want to talk to you about a national crisis. A global crisis. A crisis of such tremendous proportions that you may not even be aware that it is engulfing you and your loved ones and your neighbors in flames.

What is this crisis? It is a crisis of our brains. The brains of our fellow citizens are being digitally rewired. How? Here is how. Hundreds of millions of people are gazing at online videos, spending billions of aggregate hours slack-jawed in front of their monitors. These videos are sucking up all the time that these people would otherwise spend reading the great books that you and I grew up with. Remember those days back in the Reagan administration when we little tykes would page through Cicero and Racine? No more. Instead, we face an epidemic of short-term distraction. These videos last no more than 18 minutes, and often less. As soon as one video is over, we can choose from hundreds of others with the click of a mouse. Each one is different from the last, flooding our brains with an unnatural wealth of variety. Very soon, we even become addicted to that variety. Yes, that's right, addicted. It's an addiction no different from cocaine, heroin, vodka, bingo, Ben & Jerry's, Law & Order streamed on Netflix, or MySpace.

Wait, I meant Facebook. Nobody uses MySpace anymore, so that can't be addictive.
Right. Where was I?

These videos are so addictive that they are cracking the very foundation of human civilization. The endless barrage of these tiny films erodes the circuitry in our prefrontal cortex that normally enable us to focus for long periods of time and compose Petrarchan sonnets to our loved ones. These videos evade the true complexity of life. They provide us with easy resolutions. They flatter us, rather than forcing us to ask tough questions about ourselves or our political system. We become zombies as the reward centers of the brain explode like fireworks, leaving us helpless victims for mind-controlling masters. Is it any wonder that the rise of these videos to global domination correlates perfectly with the rise of Kim Kardashian? What else could possible account for this coincidence?
Therefore we must take immediate steps to ban TED talks.
The phenomenon of TED is a mixed bag. Let's leave aside the matter of the many thousands of dollars it costs to actually go to a TED conference, and the dubious ingroup effect that the ticket price promotes. I've never met anyone who shelled out that cash, and, chances are, you haven't either. But many of us know someone who has watched a TED talk for free. Their online videos have staggeringly huge audiences, of which I am a member. So let's just consider the videos. And, since Download the Universe is dedicated to science ebooks, let's just consider the videos of talks by scientists.

There are many good things about these talks. For one thing, there are a lot of them. In the United States, you can watch cable news for five hours and see, on average, only one minute of science coverage. Science documentaries are degenerating into odious tales of mermaids. TED waters our antiscientific desert.

A number of the science talks on TED are excellent. In this video Princeton biologist Bonnie Bassler describes how bacteria talk to each other, and what that might mean for everything from glowing squid to antibiotics. The writer Joshua Foer gives a precis of his best-selling book, Moonwalking With Einstein, on becoming a memory champion. MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden discusses how he's engineering neurons in living brains so that they will turn on and off in response to light.

These talks are excellent for two reasons. One reason is that the science is substantive and fresh. The other reason is that the talks themselves are well executed. These are not academic lectures that people watch because their grade depends on it. These are talks that are intended for the curious public. To work, they demand a delicate touch--an understanding of what you can and cannot assume if your audience is made up of hundreds of thousands of people. They also demand all the graces of good oratory, such as the careful delivery of words, and strategic deployed rises and falls in cadence. There is no droning recitation of PowerPoint in the best of these talks.

People often fixate on the high-end video quality of TED talks--the quick cuts between several camera angles, the crisp audio--but they overlook the speakers themselves, who work very hard to compose and rehearse their talks. And in crafting their presentations, these speakers are not selling out. Rather, they're continuing an old tradition in science. The technology of TED may be new, but scientists have been giving these talks for a long time. In the late 1800s, the English zoologist Thomas Huxley, lectured about evolution to throngs of working class Londoners in the late 1800s. And even earlier, Michael Faraday waxed poetic about the flame of a candle (the subject of Deborah Blum's recent review here).
Unfortunately, some TED talks about science don't live up to Huxley's example. The problem, I think, lies in TED's basic format. In effect, you're meant to feel as if you're receiving a revelation. TED speakers tend to open up their talks like sales pitches, trying to arouse your interest in what they are about to say. They are promising to rock your world, even if they're only talking about mushrooms.

