Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode I speak to sci­ence jour­nal­ist, Gemma Milne.

Hype only has pow­er in its illu­sion and if more peo­ple start­ed from a mind­set of crit­i­cal think­ing, hype would­n’t have its pow­er.
Gemma Milne, excerpt from inter­view

Gemma shared her insights into how the hype machine impacts the way sci­en­tif­ic advances are com­mu­ni­cat­ed, how tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies work to attract inter­est and atten­tion, and how the gen­er­al pub­lic can bet­ter engage in crit­i­cal think­ing when faced with the pos­si­bil­i­ties offered by new inno­va­tions.

This episode is an edit­ed ver­sion of a recent live stream event. You can view the full, unedit­ed video of this con­ver­sa­tion at FUTURES pod­cast dot net.

Luke Robert Mason: Hype has become an essen­tial tool for sci­en­tists and tech­nol­o­gists. It’s used to attract investors, gain the atten­tion of the media, and dri­ve sup­port from the gen­er­al pub­lic. But hype can also mis­lead, dis­tract, and in some cas­es dis­rupt sci­en­tif­ic progress. In her new book Smoke and Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It, Gemma Milne explores the impact that bold claims have on our per­cep­tion of recent inno­va­tions includ­ing arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, quan­tum com­put­ing, brain-computer inter­faces, can­cer drugs, future foods and fusion ener­gy.

Gemma, I want to kick off by ask­ing you this: What is hype? Is it an exag­ger­a­tion to say that it’s a form of mar­ket­ing or a form of adver­tis­ing? Or is hype just straight up lying? 

Gemma Milne: Yeah, this is one of the ques­tions I, in some sense, was strug­gling to answer for quite some time when I first start­ed work­ing on the book. I inter­viewed about 60 peo­ple for the book and I asked them all, What does hype mean to you? How would you define it?” and almost every time, you got this very emo­tion­al answer: Oh it’s this annoy­ing thing that gets in the way of truth” and dah dah dah…which was def­i­nite­ly where I start­ed. 

I wrote the book par­tic­u­lar­ly from a place of frus­tra­tion to begin with, but over time I came to think of hype as more of a tool. The rea­son that I got there was because I did actu­al­ly want to sep­a­rate it from mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion, because there’s obvi­ous­ly quite a lot out there already about it. I want­ed to focus on a par­tic­u­lar phe­nom­e­non.

The anec­dote I use—which is part of the rea­son why the book is called Smoke and Mirrors—is around fool­ing. If you go to a mag­ic show, you’re being con­sen­su­al­ly fooled. You’re walk­ing in and say­ing, Fool me, or I’m going to try and work it out, but it’s okay for you to try.” Non-consensual fool­ing is also called lying, which is where I would also put fake news and delib­er­ate dis­in­for­ma­tion or mis­in­for­ma­tion. Hype: I think of it as a tool that can some­times cause acci­den­tal fool­ing. The per­son who’s putting out is not nec­es­sar­i­ly try­ing to lie or trick or mislead—at least not in a real­ly detri­men­tal way. They’re not try­ing to get you to think the wrong thing. But, when tak­en out of con­text, hype can cause mis­in­for­ma­tion. I sup­pose the def­i­n­i­tion I’m com­ing to Smoke and Mirrors with is this idea of: A tool for exag­ger­at­ed pub­lic­i­ty or the use of adver­tis­ing to get a mes­sage across.’

Mason: So in your opin­ion, Gemma, do you think hype inter­feres or hin­ders with sci­en­tif­ic progress, or does it actu­al­ly help it?

Milne: I mean, both. It’s a tool, right? So you can use it whichev­er way you please. My plea in the book is for peo­ple to use it more respon­si­bly. But I think yeah, at the end of the day we need hype. We need it to be able to make the com­plex sim­ple. We need to cut through all of the infor­ma­tion that’s out there on the Internet. We need to be able to sur­face impor­tant ideas and impor­tant messages—particularly when it comes to things like pub­lic cam­paigns around health, for instance. But yes, I do argue that it can dis­rupt, it can dis­tract. It can keep a sta­tus quo that we don’t want. It can send peo­ple down the wrong alleys. It can cause oppor­tu­ni­ty cost if it push­es invest­ment in cer­tain places and not in oth­ers. There are a lot of dif­fer­ent, shall we say, results of this acci­den­tal fool­ing, which are not always ben­e­fi­cial for soci­ety.

Mason: Now you’re a sci­ence jour­nal­ist, but it was­n’t always that way. You start­ed your career at WPP’s adver­tis­ing agency, Ogilvy. I just won­der, what did you learn in the adver­tis­ing indus­try about this thing called hype?

Milne: Yeah, lots. I think I also craft­ed my emo­tion­al rela­tion­ship with it there, too. I actu­al­ly would say I start­ed my career in invest­ment bank­ing. I was­n’t there very long, but that’s where I orig­i­nal­ly start­ed. The depart­ment I was in was called Equity Capital Markets, and the job there is sell­ing IPOs. It’s a sales job, real­ly. It’s a hype job. Trying to get investors all over the world excit­ed by what you’re doing. I was obvi­ous­ly very junior, I was­n’t trav­el­ling. I sup­pose I’ve always been attract­ed to this idea of: How do you tell sto­ries? How do you get peo­ple to believe, most of the time, real­ly excit­ing and inter­est­ing things? I always say one of my life’s goals was to try to prove to my mum that Euler’s the­o­rem is amaz­ing. I stud­ied maths at uni and every time I speak about it she’s like “…”

When it got to Ogilvy, I start­ed off in the adver­tis­ing team and the account man­age­ment team for American Express. Of course, we were cre­at­ing hype, shall we say, or adver­tis­ing for the busi­ness. I did­n’t last all that long there—I did­n’t like it—but I end­ed up in cor­po­rate inno­va­tion and that’s actu­al­ly where I think I got my much more nuanced and emo­tion­al under­stand­ing of hype. My job was to go and meet star­tups and inter­est­ing peo­ple and bring them into the agency. I was going to tech con­fer­ences all over the world, where of course you’re hear­ing start­up pitch­es and cor­po­rate execs get­ting on stage. I was get­ting on stage as a cor­po­rate exec telling peo­ple what Ogilvy was doing in the inno­va­tion team, but then I was also hav­ing clients come to me as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive at Ogilvy and the inno­va­tion team say­ing, Hey, can we do some­thing inno­v­a­tive?” Of course we’re a mar­ket­ing agency, so when they say they want to do some­thing inno­v­a­tive, it does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that they want to be inno­v­a­tive. It’s that they want to be seen to be inno­v­a­tive.

I sup­pose there were times where I was help­ing cre­ate hype or work­ing out how to cre­ate hype. There were times where I was pick­ing it apart and advis­ing com­pa­nies say­ing, No, don’t look at that com­pa­ny. This is actu­al­ly the one you want to be look­ing at.”, or, Mm, that start­up? Not so much. This one’s better.”—so unpick­ing hype. Then, obvi­ous­ly, hav­ing to push back when maybe being asked to do it in cer­tain ways that I per­son­al­ly did­n’t think were nei­ther use­ful nor respon­si­ble.

I don’t know. I think it was a lot of grow­ing up with the idea of what hype meant to me. After Ogilvy left me—they shut the inno­va­tion depart­ment and I was made redun­dant in 2016—I then start­ed free­lanc­ing as a writer. I was still going to con­fer­ences and still see­ing these pitch­es, but instead of think­ing: Okay, how do I make this use­ful for the clients that I work with and the com­pa­ny I work with? it was, Okay, how do I analyse this from a more jour­nal­is­tic per­spec­tive? Of course, that com­plete­ly shifts the way you look at mes­sages as well. I sup­pose I’ve always had an inter­est­ing rela­tion­ship with hype. 

Mason: When it comes to hype, do you think there’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence to the sort of hype that you hear around con­sumer technology—such as vir­tu­al real­i­ty and aug­ment­ed real­i­ty, which don’t real­ly fea­ture in the book—versus the sorts of tech­nolo­gies that you do fea­ture in the book: the deep tech tech­nolo­gies; the heav­i­ly sci­ence laden forms of tech­nolo­gies. I just won­der what sort of dif­fer­ences you see there?

