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The poverty of theory


At Bookforum, Siva Vaidhyanathan takes the wind out of the sails of techno-utopians in his review of books by two of their most fervent exponents: “futurist” Jeremy Rifkin and MIT researcher and physicist César Hidalgo. Vaidhyanathan writes that in their insistence on seeing the world exclusively through the lens of technology—which they view as an unqualified good—Rifkin and Hidalgo ignore politics and history:

American writers in the booming tech-seer sector continue to ignore the role of politics and policy in explaining how and why wealth is distributed unequally across the globe, usually deploying a pair of interlocking analytical strategies to transport their readers into the tech futurist’s idealized world, shorn of politics or history. Their first step is to construct a scientific-sounding theoretical scaffolding using lay summaries of actual science to explain human phenomena. Their second is the quasi-religious invocation of “innovation,” a force that moves us down necessary and knowable paths to a certain future.

Two recent books by pedigreed authors showcase these maneuvers grandly. Why Information Grows, by MIT researcher and physicist César Hidalgo, employs the first rhetorical strategy in an alarmingly thin and facile tour of information theory and its effects on the world. The Zero Marginal Cost Society, by legendary futurist and pundit Jeremy Rifkin, is impressive in its breadth and heft, positing nothing less than the clear and present erosion of capitalism as we know it, via the remorseless internal logic of innovation.

Image: Jeremy Rifkin, via