So the talks have to feel new, and they have to sound as if they have huge implications. A speaker can achieve these goals in the 18 minutes afforded by TED, but there isn't much time left over to actually make a case--to present a coherent argument, to offer persuasive evidence, to address the questions that any skeptical audience should ask. In the best TED talks, it just so happens that the speaker is the sort of person you can trust to deliver a talk that comports with the actual science. But the system can easily be gamed.

In some cases, people get invited to talk about science thanks to their sudden appearance in the news, accompanied by flashy headlines. Exhibit A, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who claimed in late 2010 to have discovered bacteria that could live on arsenic and promised that the discovery would change textbooks forever. When challenged by scientific critics, she announced to reporters like myself that she would only discuss her work in peer reviewed journals. Three months later, she was talking at TED.

The problem can get even more serious in TED's new franchise, TEDx, which is popping up in cities around the world. Again, some TEDx talks are great. Caltech physicist (and DtU editor) Sean Carroll talking about cosmology? Whatever you've got, I'll take. But some guy ranting about his grand unified theory that he promises will be a source of  unlimited energy to fuel the planet? Well, just see how far you can get through this TEDx talk before you get loaded into an amublance with an aneurysm.
The most vexing problem of all comes when a famous scientist gives a TED talk without feeling the need to hew to science or to deliver a coherent argument. And I can't offer a better case study than a five-minute talk that psychologist Phil Zimbardo gave last year on the troubles faced by boys and men today--or, as Zimbardo puts it in an annoyingly faux-cool way, "guys."

Before you watch this very short video, it's important to recall what Zimbardo has done. His most famous accomplishment was the so-called Stanford prison experiment, in which he had college students play the roles of prisoners and guards. In a shockingly short period of time, the volunteers had become absorbed into their roles, with the guards sadistically relishing their power. Zimbardo has served as the president of the American Psychological Association and has written a number of bestsellers and textbooks.

And then this distinguished psychologist came to TED and delivered a rapid-fire bombardment of disconnected statistics and sweeping generalizations without any serious evidence backing them up. In this talk, he ends with a warning that our species will descend to the level of banana slugs. It's like the punchline of a joke.

It pains me to think that hundreds of thousands of people have spent five minutes of their lives watching this stuff. Even one minute is too much. But if I got so enraged that I began to rant that watching TED talks is a dangerous addiction that is rewiring brains, you would--I hope--demolish my attempt to biologize my own bugaboos.

Yet that's exactly what Zimbardo is trying to do with guys. Guys aren't doing well in school. Guys aren't being good fathers. There must be an underlying cause. Well, guys are on the Internet a lot these days. And they watch a lot of pornography online. Bingo! The Internet, and online porn in particular, are addictions rewiring the brains of guys, and making them incapable of being true men.

The more charitable among you may think that there's a coherent argument here, one that is hard to present in just five minutes. Well, there's an ebook to go along with this talk, entitled The Demise of Guys. While it's far tinier than a tome, it does have a few chapters, and even some footnotes. Alas, if you drop three bucks for some insight, you will find a jumble that's just as incoherent and unconvincing as the talk. You'll spend half an hour instead of five minutes lost in its chaos.

The Demise of Guys is a mish mash of quotes and numbers. Zimbardo and his co-author Nikita Duncan give a column in the Daily Mail about bad boyfriends just as much credibility as a peer-reviewed paper. They cite press releases. They insert an unscientific survey of TED viewers about what they think about pornography. They leap from video games to ADHD to fatherless families, giving just a few hundred words of attention before leaping off to the next hot-button topic.

There's no question that there are some major shifts these days in the social role of men, and the psychological causes and effects of that shift are worth exploring. But The Demise of Guys charts a path to be avoided, not explored.

The most vexing part of the ebook is its claim that the brains of guys are being "digitally rewired" (their words) through an addiction to online video games and pornography. Zimbardo joins the growing swarm of doomsayers who complain that technology today is altering our brains. Of course, juggling and chess alter our brains, as does just about anything we do very much. If our brains couldn't be rewired, we would live our entire lives in a sub-toddler state. Zimbardo has a long way to go before he reaches the absurd heights of Susan "I point to autism, I point to the Internet, that is all" Greenfield. But he's off to a great start.

Zimbardo's treatment of addiction is even more flawed. He takes it as a given that the intensity of video games and online porn allow them to take over the addiction areas of the brain, and are thereby are destroying men. He simply ignores any scientific literature about addiction that doesn't support his idea. There's lots of research, for example, that indicates that even the most intense drugs, like heroin,  turn only a small fraction of people who try them into addicts. To understand why some people become addicts, it's necessary to consider the other factors in people's lives. Addiction is strongly associated with psychiatric disorders, for example, as well as unemployment.