Milne: In some sense, it’s some­times eas­i­er for hype to be mis­con­strued with deep tech, because deep tech tends to be hard­er to under­stand. It’s eas­i­er to be fooled, or it’s eas­i­er to take the wrong idea away from a nar­ra­tive con­cern­ing some­thing real­ly com­plex like, for instance, quan­tum computing—because you’re not going to feel as empow­ered to ask a ques­tion about it or feel able to go, I’m not sure I agree with that arti­cle.”, when you’re going, I don’t know any­thing about quan­tum physics.” Whereas with things like VR and AR, I think it’s much eas­i­er to dive in and have an opin­ion with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly under­stand­ing the tech­nol­o­gy.

The anal­o­gy I use a lot of the time is with music. If I’m in a room at a con­fer­ence, I’ll say, Okay, put your hands up if you play a musi­cal instru­ment.” and loads of peo­ple do. Two instruments…three instruments.”—and by the time you get to five, you’ve maybe got one per­son in the back and you’re like, You’re awe­some, but cool.” I say Okay, but how many peo­ple in the room have an opin­ion about the new Beyonce album?” and loads of peo­ple will put their hands up. It’s the same with tech­nol­o­gy. You don’t need to under­stand the inner work­ings of how an engine works to have an opin­ion about pol­lu­tion and petrol and usage of cars. That’s what I want to make the point at, and I delib­er­ate­ly focus on deep tech for that rea­son; I think this is the tech that is not being analysed by peo­ple out­side of the exper­tise on it, because of this com­plex­i­ty. 

Mason: You focus on nine dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies in the book, and all of those dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies are deep tech exam­ples. Some might even call them moon­shots. I just won­der of all of those nine tech­nolo­gies that you fea­ture, which do you think is the most over­hyped? 

Milne: It’s fun­ny you said moon­shot. I actu­al­ly want­ed to call the book Grounding the Moonshots but I was told that moon­shot did­n’t make sense out­side of the tech industry—which I still think is incorrect—but any­way. What’s the one that’s most over­hyped? I’d prob­a­bly say AI, and the rea­son I say AI is because, frankly, it’s just talked about more. There’s a lot of real­ly sim­pli­fied nar­ra­tives that get repeat­ed over and over and over again. The one in the book that I focus on is, Robots are going to steal your jobs.” where­as with some­thing like quan­tum computing—whilst I would say there’s a lot of over­hype in there—it’s still rel­a­tive­ly con­tained in terms of the audi­ence. I sup­pose If you’re talk­ing about sheer num­bers, it would prob­a­bly be AI

Maybe even some forms of can­cer ther­a­peu­tics. I think immunother­a­py is, in some ways, overhyped—or at least the way we talk about it is over­hyped. 

Mason: I mean the hard thing with over­hyp­ing things like can­cer treatments—and in fact you focus on this idea of cur­ing can­cer and the hype that comes with new drugs that can cure cancer—is real­ly that the cost of that hype is a human cost. It gets peo­ple real­ly excit­ed in ways in which they think there’s hope, per­haps, to save either them­selves or their loved ones. There’s real costs to hype.

Milne: Yeah, there is. It’s also why hype does so well: because it’s emo­tion­al. Messages are built to try and make you think a cer­tain thing. That’s one of the things you learn about work­ing in adver­tis­ing. There’s the two rules: know your audi­ence, and what’s your mes­sage? I think a lot of the time we for­get that a lot of mon­ey, research, time and ener­gy goes into—not to sound like a con­spir­a­cy theorist—but how we manip­u­late peo­ple into believ­ing things, doing things—whatever—through the use of lan­guage and spurring emo­tions and mak­ing asso­ci­a­tions between metaphors, and all these sorts of things. 

When it comes to some­thing like can­cer, you could argue that we need a lot of hype around cur­ing can­cer so that peo­ple donate to char­i­ties and are hap­py when the gov­ern­ment spends mon­ey on research and when new politi­cians cam­paign around upping the invest­ment in R&D, and all of these sorts of things. If we keep over­hyp­ing the idea that we can cure can­cer and that these are the ways to do it, we’re basi­cal­ly not invest­ing in big­ger and bet­ter ways to do that. We’re kind of stuck with the sta­tus quo. The cost of over­hyp­ing is, I would say, more than the cost of underhyping—but the cost of under­hyp­ing is usu­al­ly of sup­port.

Hype is a dou­ble edged sword and we need it, but we also don’t want it. How do you sit in that weird space in the mid­dle and do things in the most respon­si­ble way so that peo­ple are not being too bad­ly affect­ed?

Mason: I mean to jump to hype’s defense for a sec­ond: Innovation and deep tech—it often feels like it’s very reliant on hype. Money can be dif­fi­cult to come by, so in some cas­es hype can help sus­tain both investors and consumers—at least their inter­ests and their money—in the com­pa­ny, whilst the com­pa­ny tries to work hard to get the prod­ucts out into the world. Is there a good argu­ment for hype? Does it actu­al­ly give com­pa­nies the run­ways they need to effect the sorts of changes they want to see in the world?

Milne: A hun­dred per­cent. It then comes back to the ques­tion of: Do you think place­bos are good? Do you think they’re eth­i­cal? That’s the sort of ques­tion I’m pos­ing, is this idea of: How eth­i­cal do we see this verg­ing on mis­in­for­ma­tion or this lack of cor­rect­ing the record? We saw this with D‑Wave, the famous start­up in the quan­tum com­put­ing space, where they mas­sive­ly hyped what they did in order to get invest­ment and to begin with, you could say it was respon­si­ble hyp­ing in order to get atten­tion. But then, when incor­rect nar­ra­tives were being report­ed, they weren’t say­ing, Oh no, that’s not actu­al­ly what we mean.” They were rid­ing on that hype. In the end, there’s still a lot of mis­un­der­stand­ing about what they do. The way I argue it is: Well, is there an oppor­tu­ni­ty cost? Them get­ting the fund­ing and the atten­tion and media cov­er­age and buyers—they’ve got clients, customers—is a self-fulfilling prophe­cy. They’ve need­ed that in order to actu­al­ly now cre­ate some­thing that is use­ful, depend­ing on how you analyse it. It depends whether you think cer­tain use cas­es of quan­tum com­put­ing are bet­ter than oth­ers, but you could argue that it was right that they got all of that so that this thing could mate­ri­alise. 

You could also argue that: Well the peo­ple who were invest­ing, what else could they have put mon­ey in? Where else could their atten­tion have been? Then you have the argu­ment of: Well, is it a zero-sum game, or maybe not? This ques­tion around hype being good or bad: I don’t actu­al­ly think it’s the cen­tral ques­tion. It’s maybe what I start with, but it’s cer­tain­ly not what I answer at the end and it’s not what I want to focus on in the book. I actu­al­ly think that if you focus on whether hype is good or bad, you kind of miss the deep­er ques­tions which are: Do we want to be invest­ing in these kinds of tech­nolo­gies? Do we think that this is a fair com­pa­ny? Do we think that the peo­ple in pow­er are mak­ing the right deci­sions? These deep­er, hard­er to answer ques­tions kind of get caught up in hype around hype—not to be too meta.

Mason: The crazy thing about place­bos is that place­bos work. In a fun­ny sort of way… 

Milne: Well so does hype. So does hype. 

Mason: Well exact­ly. You look at the—and he fea­tures quite reg­u­lar­ly in the book—the hype meis­ter him­self, Elon Musk. He’s unique in the way in which he’s been so suc­cess­ful in using hype to gen­er­ate futures. Elon can make a procla­ma­tion and it opens the Overton win­dow of what is pos­si­ble, and you see there’s a real world effect. Elon can make an announce­ment about Tesla, or bat­ter­ies, or space, and you see real world changes in his stock mar­ket val­u­a­tion for the com­pa­nies that he’s hyp­ing; that he’s espous­ing. These stock mar­ket val­u­a­tion changes allow him to then have the mate­r­i­al, i.e. of mon­ey, to then go ahead and gen­er­ate the future that he wants.

In a fun­ny sort of way, lan­guage has a direct rela­tion to the future. In fact, lan­guage, in that case, can actu­al­ly gen­er­ate the future that he wants to see. Should we actu­al­ly see hype as a use­ful tool that we should all—as sci­en­tists and tech­nol­o­gists and as futurists—learn how to use cor­rect­ly, because it can effect that real change?

