Here at Download the Universe, we're pleased to see a venerable publication like the New Republic give some attention to science ebooks--in the August 23 print edition, no less. In "The Naked and the TED," Evgeny Morozov takes a look at three ebooks published by TED. His harsh verdict is a lot like our reviews of a couple TED titles (me on The Demise of Guys, David Dobbs on Smile). He even refers to my review in the piece--although he doesn't actually mention Download the Universe, a shout-out that would have been most appreciated.
Morozov's main object of scorn is a TED ebook called Hybrid Reality. I can see why. It's one of those utopian manifestos promising solutions to all our woes--political, social, medical, and so on--through advances in technology. Attacking a book like Hybrid Reality is not a big jump for Morozov--he writes frequently about the hidden threats to democracy posed by the Internet.
Morozov's writing has one main mode--the snarky attack. It works just fine when he's going after smiley-faced privacy-assassins like Facebook. But Hybrid Reality doesn't just invoke the Internet to promise us a better tomorrow. It also pledges that the Human Genome Project, neuroscience, and other branches of science will provide cures for what ails us. And since Morozov loathes the authors of Hybrid Reality, he stands ready to belittle whatever they like. If they like the Human Genome Project, for example, then it must be bogus. "The Human Genome Project," Morozov declares, "for all the hype it generated a decade ago, has not accomplished much."
What ruler is Morozov using to measure the project's accomplishments? He doesn't tell us, so we'll have to guess. If he relied solely on breathless news articles in the late 1990s and thought we'd have a cure for every disease known to man in under ten years, then I can see why he's disappointed.
But if Morozov had done the right thing and had looked at the actual scientific impacts of the Human Genome Project, he'd see that scientists have indeed accomplished much. Thanks to the Human Genome Project, scientists have discovered a previously unknown lineage of extinct humans in Siberia. As I wrote last month in the New York Times, scientists are gaining a new appreciation of the role that microbes play in our bodies--an appreciation only possible because scientists sequencing the human genome figured out how to assemble complete genomes from broken pieces. By sequencing the entire genomes of patients, scientists can pinpoint the mutations responsible for genetic diseases. That's just the start of a very long list. (And let's not forget the $141 in economic benefit for every $1 of government investment in the Human Genome Project.)
Morozov's dismissal of results like these is just as glib as the techno-utopianism that he attacks.
Because Morozov is perpetually on the attack, I have no idea if he really thinks that the Human Genome Project is yet another bogus technological fix. Does he think that genome research can't possibly solve any problems? More broadly, I wonder what Morozov thinks is the proper place of technology and science in society. If I've missed this in Morozov's writings, I'd be happy for someone to point it out to me.
Like the Human Genome Project, ebooks are guilty by association--or at least ones published by TED:
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.
This is fun to read, but it raises questions that it can't answer. Are ebooks by their nature corrupting? Or does Morozov only object to ebooks that are produced by one organization that he doesn't like? Here at Download the Universe, we don't flinch from calling garbage what it is. But we also find ebooks that delight us. Is such a thing even possible in Morozov's moral universe? I know for a fact that Morozov reads Download the Universe, and so let me end with four words: Our comment thread awaits.