Internet addiction--or, as it's usually called, pathological Internet use--also affects a small fraction of users. In a new study on nearly 12,000 adolescents, Swedish researchers found that only 4.4% suffered from pathological Internet use. That rate breaks down to 5.2% of boys versus 3.8% of girls. Why is the percentage so low, when so many people use computers? Perhaps because only some people are uniquely vulnerable to addiction, Internet or otherwise. In one study in Germany, 27 out of 30 people with pathological Internet use also have a psychiatric disorder. Their use of the Internet may have more to do with an underlying problem than with some mythical lure of the Internet itself.
For the parents of kids--boys and girls--who are consumed by their computer, this pathological Internet use can be heartbreaking. And in some cases it may indeed have a terrible effect on the lives of those children. But is this the demise of guys? Guys with a capital G? Hardly.

Zimbardo never seriously grapples with this kind of research in his book, even to mount an argument against it. Instead, he races off to his next anecdote, his next bullet-point list of statistics. And that's the most TED-like quality of The Demise of Guys. When a TED talk end, the lights go out. There's no time for questions.

Zimmer author photo squareCarl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including A Planet of Viruses

The Naked And The TED | The New Republic - Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov: The Naked And The TED | The New Republic
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THE NEW PAMPHLET—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.

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)

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.”

Khanna’s contempt for democracy and human rights aside, he is simply an intellectual impostor, emitting such lethal doses of banalities, inanities, and generalizations that his books ought to carry advisory notices. Take this precious piece of advice from his previous book—the modestly titled How to Run the World—which is quite representative of his work: “The world needs very few if any new global organizations. What it needs is far more fresh combinations of existing actors who coordinate better with one another.” How this A-list networking would stop climate change, cyber-crime, or trade in exotic animals is never specified. Khanna does not really care about the details of policy. He is a manufacturer of abstract, meaningless slogans. He is, indeed, the most talented bullshit artist of his generation. And this confers upon him a certain anthropological interest.

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.

In their TED book, the Khannas boldly declare that “mastery in the leading technology sectors of any era determines who leads in geoeconomics and dominates in geopolitics.” Technology is all, the alpha and the omega. How to Run the World, which appeared last year, already contained strong hints about what would happen once he embraced the shiny world of techno-babble with open arms (and, one presumes, open pockets). There we learned that “cloud computing—not big buildings and bloated bureaucracies—is the future of global governance,” and, my favorite, “everyone who has a BlackBerry—or iPhone or Nexus One—can be their own ambassador.” Of their own country of one, presumably.

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.

When the Khannas discuss the charms of their newly found profession in Hybrid Reality, the whole enterprise is revealed as a jargon-laden farce: “Futurism is a combination of long-term and long-tail, separating the trends from the trendy and the shocks from the shifts, and combining data, reportage, and scenarios.” It doesn’t sound like a very demanding job: “It helps to travel and be imaginative, but it is even more useful to observe children.” And why all this effort? So that we can better predict the apocalypse. “Avoiding civilizational collapse will require harnessing technologies that help us decipher complexity, overcome decision overload, and produce comprehensive strategies.” The Khannas have come to accomplish nothing less than the rescue of civilization.

TOFFLER-WORSHIP and futuristic kitsch aside, what does Hybrid Reality actually argue? There are several disjointed arguments. First, that technology—“technology with a big ‘T,’” as they call it—is supplanting economics and geopolitics as the leading driver of international relations. This means, among other things, that Washington deploys tools such as Flame and Stuxnet simply because it has the better technology—not because of a strategic and military analysis. It is a silly argument, but wrapped in tech-talk it sounds almost plausible.
For the Khannas, technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes. Technology is the magic wand that lifts nations from poverty, cures diseases, redistributes power, and promises immortality to the human race. Nations, firms, and cities that develop the smartest and most flexible way of doing this are said to possess Technik—a German term with a substantial intellectual pedigree that, in the Khannas’ hands, can mean just about anything—and a high “technology quotient.”

Today, they believe, we are entering a new era, when humans will be so intricately dependent on technology that “human-technology coexistence has become human-technology coevolution.” This is what the Khannas mean by the “Hybrid Age”—a “new sociotechnical era that is unfolding as technologies merge with each other and humans merge with technology.” They proceed to outline its inevitable consequences. Designer babies? Check. Cloned humans? Check. Sex robots that “can be made to look like anyone you want”? Check. A paradise!