Milne: I think that the way Elon Musk goes about things is high­ly immoral. Again, it depends what you val­ue, right? If you val­ue Tesla and SpaceX and what­not, and you think that they are uni­ver­sal­ly good, then you could argue that it’s war­rant­ed, what he’s doing. There’s many things that Elon does that aren’t good—treatment of work­ers being one of them. I would argue: Could that mon­ey, focus and exper­tise be bet­ter spent else­where? I mean, Elon’s not the genius. The peo­ple in his com­pa­nies are. There’s oth­er peo­ple that can do that stuff. This idea of the sole genius is, I think, high­ly prob­lem­at­ic and hyped up in and of itself.

Also, it depends on what you mean by val­ue. I mean, stock mar­ket val­ue is not the same as real world val­ue. Yes, it means there’s more mon­ey in the bank, but that does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly trans­late into good prod­ucts. There’s many dis­cus­sions about the real val­ue of many of Elon Musk relat­ed prod­ucts not being that great.

Again, it comes back to: Do you think that this is fair game? Everyone’s going to have a dif­fer­ent answer to that, but if we don’t open up those dis­cus­sions, you basi­cal­ly have to have a world where if you assume that we’re nev­er going to be able to teach every­one about this, right? If you start there, and say, Everyone’s going to get caught up in hype all the time. There’s no point try­ing to change it, so should we manip­u­late the mass­es in order to cre­ate a good soci­ety, or should we invest in edu­cat­ing the mass­es and then more peo­ple can be part of the dis­cus­sion?” On both sides of the same coin you’ve got these two per­fect worlds. One where there’s per­fect infor­ma­tion, and one where there’s per­fect trust and every­one acts in a moral way. Neither of those exist, so it’s: Where do you sit on this spec­trum in between? I would like to sit clos­er towards per­fect infor­ma­tion as opposed to per­fect trust, because I don’t think humans are going to get there. We can’t work towards that, but we can work towards bet­ter infor­ma­tion. My angle that I’m com­ing at is going to the mass­es, going, This is how you can act in a way that essen­tial­ly makes the world a bet­ter place, by you not always so eas­i­ly falling for this.” That does­n’t mean that Elon Musk sud­den­ly does­n’t get believed and he’s doing bad things and every­one’s like Ahh.”…it means peo­ple under­stand, in a more trans­par­ent way, what he’s doing and why.

Even the con­ver­sa­tion we’re hav­ing right now. The kind of, Is it fair game?” Everyone should be able to be part of that dis­cus­sion and decide whether they think it’s fair game, as opposed to being part of the fooled. That’s kind of what I’m try­ing to do with the book. I want to say to peo­ple, Sometimes you’ll get fooled, and some­times that’s okay. But you have a right to be aware of it.” I real­ly want to empow­er more peo­ple to feel able to sit in it and to not feel help­less against it. A lot of peo­ple do feel help­less, and I don’t think that’s fair.

Mason: I don’t want to labour the point, but the idea that lan­guage itself can lit­er­al­ly speak the future into exis­tence is what I’m try­ing to get at. A good exam­ple of this is self-fulfilling prophe­cy. People can say cer­tain things and that affects a cer­tain way in which a soci­ety oper­ates, and there­fore that thing comes about because it becomes a vicious cycle.

I think the most recent exam­ple would prob­a­bly be toi­let paper. The rush on toi­let paper was real­ly about sud­den­ly some­one heard that maybe there was some­thing wrong with the card­board inside of the toi­let rolls so they start­ed to pan­ic buy toi­let rolls. People start­ed to see that there was no toi­let roll on the shelves, so they kept pan­ic buy­ing it and it became a self ful­fill­ing prophe­cy. Suddenly, there was no toi­let roll.

Milne: Well actu­al­ly, I would chal­lenge that. Look, to some extent, yes—but if you look at sup­ply chains, it’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. The lan­guage actu­al­ly does­n’t have as much of an impact as you think. If you take back and look at the system—which is what I always try to advo­cate for—if you look at the sys­tem as to how toi­let paper gets into super­mar­kets, more peo­ple are at home a lot. Therefore, we need more toi­let paper in the homes instead of in offices. Instead of where offices nor­mal­ly bulk buy from com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers, every­one’s going to Sainsbury’s or to Tesco. The same vol­ume of toi­let roll is being used but it’s from dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers. It’s not just the case that peo­ple were bulk buy­ing and that there was none. It was that Sainsbury’s does­n’t nor­mal­ly account for so many peo­ple need­ing to buy toi­let paper from those indi­vid­ual branch­es every sin­gle day. They had to com­plete­ly change their sup­ply chain to sim­ply get more in, to divert. 

I agree with you, of course words mat­ter. The pen is might­i­er than the sword—look at Hitler. Words mat­ter and things hap­pen because of words, of course, I agree with you. But, I do think there’s more to be said around words not nec­es­sar­i­ly always being use­ful and that it’s impor­tant that peo­ple under­stand these broad­er sys­tems and then can take the words into con­text and make their own deci­sion, as opposed to just trust­ing the words. That’s real­ly what Smoke and Mirrors is about.

Mason: I love how we’ve gone from quan­tum com­put­ing to toi­let paper in the first 30 min­utes. The rea­son I make the point around self ful­fill­ing prophe­cy is because in exam­ples of cer­tain banks col­laps­ing, there’ve been his­tor­i­cal exam­ples of where there’s been a rumour that per­haps a cer­tain bank does­n’t have an amount of liq­uid­i­ty that it needs. That caus­es a phys­i­cal run on the bank and peo­ple queue up out­side, they take their mon­ey out of the bank, and self ful­fill­ing prophe­cy being self ful­fill­ing prophecy—the bank col­laps­es any­way. It would­n’t have if that sto­ry had­n’t hap­pened in the first place. 

To apply that to hype, it’s very sim­i­lar to the pos­i­tivist move­ment in a sim­i­lar sort of way: The idea that if you dream some­thing, you can make it hap­pen. Hype feels like a weird sib­ling of the pos­i­tivist move­ment where­by if you’re able to dri­ve enough inter­est towards some­thing, you’re able to realise it. There’s this very techno-optimist way of look­ing at the world based pure­ly on the fact that if you’re able to ral­ly the troops then you’re able to gen­er­ate the exter­nal con­di­tions to actu­al­ly actu­alise that thing from the future into the present moment.

It’s so won­der­ful that the book uses this term smoke and mir­rors because it feels like hype can almost be used as this mag­i­cal mate­r­i­al to gen­er­ate the future in the present.

Milne: Yeah, yeah. I mean, God, would­n’t it be won­der­ful if get­ting some­thing amaz­ing into the world was­n’t a case of how good you are at talk­ing about it, but rather how good you are at mak­ing it. I sup­pose that’s my push back. I’m a good speak­er, I’m a good writer, all that sort of thing—should I get more say on the future ver­sus some­one who’s a great engi­neer or a great doc­tor or great lawyer who does­n’t speak quite so well, or does­n’t write quite so well, or isn’t quite as com­pelling in the way they put their ideas across? I don’t think that’s fair. 

What I’m try­ing to argue in Smoke and Mirrors and what I believe is that, yes—if you want to get stuff into the world then you have to get peo­ple on board and all that sort of thing, but it should­n’t be enough in and of itself. Sometimes when hype goes wrong, it is. That’s where prob­lems hap­pen: We rely too much on the so called dreams; the nar­ra­tives; the way things are spo­ken about, as opposed to the actu­al­i­ty and real­i­ty of the way that they’re being brought into the world, and the ethics around how they’re being brought into the world. It’s not enough to rely on nar­ra­tives.

I sup­pose I agree with you. I’m opti­mistic, I’m very opti­mistic. I think that we need to be opti­mistic. We need to talk about why things are amaz­ing and talk about these imag­ined futures and all of that sort of stuff. I agree with you. Equally, if we don’t have the peo­ple on the oth­er end of that mes­sage crit­i­cal­ly think­ing around it—not assum­ing it’s wrong, not imme­di­ate­ly going, Nah, you’re wrong, rub­bish.”, but going, That’s inter­est­ing, huh. You’ve real­ly tick­led me there. I won­der about this, and I won­der about that, and I won­der if I can help you. I won­der if there’s any vot­ing hap­pen­ing on this. I won­der what’s hap­pen­ing with the mon­ey. I’ve seen some­thing prob­lem­at­ic but I still real­ly believe in this idea, I think it’s great. Now that I’ve spot­ted some­thing, what can we try to do to make it bet­ter?” It’s not about try­ing to halt peo­ple. It’s gen­uine­ly com­ing from an opti­mistic place. I believe if peo­ple were more con­scious of hype and more able to con­tex­tu­alise it, more peo­ple would be able to get involved and I hope that would mean things would be bet­ter; that we’d actu­al­ly be able to weed out the stuff that’s not worth doing for soci­ety and stuff that is. I agree with you—I just don’t think it’s enough. Words aren’t enough. They’re pow­er­ful, but they’re not enough.

