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Much-hyped technological innovation isn’t necessarily progress

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

9 May 2020

9:00 AM

Smoke and Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It Gemma Milne

Robinson, pp.336, 14.99

Modern advances in communication technology, computer power and medical science can sometimes be so startling as to seem almost like magic. It’s easy to get excited about it all — but what happens if we get too excited? What happens if we lean too heavily on technology, convinced that it can solve all our problems? What happens if we begin to see technology in an unrealistic, hyped-up way? These are the questions at the heart of Gemma Milne’s book.

The answer — somewhat unsurprisingly — is that over-excitement is a bad thing. Hype can damage scientific progress and in some cases send it into reverse. Whether it’s in the development of nuclear fusion, the commercialisation of space or in the creation of quantum computers, ‘unmet expectations based on possibly overhyped claims will land [research] in another slump, maybe for another decade or, perhaps, forever’.

The idea that our enthusiasm for the new, which for so long has helped to drive human progress, could in fact end up holding us back is a nice one. But by the end of this broad and intellectually impressive book, it’s an argument that feels a little unconvincing.

In the section on cancer sequencing, for example, the author writes: ‘It is a brilliant innovation, but there are flaws which rarely get any coverage, meaning it is often presented without crucial nuance.’ A reasonable point. And yet there is no indication given of who is behind this misrepresentation. It is merely stated. This example — and there are many others like it — captures the book’s central problem. For all the warnings about hype and how dangerous it can be, the culprits remain invisible, unnamed and not even quoted. Instead, there are allusions to ‘hyped-up headlines’, and ‘the claims of inventors’. That is not to say that no such technological hype exists. Rather, the author makes the mistake of saying there is lots of hype instead of showing it. As a result, her central argument struggles to assert itself.


If there are examples of hype in the book, they unfortunately come from the author herself. Take for example the appraisal of China’s Belt and Road initiative, Beijing’s global exercise in economic colonialism. ‘China is investing around $4 trillion,’ she writes. ‘With that kind of investment, both business and power are for the taking.’ What is that if not hype? When addressing the commercial space race, Milne describes it as having ‘the potential to democratise space in a way never seen before’. It’s a sector in which ‘incredible trailblazers’ are ‘opening up opportunities for more people’. Again, this is precisely the sort of hype that the book sets out to discourage.

Even so, there are some important points here, especially in the later chapters. On the subject of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology — systems that allow external objects to be controlled by the mind — the author writes: ‘The internet… is not just “normal” in society: it’s necessary. If you want to take part in the everyday ups and downs of living in an advanced 21st-century society, you need the internet.’ So, the book asks: ‘At what point will opting into BCI not feel like a choice for active members of society, but rather a requirement?’ That question is as worrying as it is astute.

The analysis of AI is similarly disturbing, particularly the story of a 19-year-old from New York City arrested on a firearms charge. AI was used to analyse the DNA found on the gun, and as a result he was jailed for 15 years. But the company that manufactured the AI system declined to allow the source code to be examined, ‘as that would put the profitability of the company at risk’. This means that a young man was effectively sent to prison by an algorithmic black box, the contents of which were off limits, even to the US legal system.

This leads to a deceptively simple question. Why do we even want this stuff?

The market supplies what is demanded by those buying: us. The sentiment of ‘we’re just giving the people what they want’ is a common excuse for problematic behaviour.

The question that follows from this is whether the current wave of technological innovation is too powerful and too consequential to be left to the whims of the market. The dominance of Google and Facebook would suggest that the answer is yes. That is of profound concern, especially as coming technologies such as AI and BCI both have the potential to be far more intrusive than even the most powerful search engines or social media platforms.

Smoke and Mirrors is at its strongest when confronting the ethics of technological progress, and if the author had kept to that area, the result would have been a much more substantial work. As it is, the narrative slews off into an examination of what the book calls ‘tech-hype porn’, an argument that feels by-the-by, especially when set alongside the much larger philosophical questions that new technologies can raise.

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