Any stretch of time that deserves a name of its own—an age, an era, an epoch—must have at least a few distinct characteristics that make it stand out from the past. The problem is that all the features that the Khannas invoke to emphasize the uniqueness of our era have long been claimed by other commentators for their own unique eras. The Khannas tell us that “technology no longer simply processes our instructions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback.” How is that different from Daniel Boorstin’s bombastic pronouncement in 1977 that “the Republic of Technology where we will be living is a feedback world”? And the Khannas’ admonition that “rather than view technology and humanity as two distinct domains, we must increasingly appreciate the dense sociotechnical nexus in which they constantly shape each other”—how is this different from what Ortega y Gasset wrote more eloquently in 1939: “Man without technology ... is not man”?

The idea of hybridity that the Khannas assume to be their sexy and original insight has been with us for a long time—long before social media and biotechnology. While some dismiss such theorists of hybridity as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, who have questioned the epistemological foundations of the modern scientific enterprise, as being on the wrong side of the Science Wars, hybridity is by no means a postmodernist idea. Here is Daniel Callahan—a respected bioethicist who can hardly be accused of PoMo transgressions— writing in 1971: “We have to do away with a false and misleading dualism, one which abstracts man on the one hand and technology on the other, as if the two were quite separate kinds of realities.... Man is by nature a technological animal; to be human is to be technological.... When we speak of technology, this is another way of speaking about man himself in one of his manifestations.”

For modern theorists of technology, hybridity is an ontological—not an emergent—property. They believe, to quote Callahan again, that “to be human is to be technological,” and that it has always been thus. As it turns out, this seemingly innocent assumption about the world can have serious implications for how we think about politics, morality, and law. It inspired Latour’s notion of “distributed agency”—in its crudest form, the idea that neither guns nor people kill people but rather a fleeting, one-off combination of the two. (The entity that shoots is a “gun-man.”) This is not meant to suggest that people no longer have to go to jail for murder. It is only to point out that, if we really want to explain a particular act of shooting, we need to account for factors like the material design of the gun, the marketing considerations of its manufacturers, the severity of anti-gun laws, and so on.

The latest technologies might make us more aware of this hybridity—of the techno-human condition, if you will—but to speak of the Hybrid Age makes as much sense as to speak of the Nature Age: the fact that climate change makes us more aware of the air we breathe or the water we drink does not fundamentally alter the dynamics of our dependence on these resources. To posit that we are moving into the Hybrid Age is to assume that there was once a time—according to the Khannas, it was just a few years ago—when such hybridity was not the case, when man and technology trod their separate paths. It is to believe that human nature changed sometime last year or so. This, of course, is nonsense—even if makes technology companies feel important. As the Dutch philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek puts it in his fine book Moralizing Technology, “We are as autonomous with regard to technology as we are with regard to language, oxygen, or gravity.”

But still the Khannas roll dizzily along. “The Hybrid Age is the transition period between the Information Age and the moment of Singularity (when machines surpass human intelligence) that inventor Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, estimates we may reach by 2040 (perhaps sooner). The Hybrid Age is a liminal phase in which we cross the threshold toward a new mode of arranging global society.” These are end times. The Hybrid Age is the preparation for the apotheosis of the Singularity— a Singularity-lite of sorts. (Ayesha Khanna serves as a faculty adviser to Singularity University.) This periodization of history is just a marketing trick. Those who believe in Kurzweil’s ugly and ridiculous thesis, which at TED conferences is probably the majority, have already grudgingly accepted the fact that a few unexciting decades will transpire before it comes to pass—and so the Khannas move in to claim these decades as their own, as their brand, while promising us that all the fun of the Singularity—who doesn’t fancy uploading his soul to the cloud so that it can commingle with the soul of Steve Jobs?—will happen even sooner than we think.

As the Hybrid Age sets in, inaction is not an option. “You may continue to live your life without understanding the implications of the still-distant Singularity, but you should not underestimate how quickly we are accelerating into the Hybrid Age—nor delay in managing this transition yourself.” Sinners, repent! The day of the Lord is nigh! And in case you wonder where you might turn for assistance in “managing this transition,” the Khannas are there to help. They are eschatological consultants. They run a for-profit consulting firm “providing insight into the implications of emerging technologies” that bears the proud name of the Hybrid Reality Institute. So far the firm’s main accomplishment seems to be convincing the TED Conference to print its verbose marketing brochure as a book. But perhaps this is what the Hybrid Age is all about: marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths.