Mason: I just want your thoughts on the cur­rent land­scape of tech and sci­ence jour­nal­ism. It feels like sci­ence and tech jour­nal­ism is, to a degree, hav­ing a resur­gence. We’re see­ing more and more online plat­forms espous­ing these won­der­ful sci­ence and tech inno­va­tions. Before, we only had things like WIRED mag­a­zine, but now we have numer­ous out­lets focus­ing pure­ly on these sci­ence and tech ideas.

Do you think, Gemma, that sci­ence and tech jour­nal­ism is stronger than it’s ever been?

Milne: Hmm, I mean I haven’t done an analy­sis as such com­par­ing sci­ence jour­nal­ism in the 50s ver­sus now. I would hope that more peo­ple doing it would mean that it’s bet­ter. I think there are quite a lot of plat­forms that don’t do a very good job of sci­ence and tech jour­nal­ism and I sup­pose the way I tend to sep­a­rate it out is this idea of two forms of comms around sci­ence. You’ve got whizz-bang, isn’t this amaz­ing and then you’ve got crit­i­cal think­ing. There’s lots of invest­ment, focus, inter­est and gov­ern­ment mon­ey into this whizz-bang because it’s also real­ly tied with edu­ca­tion, too. But there’s a lot of whizz-bang and a lot of platforms—I would say most of the plat­forms, to some degree—focus on whizz-bang.

The idea of crit­i­cal think­ing around science…I think because some peo­ple asso­ciate it with lack­ing trust in experts or being neg­a­tive. It’s like, actu­al­ly, no. I think crit­i­cal think­ing, and encour­ag­ing crit­i­cal think­ing around sci­ence and tech is way more inter­est­ing than being like, Look at this mete­or! Isn’t it amaz­ing!?” Like, no. Tell me some actu­al infor­ma­tion about it, and tell me why it’s so crazy that it’s made it here. Tell me what’s prob­lem­at­ic about it. Maybe it’s because I’m a total nerd. I love systems—I think sup­ply chains are fascinating—I love sys­tems. If we can be bet­ter at explain­ing the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of stuff and how sci­ence is not just this thing on it’s own, but how it impacts and is part of soci­ety and how there are many ele­ments to it oth­er than: What’s the paper? What’s the tech? I think that’s a more inter­est­ing way of talk­ing about sci­ence and tech.

We are see­ing more focus on that. I think WIRED some­times does that real­ly, real­ly well, and oth­er times it falls into the whizz-bang. Nothing wrong with whizz-bang—I just think there’s enough of that and I am see­ing more of the deep­er stuff, which is great. I just hope peo­ple are read­ing it and want­i­ng to engage in that kind of sci­ence con­tent as opposed to just the Brian Cox Look at the stars, isn’t this pret­ty?” sort of stuff.

There’s a dif­fer­ence between edu­ca­tion and enter­tain­ment, and what I think is inter­est­ing is some­thing in the mid­dle. Realistically, what you’re actu­al­ly try­ing to do is turn it to the audi­ence and go, What do you think?” I’ve giv­en you enough infor­ma­tion to plant some seeds. I’ve giv­en you the foun­da­tions of this area so that you can not only under­stand the tech but also under­stand what are these awk­ward open ques­tions that nobody knows how to answer, and you can engage in them. Isn’t that excit­ing? That’s way more excit­ing than being told how the Doppler effect works. I’d rather want to know: What are math­e­mati­cians argu­ing about right now? Way more excit­ing.

Mason: Sometimes it feels like sci­ence and tech jour­nal­ists can real­ly make or break an idea. I used to work close­ly with the team at futur­ism dot com and I used to joke with futur­ism dot com that every­time they would write some­thing about blockchain, you would see the impact on the price of Ethereum on Coinbase. They had such a mas­sive reach among blockchain bros on plat­forms like Facebook that the memes and the media that they would put out would actu­al­ly impact the price of this stuff in the world.

As a sci­ence and tech jour­nal­ist, do you some­times feel respon­si­ble for oth­er peo­ple’s inno­va­tions?

Milne: Yeah, a hun­dred per­cent. I mean, God. I do some work with Forbes. About a year ago I was on the tube in London. I looked up at one of the adverts at one of the sta­tions. It was a start­up. It had the product—it was an app—so it had the phone with the app on the screen. At the top it just said, Astounding—Forbes” or some­thing like that. Just Forbes. Not the title of the jour­nal­ist or any­thing. What that made me think of was that Forbes has two dif­fer­ent mod­els. It’s got jour­nal­ism and then it’s got con­trib­u­tors. There are jour­nal­ists who are contributors—like myself—but there are many peo­ple who are not jour­nal­ists, who are con­trib­u­tors. Stuff isn’t edit­ed to the same degree as the actu­al jour­nal­ists that work for Forbes. If you write some­thing in a piece for Forbes and you’ve got a start­up plas­ter­ing it all across London to back up why peo­ple should buy their prod­uct then yeah, that scares the liv­ing day­lights out of me. I also don’t want to be part of a mar­ket­ing cam­paign for any com­pa­ny. One of the rea­sons that I rarely take any­thing from a press release is because I’m like: I’m not here to be your mega­phone. That’s not my role or my respon­si­bil­i­ty.

I think when it goes wrong—because it’s not always a problem—is that I think a lot of the peo­ple who write about sci­ence and tech love sci­ence and tech. They think it’s amaz­ing, and so when they see an awe­some new tech­nol­o­gy or an awe­some new dis­cov­ery or what­ev­er, the first thing they want to do is believe it, think it’s amaz­ing, tell the sto­ry and share it. That also comes from this sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion starts from a place of edu­cat­ing those who don’t get it’. This ide­al­is­tic we need to get every­one as excit­ed as me’. It does­n’t always trans­late into the same kind of jour­nal­ism in oth­er ways. Also because it’s huge­ly pro­duc­ti­fied. There’s a lot of sell­ing which is quite dif­fer­ent from a lot of oth­er types of jour­nal­ism.

I’m per­son­al­ly very, very aware of my respon­si­bil­i­ty. I think it’s part of the rea­son that I’m not as pro­lif­ic as I’d like to be. Every time I sit down to write a piece I’m going: Ooh, okay. How do I make sure I’m doing this cor­rect­ly and right? Sometimes I’m prob­a­bly a bit too cau­tious, maybe. The polit­i­cal jour­nal­ists are being told, You’re hold­ing the pow­er­ful to account, that’s your job as a jour­nal­ist.” In sci­ence tech, it’s more about how to com­mu­ni­cate this infor­ma­tion to the mass­es. The mis­sion of it seems dif­fer­ent. I think sci­ence and tech jour­nal­ists as a whole would do well to ensure there’s enough peo­ple focus­ing on that mis­sion of hold­ing to account. Again—not being negative—but mak­ing it bet­ter by hold­ing it to account. That’s what jour­nal­ism is all about: mak­ing the world bet­ter by hold­ing it to account. 

Mason: Now the respon­si­bil­i­ty isn’t just with the journalists—it’s also with the read­ers; with the gen­er­al pub­lic. You ask in the book for peo­ple to take time to pause and ques­tion the state­ments they read in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy out­lets. How do you find the time…how do peo­ple find the time to have that moment of pause, and have that moment of ques­tion­ing in their busy lives? 

Milne: I think it depends on the lev­el at which you’re read­ing and then the impacts by which a shar­ing of that mes­sage is going to have. As we hear in Spiderman, With great pow­er comes great respon­si­bil­i­ty.”, and I think if you’re the sort of per­son that’s going to take some form of mes­sage and then spread it, you have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to pause a lit­tle bit longer than some­one who’s maybe just read­ing it and not doing any­thing with it, scan­ning past it. 

