LONG BEACH, California — After showing the crowd pictures of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Fidel Castro, and then suggesting the government institute a minimum income, one speechmaker here earned raucous applause. Another rabble-rouser got the crowd hooting by saying stagnant earnings mean we need to “reinvent our whole economic system.”
But the self-styled troublemakers gathered in this blue-collar town weren’t striking longshoremen or unionizing factory workers; they were well-to-do digital mavens gathered for the annual TED conference (ticket price: $7,500).
Amid the usual talk of robots, architecture, education reform, corporate creativity, and 3-D printing, wealth redistribution and even some properly socialist memes have emerged as popular topics of conversation at TED 2013. The interest seems to be driven by concerns over grinding unemployment and widening inequality in the nation at large, plus a confluence of more recent trends in tech, including the spread of open source software, the proliferation of robot workers, and, probably most pointedly, a revived discussion among economists about how the rise of robots and other labor-replacing technologies has shifted more power from workers to those who hold capital (rich people).
Leftist economic ideas were mentioned at least three times yesterday alone. First designer Alastair Parvin cited the theories of Karl Marx in explaining his techniques for liberating construction from corporations and architecture from “the 1 percent;” Parvin said a combination of modern technologies and a renewed interest in community cooperation mean that ordinary people can take for themselves some of what Parvin expressly referred to as “the means of production.”
Then computer scientist Danny Hillis quoted another idea from Marx, which he said was key in allowing the internet to survive and flourish in its early decades: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” was the communist credo that allowed techies to effectively route traffic on a straining computer network designed and funded to win a war against communists, he said.
Finally there was Andrew McAfee, an MIT “management theorist” who detailed the declining fortunes of the working class in an economy that’s full of increasingly sophisticated machines. The middle class aren’t doing so well either: Median incomes have declined over the past 15 years.
“The robots are not going to take all our jobs in the next year or two,” McAfee said. “But over the longer term, if we’re moving into an economy that’s heavy on technology and light on labor, and we are, then we have to consider some more radical interventions. For example, something like the guaranteed minimum income,” McAfee said. “That idea is probably making some people in this room uncomfortable because it’s associated with the extreme left wing.”
McAfee then flashed pictures of Marc, Lenin, and Castro, before assuring the audience that the idea was also associated with right-wing icons Friedrich Hayek, Richard Nixon, and Milton Friedman. Above-it-all nonpartisan centrism has a strong constituency in rich techies, and there’s certainly been some of that at this year’s TED as well, and McAfee, who has been outspoken about his distaste for Marx, was smartly placating that strain of attendee.
But even if no speakers have singled out a particular political party for ridicule or praise, it’s hard not to notice how many of the political ideas at this year’s TED have come from the left. For example, an on-stage debate on the social impact of innovation between an economist and a business school professor detoured into this back and forth on how to combat rising U.S economic inequality: The business professor said “we are going to need to reinvent our organizations and even our whole economic system… so we can share our prosperity more broadly,” while the economist argued that we need to open the borders and legalize drugs. Not exactly right-wing talking points.
The discussion at this year’s TED’s offers hints that the political orientation of the digerati has moved left of “cyber-libertarianism” and that the tech sector might even act as a counterbalance to more traditional and right-leaning industries on the politics of economic intervention. But of course talk is cheap even when it’s expensive: It’s one thing to pay $7,500 to laugh at Marx quotations between almond-milk shots and yellowtail nachos and quite another to put real personal force behind those ideas – particularly when you’re the one who’s going to have to fund them, on top of all that money you spent on cool robots.
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Digital Elite Flirt With Socialism (and Nixon) at TED
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