THIS BOOK is not just useless piffle about technology; it is also an endorsement of some rather noxious political ideas. Those already familiar with Parag Khanna’s earlier celebrations of autocracies in Southeast Asia will not be surprised by some of the most outrageous paragraphs in his TED book. China is one of the Khannas’ role models. They have the guts to write that “a decade from now we will look back at China’s 12th Five-Year Plan as the seminal document of the early 21st century.” Take your pick: 12th Five-Year Plan or Charter 08. Somehow the latter never gets a mention in this book. Perhaps it is not seminal enough, or it is insufficiently driven by technology. And what makes the Five-Year Plan so seminal? “It pledges $1.5 trillion in government support for seven ‘strategic emerging industries,’ including alternative energy, biotechnology, next-gen IT, high-end manufacturing equipment, and advanced materials.” Would it really surprise anyone if in a few years some of that $1.5 trillion were to trickle down to the Hybrid Reality Institute?

The Khannas also heap praise on Singapore, “a seamlessly efficient cosmopolitan world capital of finance and, increasingly, innovation.” Alas, they do not explain how Singapore has become so “seamlessly efficient.” Perhaps this quotation from Lee Kuan Yew, its first long-time ruler—conveniently omitted by the Khannas—may shed some light: “Everytime anybody wants to start anything which will unwind or unravel this orderly, organized, sensible, rational society, and make it irrational and emotional, I put a stop to it without hesitation.” The Khannas approvingly note that Singapore is “the leading role model in city-state Technik for entities from Abu Dhabi to Moscow to Kuala Lumpur.” That all three aforementioned cities are situated in despicable authoritarian regimes—which might explain why they look up to Singapore—does not much trouble the Khannas. They recently announced that they are moving to Singapore. Good. The autocratic city and the apologists for autocracy deserve each other.

It only gets worse, as the Khannas proceed to profess their deep and inherently anti-democratic admiration for technocracy. That they can spit out the following passage without running any risk of being disinvited from respectable dinner parties and television shows is a sign of how well our debate about technology—a seemingly neutral and nonpolitical issue—conceals deeply political (and, in this case, outright authoritarian) tendencies:
Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens.... To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.”
Things in Hungary are pretty bad, but to suggest that Hungarians would be better off with China-style governance is really reprehensible. And to imply that China’s technocrats have term limits is outright offensive.

In the domestic American context, the Khannas also celebrate the infusion of “experts such as Tim O’Reilly and Craig Newmark [who] ... stepped in to advise Washington on Gov 2.0 technologies such as open-data platforms.” “Such citizen-technologists,” we are told, “are crucial ... to [improving] government efficiency.” Once again, the technologists—and the technocratic agencies they are enlisted to support—are presented as objective, independent, and free of any ideological leanings. Nowhere do we learn that Tim O’Reilly runs a profitable corporation that might stand to benefit from the government’s embrace of open-data platforms, or that Craig Newmark is a committed cyber-libertarian who used to worship Ayn Rand. Or that Jimmy Wales, who is advising the British government, is so enthralled with Rand and objectivism that he named his daughter after one of the characters in a Rand novel. Nor do the Khannas tell us that the public embrace of “open-data platforms” is often accompanied by an increase in government secrecy or a growing reluctance to fund public journalism. (Why fund the BBC if “citizen-investigators” can now be asked to do all the digging for free?) The pursuit of efficiency alone cannot guide public policy—this is why we have politics; but technocrats rarely want to hear such truths. And the Khannas cannot be trusted to tell them.

AS IS TYPICAL of today’s anxiety-peddling futurology, the Khannas’ favorite word is “increasingly,” which is their way of saying that our unstable world is always changing and that only advanced thinkers such as themselves can guide us through this turbulence. In Hybrid Reality, everything is increasingly something else: gadgets are increasingly miraculous, technology is increasingly making its way into the human body, quiet moments are increasingly rare. This is a world in which pundits are increasingly using the word “increasingly” whenever they feel too lazy to look up the actual statistics, which, in the Khannas’ case, increasingly means all the time.

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.