I do think that every sin­gle per­son can pause for a sec­ond. It’s not real­ly that dif­fi­cult. For me, the big thing I say is, Try not to get caught up in the emo­tion­al reac­tion that the head­line writer is try­ing to get from you.” That’s the point of a head­line, right? It’s to try and cap­ture you in a cer­tain way, but it does mean that you can fall for that very quick­ly. It’s more about paus­ing and going: Okay, I under­stand what they’re try­ing to do with this head­line. You’ve got my atten­tion. I’m going to not have this emo­tion­al reac­tion and I’m now going to see what they’re actu­al­ly try­ing to say. You can click through and prop­er­ly read it—because a lot of peo­ple don’t do that—properly read it and see if there’s nuance in there. Or, just quick­ly ask your­self: What does this depend on? What’s the con­text of this mes­sage? Who’s say­ing it? What plat­form are they using? Why? Are they sell­ing some­thing? Are they try­ing to con­vince me? Are they cam­paign­ers? Are they pub­lic health offi­cials? Who are they? That does­n’t take very long, that’s like a sec­ond in your head. You don’t have to go and do tonnes of research, but it’d have a huge impact on stop­ping retweets of things that should­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly be retweet­ed, or the…decon­tex­tu­al­i­sa­tion—if that’s a word—of mes­sages that should­n’t be con­tex­tu­alised in that way. I sup­pose that’s what I mean by pause. I don’t mean go and sit in a library and take out twen­ty books on fusion ener­gy every time you see a head­line about it. Unless you want to, then go for it, great.

But no, more, just be aware of the role that hype plays. We’re aware of what adverts do, why are we not aware so much of hype or of nar­ra­tives or of things that are lack­ing in nuance?

Mason: You have the jour­nal­ists and you have the read­ers, but the third prong is the sci­en­tists and the tech­nol­o­gists them­selves. I just won­der, first­ly: How can tech­nol­o­gists ensure that hype does­n’t mis­di­rect or derail the progress they want to see? For sci­en­tists, how do you think they can bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate the nuances of their work?

Milne: I think it’s about real­is­ing there’s two things you should com­mu­ni­cate, or you should try to com­mu­ni­cate. One is the real­i­ty of what’s going on—so exact­ly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it—and the vision of why you’re doing it. Make it real­ly, real­ly clear which is which. I think a lot of the time where hype hap­pens, it’s when there’s a mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion or a mis­un­der­stand­ing around vision and cur­rent real­i­ty. The oth­er thing that I would be aware of is the dif­fer­ence between com­mu­ni­cat­ing this sin­gle problem-solution sto­ry, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing sys­tems sto­ries bet­ter. Instead of say­ing, This is a prob­lem in this indus­try, this is how many peo­ple it affects. We’ve made this thing—it solves the problem.”—there’s truth in that but it’ll be miss­ing stuff. It’s very easy for peo­ple to get lost in that nar­ra­tive very quick­ly. Of course it’s very good for get­ting mon­ey and what-not. System nar­ra­tives are more truth­ful, and are not nec­es­sar­i­ly that much more com­pli­cat­ed to com­mu­ni­cate. I think peo­ple think that it’s hard­er to com­mu­ni­cate this stuff—it’s not—it takes a lit­tle bit more effort and respon­si­bil­i­ty, but we should all have that effort and respon­si­bil­i­ty and not be lazy.

I think it’s those two areas. There’s vision ver­sus real­i­ty and then there’s problem-solution ver­sus sys­tems nar­ra­tive. There’s ques­tions to be asked, whether it’s a sci­en­tist or a busi­ness or who­ev­er, around: What mes­sages are you putting out? What’s the rea­son you’re putting them out, and are you being thought­ful about the nar­ra­tives you’re cre­at­ing?

Mason: You break the book down into three sec­tions and under those three sec­tions you fea­ture three dif­fer­ent types of tech­nol­o­gy. The first sec­tion is the now sec­tion, which focus­es on the future of food, on can­cer cures and on bat­ter­ies. Reading that sec­tion, I could­n’t help but think that those are the kind of save-the-world sorts of tech­nolo­gies. I know you were, to a degree, crit­i­cal over save-the-world nar­ra­tives, but isn’t it bet­ter to have those lofty goals to want to save the world, rather than have banal, incre­men­tal aims to save the world?

Milne: Oh no, yeah. I mean my argu­ment is that the peo­ple say­ing these are actu­al­ly doing very incre­men­tal things, and so it’s not ful­fill­ing the nar­ra­tive that they’re using. I think say­ing we want to do it and gen­uine­ly try­ing to do it is great, awe­some. As long as you’re doing it thought­ful­ly and think­ing about how you’re actu­al­ly try­ing to do it, not assum­ing that there’s only one way of doing it.

I think a lot of the issue around save-the-world nar­ra­tives is that they’re used to min­imise and blink­er and dis­tract peo­ple from the real­i­ty that is incre­men­tal progress. If you look at inno­va­tion that hap­pens in agritech, you can split it into stuff that feeds the hun­gry, and stuff that feeds the wealthy in com­par­i­son to the hun­gry. Both use the term feed the world, by the way. Both inno­va­tions in this space are talked about in terms of feed­ing the world. That’s where I see a prob­lem. You start hav­ing this mis­at­tri­bu­tion of what’s real­ly going on. Vertical farm­ing is a per­fect exam­ple. Vertical farm­ing, right now—maybe in the future, who knows—but right now, ver­ti­cal farm­ing is not feed­ing the world. It’s get­ting expen­sive sal­ads to peo­ple who live in cities. That’s what ver­ti­cal farm­ing is cur­rent­ly doing. If we talk about ver­ti­cal farm­ing as a solu­tion to feed­ing the world and don’t be real­ly clear about the cur­rent state of the tech­nol­o­gy, the issues—the inher­ent ener­gy usage, for example—in the tech­nol­o­gy, and whether or not we’re actu­al­ly going to expand the inno­va­tions into coun­tries that need it slight­ly more than New York City. Again, it’s how you attribute that nar­ra­tive and pre­cise­ly what you’re attribut­ing it to.

One of the things I men­tion in the food chap­ters: If you look at invest­ment in agritech inno­va­tions, it’s mas­sive­ly gone up over the last cou­ple of years. It’s amaz­ing, the amount of atten­tion that’s going into farm­ing tech, but most of that’s going into Deliveroo and com­pa­nies like this. You’re kind of like: Is that feed­ing the world? Are we sav­ing the world, or are we get­ting stuff deliv­ered to us in cities? I don’t think there’s any­thing wrong with us all try­ing to save the world, but using the nar­ra­tive when you’re not is very prob­lem­at­ic.

Mason: Looking at some of those future food exam­ples: Vertical farming—yes, it is based in cities…maybe I’m just believ­ing the hype, but it is now 120 times more effi­cient than field farm­ing. It does use less ener­gy, and the fact that you don’t have to ship this stuff halfway across the coun­try means you’re reduc­ing fuel costs.

Milne: Not true. That’s not true.

Mason: Not true? Why not 

Milne: Because fuel costs are high­er. You’re hav­ing to stop loads in a city, short trips. It’s not fuel effi­cient. What’s more fuel effi­cient is a lor­ry going across the coun­try, than a small van in a city hav­ing to wee­dle around. Fuel effi­cient argu­ments are not nec­es­sar­i­ly true and it depends on every sin­gle jour­ney. Also, you’re talk­ing about effi­cien­cy, but effi­cien­cy for what? It does­n’t negate the need for oth­er forms of farm­ing, right? You still need to grow pota­toes and any­thing with roots, and any­thing that has a flower of some kind, like a straw­ber­ry or some­thing like that. It’s effi­cient mak­ing sal­ad greens, it’s not effi­cient when you do pota­toes. You aren’t negat­ing the need for farm­ing. You’re not solv­ing the issue of soil deple­tion. You’re not solv­ing the issue of lor­ries hav­ing to trans­port stuff across coun­tries. You’re cre­at­ing sal­ad and oth­er cer­tain types of things that you can grow in cities and that’s good, that’s use­ful.

At the moment with the cur­rent state of things, we’re not at the point where we can make these claims. We can say that’s what we’re try­ing to do and we can out­line those meth­ods, and then we can say, Well is that method the best method? Is it real­is­tic to say that we’re going to be able to do that?” but say­ing, Vertical farm­ing can do this.” is incorrect—and that’s what I mean by hype.

Mason: It becomes an issue of hav­ing to see the whole thing in an aggre­gate, essen­tial­ly. The entire sys­tem, and to your point the sup­ply chain that con­tributes to the entire­ty of farm­ing. It’s so fun­ny that you men­tion hamburgers—because it makes a fea­ture in the book—Impossible Burger. The won­der­ful thing about Impossible Burger is that even the brand name is a form of hype. It makes me ques­tion the brand name, because Impossible Burger has now proven that it is pos­si­ble and they are sell­ing these things to Burger King in the US. When you have a hyped name like Impossible Burger, where do you go from there, when what was pre­vi­ous­ly impos­si­ble is now just pos­si­ble?

Milne: Well also, do you call it a burg­er? I mean there’s a whole big debate around plant based milk and whether or not we should call it milk. Does it count as dairy and all of these sorts of things? It’s obvi­ous­ly not dairy but it’s mas­quer­ad­ed as dairy, and fair play because obvi­ous­ly peo­ple want to replace things. I fea­ture the alter­na­tive meats and have every­thing in there from insects as pro­tein to plant based alter­na­tives to lab grown alter­na­tives which are obvi­ous­ly dif­fer­ent, and even things like Quorn. One of my big­ger ques­tions is around accept­abil­i­ty, and how you con­vince peo­ple to shift their behav­iour. In some sense, call­ing it the Impossible Burger is very clever. You’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly try­ing to attract veg­ans. Actually a lot of the time, veg­ans won’t buy this stuff because they’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly both­ered about eat­ing burg­ers. What you’re try­ing to get is either ex-meat eaters who’ve moved over for ide­o­log­i­cal pur­pos­es but still like burg­ers, or peo­ple who like burg­ers that are hes­i­tant to move. You’ve got to make a case, essen­tial­ly: It’s excit­ing, it’s good. We’ve done the impos­si­ble. You get to cheat, essen­tial­ly. You don’t have to change your behav­iour, you can come in the side door. It’s a clever way of doing it and again, there’s an argu­ment to be made that that’s a real­ly good thing. We need to trick peo­ple into switch­ing behav­iours around meat con­sump­tion and all of these sorts of things. It’s clever, for sure. 

Mason: You focus on three more tech­nolo­gies and they’re the more indus­tri­al feel­ing tech­nolo­gies. They’re ener­gy, they’re space and they’re quan­tum com­put­ing. I love that you’re so pos­i­tive about the idea of space, but does it feel like space is the exam­ple where we have the most hype? It feels like most space star­tups are just com­plete and utter bol­locks, for want of a bet­ter word. I remem­ber going to some of these space start­up fairs down in San Jose and San Francisco. You’d walk around the con­fer­ence floor and you’d have these small space star­tups in their booth exhibit­ing a poster and a PowerPoint. You’d go up and see these designs for these beau­ti­ful space labs and you’d ask them, Wow, this is incred­i­ble! How are you going to get the fund­ing and when are you going to build it?” They’d turn around to you and go, Oh no, we’re not going to build it. We just have the intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty for it and we have a patent on this small thing with­in this space ecosys­tem. What we’re hop­ing is that either SpaceX or NASA are just going to pur­chase us with­in the next ten years, and that’s the way we’re going to make our return on invest­ment.” You think: That’s crazy. How can you get away with just stag­nat­ing inno­va­tion by just hold­ing onto the space IP? Do you think space is one of these real­ly tricky spaces where hype is real­ly stag­nat­ing our abil­i­ty to make real world changes and inno­va­tions?

Milne: My argu­ment is that we’re way too opti­mistic and way too ide­al­is­tic about space. The biggest piece of feed­back I’ve got about that chap­ter is that I’m too neg­a­tive, by peo­ple who love space. A lot of that is fuelled by sci-fi. A lot of that is fuelled by the mis­sion dri­ven new fron­tiers adven­ture kind of nar­ra­tives around going to space that have been appar­ent since the 1950s and 60s. This whole idea of new space is the cur­rent nar­ra­tive around it: Things will be dif­fer­ent in space. Utopia is in space. The argu­ment that I make in the chap­ter is that what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing in space right now is not space hotels and min­ing and hol­i­days and all that jazz. It’s a satel­lite busi­ness; it’s a com­mu­ni­ca­tions busi­ness.

Like every sin­gle indus­try on the plan­et, it does have its prob­lems. It has its pow­er prob­lems, it has its min­ing prob­lems, sus­tain­abil­i­ty prob­lems. Whether you look at retail and say, It’s bad because of this.” or you look at oil and say, It’s bad because of this.” We’re not very good at doing that with the space indus­try because we are caught up in this idea of it being this oth­er thing; this future thing that, at one point, human­i­ty’s going to sort itself out before we go to space. I just think that’s crazy. A lot of the stuff that’s said about space is this idea of…there’s a bit I quote where some­one says it’s at the tip of their tongue about aster­oid min­ing, and the things we have wars over with resources on plan­et Earth are infi­nite in space. He’s essen­tial­ly argu­ing that war would­n’t be a thing if we could do aster­oid min­ing in space. It’s like, that’s ridicu­lous.

Mason: We’d be hav­ing dif­fer­ent sorts of war. The argu­ment that you’re mak­ing there is you have abun­dant access to gold, you have abun­dant access to rare earth min­er­als. The crazy thing is, what you don’t have on an aster­oid is abun­dant access to water and oxy­gen. Certainly, here on Earth we could build build­ings out of gold, but water and oxy­gen will sud­den­ly become these rare com­modi­ties in the way that gold and rare earth min­er­als have. 

Milne: That’s actu­al­ly a thing you can get quite a lot of from min­ing. Going back to what you said about IP because I think that’s real­ly inter­est­ing. That’s basi­cal­ly the mod­el of biotech, right? You just patent some­thing and sell it—there’s a lot of work that goes into it most of the time—but the idea is you try and get a patent. If it’s med­ical, you might need to go through a clin­i­cal tri­al or two before some­one will buy it, but the point is you’re try­ing to essen­tial­ly either be bought as a com­pa­ny or sell a license to one of the big phar­ma.

I was going to say there’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly some­thing wrong with that. I mean there are many things wrong with it. But, that does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that it’s bad inno­va­tion or it’s not inno­v­a­tive. A lot of the time with deep tech, it’s actu­al­ly daft for inven­tors to try and take to mar­ket the thing that they invent. They don’t have the dis­tri­b­u­tion, they don’t have the mon­ey to run the tri­als, they can’t get accred­it­ed and all of those sorts of things. In some sense, try­ing to get NASA or SpaceX or who­ev­er to buy you is actu­al­ly, prob­a­bly, the best way of get­ting it to mar­ket. It does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly negate it, but again it’s this lack of clar­i­ty. It’s the lack of being upfront. The thing is, it’s inter­est­ing. It’s an inter­est­ing busi­ness mod­el. It’s an inter­est­ing thing to put forward—it’s not bor­ing. We’re caught up in this, Oh we need to make a cool poster.” You see it with peo­ple who are try­ing to sell patents on their biotech, whether it’s, We’re going to cure can­cer with this.” Well, you’re not. You’ve invent­ed some­thing.

I think telling those stories…have the brav­ery to do it. People will take you way more seri­ous­ly. You might not get the inter­est of the mass­es, but you’ll get the inter­est of the peo­ple who mat­ter in terms of advanc­ing your business—whether that’s the investors or the pol­i­cy mak­ers or who­ev­er. You’d prob­a­bly get a lot more respect from the media because they’d be like, Thank God, some­one’s actu­al­ly being hon­est with me.” 

How do you tell the sys­tem sto­ry? The sys­tem of busi­ness mod­el and IP—again, it might just be because I’m a sys­tem nerd—is fas­ci­nat­ing. It’s inter­est­ing to be like, Oh, so you’ve decid­ed to do that. Then you’re going to do this. You’ve made this plat­form. That is real­ly, real­ly clever and there’s some­thing inter­est­ing in that sto­ry.” as opposed to going, We’re even­tu­al­ly going to build a rock­et.” because no one is going to believe it and it’s not true, so you know.