It is Technik that makes much of the Khannas’ writing circular and simplistic. Take this highly confusing sentence: “Good Technik requires a combination of the attributes that deliver high human development, economic growth, political inclusiveness, and technology preparedness.” Translation: “Good Technik requires Technik.” As for the simplistic part, try this: “Technik unites the scientific and mechanical dimensions of technology (determinism) with a necessary concern for its effect on humans and society (constructivism).” If I read the Khannas correctly—and I cannot be sure, for they seem confused about the terms “determinism” or “constructivism,” at least as those are used in the philosophy of technology—their novel interpretation of the old German term Technik proposes to reveal that technologies are material and technologies have effects. Is this insight so profound that it needed a high German word to explain it?

But the Khannas do not want to abandon the simpler term “technology,” either, so they try to inflate it, too. Remember, “the Hybrid Age is the era when we renew our thinking about technology with a big ‘T.’” Sticking to the notion of “technology with a big ‘T’” yields insights such as this: “From the printing press to penicillin and now Twitter and genomics, technology ceaselessly demonstrates its transformative impact.” The printing press and penicillin and Twitter and genomics do indeed have transformative effects, but to assume that they all matter in the same way—which is the inevitable result of lumping them under the rubric of “Technology,” the one with its own rules, wants, and agendas—is as stupid as it is dangerous.

Perhaps, if one had to give a three-minute TED presentation about penicillin, Twitter, genomics, and the printing press—but why would anyone ever want to give such a talk?—a catch-all term such as “technology” might be of some help. But analytically it is useless, in the way that lumping Warhol, Chardin, hip hop, Chaplin, Haydn, and science fiction under the term “arts” is useless. At such a level of generality every fool can sound brilliant. The unfortunate thing is that, while few people would grant any substance to an argument that identifies a common meaning in Warhol, Chardin, hip hop, Chaplin, Haydn, and science fiction, we easily fall for grand theories that mysteriously connect humans and material artifacts to some grand narrative about the universe, be it the Singularity, Toffler’s Third Wave, or the Hybrid Age. When, fifteen years ago, Leo Marx accused technology of being “a hazardous concept” for leading precisely to this kind of addled thinking, he was too polite. In the hands of skilled hustlers such as the Khannas, technology is itself a counterfeit concept, which does little but make complex ideas look deceptively simple. Much like Glenn Beck’s magic blackboard, it connects everything to everything without saying anything significant about anything.

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.”

The Khannas’ book is not the only piece of literary rubbish carrying the TED brand. Another recently published TED book called The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It—co-authored by Philip Zimbardo, of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame, is an apt example of what transpires when TED ideas happen to good people. One would think that a scholar as distinguished as Zimbardo would not need to set foot in Khanna-land, but, alas, his book brims with almost as many clich├ęs and pseudo-daring pronouncements. Did you know that “in porn, male actors have enormous penises,” and that “porn is not about romance”? The book’s main premise is that the Internet and video games are re-wiring the brains of “guys,” much to the detriment of civilization. Read and be terrified, especially if you are a “guy,” because “[guys’] brains are being catered to by porn on demand and by video games at a flick of the switch or a click of the mouse.” This is almost as good as Allan Bloom’s admonition in The Closing of the American Mind that Walkman headphones lead to parricide. The evidence presented is inconsistent and all over the map. As the science journalist Carl Zimmer has noted, The Demise of Guys gives a Daily Mail column as much credibility as a peer-reviewed paper. And a new TED book on the science of smiling—Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, by Ron Gutman—contains even more banality than the Khannas’ little masterpiece of TED emptiness—a remarkable feat. There one may read, for example, that “under certain conditions, when men see women smile at them they interpret that as a sign that the women think they are attractive.” This is what passes for advanced thinking.

When they launched their publishing venture, the TED organizers dismissed any concern that their books’ slim size would be dumbing us down. “Actually, we suspect people reading TED Books will be trading up rather than down. They’ll be reading a short, compelling book instead of browsing a magazine or doing crossword puzzles. Our goal is to make ideas accessible in a way that matches modern attention spans.” But surely “modern attention spans” must be resisted, not celebrated. Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis. The TED ideal of thought is the ideal of the “takeaway”—the shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think. I don’t know if the crossword puzzles are rewiring our brains—I hope TED knows its neuroscience, with all the neuroscientists on its stage—but anyone who is seriously considering reading Hybrid Reality or Smile should also entertain the option of playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja.