Mason: We could talk about space star­tups for­ev­er, but the only space start­up I’ve ever seen where I’ve gone: Oh, you know what? This is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing and actu­al­ly liv­ing out in the world—there’s two, actu­al­ly. One is Made in Space who man­aged final­ly to get a 3D print­er onto the International Space Station and the anoth­er was just a very banal com­pa­ny that was send­ing CubeSats up into space. They were send­ing these CubeSats with small lit­tle containers—1010 containers—and there were ten of these slots that they could put into this CubeSat. What they were fill­ing the con­tain­ers with were ash­es of your dead rel­a­tives. They could take your ash­es, place it into this CubeSat. They were charg­ing about $2000 for that and there were a thou­sand of these lit­tle con­tain­ers that you could put your ash­es into. They were mak­ing close to $200,000 just on col­lect­ing the ash­es and putting them into the CubeSat. It only cost them about $20,000 to send it into space, thanks to the Russians. It was the only time I’ve seen a real space busi­ness that actu­al­ly makes mon­ey right now, today, from space.

Milne: No but see, that’s the thing. That’s the thing. There’s lots of space com­pa­nies that make mon­ey right now, and they do it in satel­lites. That’s how you make mon­ey in space right now. You either build satel­lites, launch satel­lites, analyse the data from satel­lites, sell the comms net­work that comes off satel­lites, store the data that comes off satel­lites. All of these com­pa­nies make big mon­ey and do very well—or are set to, if they’re ear­ly stage—because there’s a huge mar­ket, a humon­gous mar­ket and a grow­ing mar­ket. Especially when you think about WiFi access or Internet access, glob­al­ly. We’re try­ing to increase that.

That’s part of the hype that I try and explore in that chap­ter. I say we’re hear­ing about all of these new crazy space ideas that are inter­est­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing. Put your ash­es in space—that’s excit­ing, but the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion is that this is a satel­lite busi­ness, that’s what it is. Elon Musk isn’t mak­ing mon­ey from try­ing to get to Mars. He makes mon­ey in the satel­lite busi­ness, that’s how he makes mon­ey. The age-old phrase: Follow the mon­ey. That’s one of the ways you beat the hype. Work out what actu­al­ly is mak­ing mon­ey. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly who’s invest­ing, but who’s got rev­enue and who’s able to grow com­pa­nies and all of that sort of thing. It’s a real­ly quick way of real­is­ing: What are peo­ple talk­ing about that’s real­ly excit­ing ver­sus what is the real­i­ty of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion? That’s some­thing that I real­ly want­ed to try and bring to the fore with space in par­tic­u­lar.

To make it bor­ing, the satel­lite indus­try is actu­al­ly real­ly inter­est­ing, would you know? Again, it’s try­ing to bring a lit­tle bit of inter­est and excite­ment and hope­ful­ly empow­er peo­ple to feel like they can engage with it in a way that’s beyond One day we’ll go to Mars.” 

Mason: Before we go to the YouTube ques­tions, I do want to focus on the last sec­tion of the book which is brain-computer inter­faces, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and, odd­ly enough, aliens. I guess my first ques­tion, Gemma, is: Is arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence out to steal our jobs?

Milne: [laughter]—yeah. The argu­ment I make is that it is not. The nar­ra­tive that robots are going to steal our jobs or AI is going to steal our jobs is prob­lem­at­ic because you blame the tech­nol­o­gy, where­as if you say cor­po­rate exec­u­tives are mak­ing active deci­sions to employ automa­tion as opposed to humans, that’s not me say­ing that’s a bad thing. It might sound sar­cas­tic to you but I’m just stat­ing the facts. Some peo­ple would argue that that’s a bad thing because obvi­ous­ly you’re mak­ing peo­ple redun­dant and putting prof­it before peo­ple and all of these sorts of things, but then you could also make the argu­ment that that’s effi­cient and use­ful. You’re free­ing up humans to do more cre­ative think­ing and all of these sorts of things. 

The prob­lem is that if you use: Robots are going to steal our jobs, AI is going to steal our jobs as the nar­ra­tive, you end up talk­ing about the rights of robots. When’s the sin­gu­lar­i­ty going to hap­pen? What is cre­ativ­i­ty? Things that are very philo­soph­i­cal, very in the future—which are fun and inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions to be had, but then you’re not hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions about Universal Basic Income; reskilling of peo­ple; pow­er of cor­po­ra­tions. Should peo­ple be able to make deci­sions like this? Should we tax? Should we have an inno­va­tion tax? This is an inter­est­ing thing. I think it was Bill Gates who said we should tax robots if we do automa­tion. It sounds like a com­pelling thing: Tax robots, let’s not tax peo­ple. When you reframe it and say we should tax inno­v­a­tive com­pa­nies who have employed automa­tion real­ly effi­cient­ly and quick­ly; that we should essen­tial­ly fine them for that—of course that sounds like a real­ly bad thing. If you’re on my side of the employ­ee, I would argue you should say, Tax robots.”, but then nev­er say robots are steal­ing jobs because you essen­tial­ly nudge peo­ple towards your world view. 

Again, it just comes back to this whole idea of oth­er­ing. If we keep blam­ing tech­nol­o­gy as opposed to indi­vid­u­als, that’s when we start to lose con­trol. One of the big fears around AI and robots is that we lose con­trol. The argu­ment I’m try­ing to make is if we keep refer­ring to them as them and not hold those to account who are the ones build­ing it right now, then yeah—we will lose con­trol. That is what will hap­pen, so we need to under­stand what con­trol means right now and where our lim­its are, and a lot of that does come back to lan­guage.

Mason: What are your thoughts on brain com­put­er inter­faces? Folks like Elon Musk with Neuralink and Brian Johnson with Kernel and Facebook with a still yet fair­ly unknown project are all espous­ing this idea that we can direct­ly con­nect the brain to machines. In many cas­es, that’s the way we’re going to over­come the singularity—because we’re just going to upload our brains. You help us nav­i­gate some of the issues with those procla­ma­tions and those claims that we can direct­ly inter­face the human body with tech­nol­o­gy. Do you think it’s a case of hype or do you think it’s actu­al­ly just a pure mis­un­der­stand­ing of how brains inter­face with hard­ware?

Milne: Well, I mean there’s two things here. In terms of what we cur­rent­ly can do, in some sense we’ve done amaz­ing things when it comes to brain-computer inter­faces in the med­ical field. You’ve all seen those videos where you’ve got a paral­ysed per­son who’s got this big jack lit­er­al­ly insert­ed in their brain; there’s a hole in their head. They can move their legs for the first time in how­ev­er many years. We’ve done amaz­ing things when it comes to brain-computer inter­faces. In terms of what I think the way it’s spo­ken about in the New Age brain-computer inter­faces around Kernel and Neuralink: This idea of being able to meld man and machine—or women and machine—and take con­trol of AI and all of this, that’s not the real­i­ty of what we can do right now. That’s a very, very far future vision.

Where my take on brain-computer inter­faces is, is that I think we would do well to sep­a­rate what we want and what we need. A lot of the way we talk about tech­nol­o­gy has its roots in sci-fi. At the start of the chap­ter I talk about my two favourite sci-fi devices. It’s the Point of View gun from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the woman can shoot the man and he does­n’t die, but he under­stands how she feels. A lot of peo­ple who are slight­ly more empa­thet­ic or of fem­i­nine ener­gy or what­ev­er you want to call it nor­mal­ly want that of their part­ners. The oth­er one is the brain-jack, the USB jack from The Matrix, where you can learn any­thing. Those are my two things. I want to be under­stood, and I want to learn any­thing. That’s me to a T.

So I’m like: That would be awe­some to have these two amaz­ing sci-fi devices. The next step for that would be: I’m going to sup­port any­one who tries to make them. If you think about it, being under­stood by peo­ple under­stand­ing what’s in your brain and being able to learn any­thing is essen­tial­ly the goal of brain-computer inter­faces. That’s what they’re tap­ping into: The idea that we want to be able to do any­thing, think any­thing and be under­stood. 