Parag Khanna’s writings on geopolitics never amounted to much of anything even before his turn to technology, but it is instructive to see how his presentation has changed now that he has embedded himself in the TED firmament. Save for a hackneyed nod to the “world’s chessboard,” he now makes only cursory references to power structures and strategic alliances. Instead he strikes all the right chords to elicit approval from the TED crowd—musing on genetics, neuroscience, synthetic biology—all in order to inform us that “our ability to augment ourselves” is growing by the minute. As is customary in such discourse, no mention is made of the fact that the Human Genome Project, for all the hype it generated a decade ago, has not accomplished much. Likewise, MRI scans are celebrated as if they offered direct and immediate access to truth. (“Harnessing fMRI mental scans, companies ... are gathering the ‘unspoken truth.’”) The Khannas’ Japan—as packaged for TED consumption—is the land of cutting-edge technology: you would never know that 59 percent of Japanese homes still have (frequently used!) fax machines.

The Khannas are typical of the TED crowd in that they do not express much doubt about anything. Their pronouncements about political structures are as firm and arrogant as some scientists’ pronouncements about the cognitive structures of the brain. Whatever problems lurk on the horizon are imagined primarily as problems of technology, which, given enough money, brain power, and nutritional supplements, someone in Silicon Valley should be in a position to solve. This is consistent with TED’s adoption of a decidedly non-political attitude, as became apparent in a recent kerfuffle over a short talk on inequality given by a venture capitalist—who else?—which TED refused to release for fear that it might offend too many rich people.

Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action.

Another fine example of the TED mentality in the context of global affairs is Abundance, a new book co-written by Peter Diamandis, the co-founder of the Singularity University. He is a TED regular and the person who blurbed Khanna’s book as “an enormously important contribution to our thinking about how to create a better tomorrow.” (Singularity may rid us of death, but it won’t abolish backscratching.) Diamandis delivers an abundant list of pressing global problems accompanied by an equally abundant list of technologies that can fix them. Here, too, politics rarely gets a mention.

Given TED’s disproportionate influence on a certain level of the global debate, it follows that the public at large also becomes more approving of technological solutions to problems that are not technological but political. Problems of climate change become problems of making production more efficient or finding ways to colonize other planets—not of reaching political agreement on how to limit production or consume in a more sustainable fashion. Problems of health care become problems of inadequate self-monitoring and data-sharing. Problems of ensuring one’s privacy—which might otherwise get solved by pushing for new laws—become problems of inadequate tools for defending one’s anonymity online or selling access to one’s own data. (The Khannas are not alone in believing that “individuals [must] gain control over the value of their time, skills, data, and resources. We must be ruthless in earning from those who want our attention.”)

It is in the developing world where the limitations of TED’s techno-humanitarian mentality are most pronounced. In TED world, problems of aid and development are no longer seen as problems of weak and corrupt institutions; they are recast as problems of inadequate connectivity or an insufficiency of gadgets. According to the Khannas, “centuries of colonialism and decades of aid haven’t lifted Africa’s fortunes the way technology can.” Hence the latest urge to bombard Africa with tablets and Kindles—even when an average African kid would find it impossible to repair a damaged Kindle. And the gadgets do drop from the sky—Nicholas Negroponte, having spectacularly failed in his One Laptop Per Child quest, now wants to drop his own tablets from helicopters, which would make it harder for the African savages to say “no” to MIT’s (and TED’s) civilization. This is la mission civilatrice 2.0.
It is hardly surprising that the Khannas’ deep admiration of Singapore’s technocratic authoritarianism is well-received by the TEDdies—after all, they prefer to fix broken countries as if they are broken start-ups. That solving any of their favorite global problems would require political solutions—if only to ensure that nobody’s rights and interests are violated or overlooked in the process— is not something that the TED elite, with its aversion to conventional instruments of power and its inebriated can-do attitude, likes to hear. Politics slows things down; but technology speeds things up. TED’s techno-humanitarians—that brigade of what the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has dubbed “The White Savior Industrial Complex”—would defer to China’s “technocrats with term limits” and have them bulldoze entire villages in order to build another Foxconn plant rather than bother with the slow progress of political reform. The Khannas are on to something when they write that “the Hybrid Age ... might also become a Pax Technologica,” but there are pitifully few reasons to believe that a Pax Technologica would do much good for the world. Techno-humanitarianism is much more techno than humanitarian.

Evgeny Morozov is the author, most recently, of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs). This article originally appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.

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