There’s many prob­lems with it. Particularly when it comes to socioe­co­nom­ic inequal­i­ties, haves and have-nots. What hap­pens when some peo­ple who can afford or get access to these devices if and when they work in the way we desire get to sit an exam with months of extra learn­ing ver­sus some­one who hasn’t—how is that fair? Are we going to get to the point where…Right now, you essen­tial­ly have to have an email. Of course you have a choice—you don’t have to sign up for an email—but you can’t real­ly take part in civilised soci­ety with­out one. It’s quite dif­fi­cult to do that. Are we going to get to the point where when every­one has one and you’re not going to have a choice, even though you don’t want some­thing in your brain? Normally, prob­a­bly sold by a com­pa­ny that’s get­ting all of your infor­ma­tion. 

There’s lots of inter­est­ing far-future—but if you assume we’re going to get there and if you assume it’s going to happen—then we have these prob­lems. What I say is, Well, should we even both­er going there? Why don’t we just focus on the med­ical ele­ments? Why don’t we just focus on giv­ing back the things that peo­ple lose through dis­ease or acci­dent or what­ev­er, and not try to do this super­hu­man thing that can cause huge issues?” A ques­tion I think we don’t ask often enough in tech­nol­o­gy is: Do we need this? Is this inevitable? This assump­tion that tech­nol­o­gy is inevitable can be quite prob­lem­at­ic at times. 

Mason: There is a degree of argu­ment to be had to say, look, at least explor­ing some of these things allows us to incre­men­tal­ly learn more and more about the human body and human brain. A friend of mine, Nigel Ackland, an amputee, looks at what’s going on with the brain jack and says, Look, it’s won­der­ful that they’re enabling this per­son to move their arms, but the real­i­ty of the fact is this per­son went through a trau­mat­ic injury to become paral­ysed and now you’re argu­ing that we should start drilling holes in their head. It just does­n’t make sense that these indi­vid­u­als should then become the fod­der for sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy inno­va­tion.” In many ways the BCI chap­ter remind­ed me a lot around pros­thet­ics and pros­thet­ic envy and how any­body with a 3D print­er back in 2016, 2017 sud­den­ly thought they could 3D print a pros­thet­ic limb because self-printed limbs were this big thing. Yes, it did a won­drous job at get­ting limbs to the peo­ple who need­ed them the most, but the real­i­ty was a lot of peo­ple were 3D print­ing limbs that just weren’t fit for pur­pose. 50 per­cent of them were because the peo­ple had the prop­er kit, but every­body else just had a maker-bot, down­loaded some things and thought they could do it too, because they got attract­ed to the hype. You’re absolute­ly right, Gemma. These things are so com­pli­cat­ed, they’re so nuanced and they have affects and effects on them­selves.

I’m going to take a cou­ple of ques­tions from YouTube. The first one is from Meg who asks, Is there a sure­fire way to crit­i­cal­ly look at the integri­ty of peo­ple cre­at­ing these nar­ra­tives?” In oth­er words, is there a way that we know we can trust some­one is not just sell­ing us a dream; that in actu­al fact, there’s a degree of real­i­ty in what they’re espous­ing? In some cas­es, fame is the judg­men­tal lev­el. That’s why Elon does so well. Ideas are talked about for years and years and years but until some­one who is either famous or rich enough to actu­alise that thing says it, it does­n’t become a real­i­ty. How do we mea­sure integri­ty to under­stand as to whether this per­son is being hon­est with us or is just sell­ing us a dream?

Milne: That’s a great ques­tion. It’s actu­al­ly some­thing I’m think­ing a lot about at the moment in terms of pseu­do mea­sures for exper­tise that the Internet has cre­at­ed. They have lots of fol­low­ers and a blue tick, they must be trust­wor­thy. I have a blue tick, so trust me.

Mason: But Gemma, we both have blue ticks, so we are very trust­wor­thy.

Milne: Well that’s what I mean. Forbes’ 30 Under 30 is a pseu­do mea­sure­ment. There are many peo­ple on there I’ve seen over the years where I’m like, real­ly? I sup­pose what I’m try­ing to say is that I think there’s a lot of ways that we try to mea­sure peo­ple and try to mea­sure whether it’s integri­ty or suc­cess or what­ev­er. We need to do them because it’s very, very dif­fi­cult to make sense of com­plex sys­tems and it’s dif­fi­cult to try and assess the integri­ty, but again we have to come back to this idea that when we try and find a sim­ple answer to a ques­tion: Is this per­son trust­wor­thy? - we can so eas­i­ly come up with the wrong answer if we try and find a sim­ple way of answer­ing that ques­tion. The real­i­ty is, it’s com­plex.

I don’t think there’s a recipe for check­ing some­one’s integri­ty, but I do think that crit­i­cal think­ing in prac­tice is how you do it. It’s about check­ing credentials—Googling—see who else is endorsed. What oth­er things are they say­ing beyond what they’re say­ing? What’s the flow of mon­ey? What’s the flow of pow­er? It’s not assum­ing that every­one is a bad per­son or that every­thing’s a con­spir­a­cy or that nobody’s trust­wor­thy, but I do think we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to not just believe every­thing we read—whether that’s This per­son won Forbes 30 Under 30, there­fore they’re suc­cess­ful.” It’s like, any­one can apply for Forbes 30 Under 30, you know that. Anyone can put an appli­ca­tion in and any­one can read the appli­ca­tion, and all of these sorts of things. That’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the best way of mea­sur­ing. It’s a good sift­ing mech­a­nism, but it’s not the only mea­sure.

This idea of: Is there a way of deter­min­ing integri­ty? I would say yes, it’s called crit­i­cal thinking—but also no, because it’s not a frame­work. The oth­er thing I want to quick­ly say is that I’m not advo­cat­ing for every­one to not trust experts. This is where you get cli­mate deny­ing and anti vaxxers, right? There’s a prob­lem or a dif­fi­cult thing to do in sci­ence and tech which is to think, how do you ensure that it’s trust­wor­thy with­out ask­ing peo­ple to blind­ly trust you? I think it’s about encour­ag­ing crit­i­cal think­ing, and also sit­ting back and going, What do I think?”, find­ing oth­er sources and com­par­ing.

Mason: The dan­ger comes, some­times, with the weird middle-man of the PR agency. A lot of peo­ple can look like they have a lot of integri­ty and can find them­selves on some incred­i­ble stages and pub­lish incred­i­ble things, but in actu­al fact, there’s a lot of engi­neer­ing that hap­pens below them or under­neath them—whether it’s how they dress or how they speak, or even the things they say. Sometimes they’re not always the agency of that indi­vid­ual.

We have anoth­er ques­tion from YouTube, this time from Cybersalon—I’m assum­ing it’s Eva Pascoe—who asks, Is hype just social­is­ing of a new idea?” In oth­er words, is hype real­ly, real­ly use­ful for get­ting the gen­er­al pub­lic and peo­ple used to and com­fort­able with a new con­cept? 

Milne: Yeah, I think it can be. Again, it comes back to how do you do it in a respon­si­ble way, and how do peo­ple who are on the oth­er end of it effec­tive­ly assess it to work out if they’re believ­ing it because it’s found­ed on real­i­ty or whether they’re believ­ing it based pure­ly on nar­ra­tive. That’s where we need to be care­ful around hype. Yes, we can use it to gath­er atten­tion but it’s kind of like cheat­ing. It’s like say­ing, I’ve got this real­ly excit­ing thing. It’s not real­ly that excit­ing but I’m going to tell you it’s excit­ing and hope you believe me.” as opposed to being upfront and telling you what is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing. Then if peo­ple are excit­ed, it’s actu­al­ly more truth­ful. I know that’s min­imis­ing because of course, it’s dif­fi­cult to get the full mes­sage across and blah blah blah. But in some sense, some­times hype can be a plas­ter over some­thing that’s actu­al­ly not that great. Are you real­ly social­is­ing it? Are you real­ly under­stand­ing what peo­ple think about it, when you’re not being ful­ly truth­ful and ful­ly trans­par­ent about what the real­i­ty of it is? You’re only social­is­ing the idea, not the real­i­ty of what the tech or sci­ence is.

Mason: We have anoth­er ques­tion from YouTube—this time from Digital Void, which is Josh Chapdelaine—which is, How would you, if you would at all, dif­fer­en­ti­ate between hype and a per­son or a com­pa­ny’s desire to cre­ate vision through causative think­ing?” I think this goes back to what I was ear­li­er ask­ing. How do you dif­fer­en­ti­ate between those things? How do you ral­ly the troops and also respon­si­bly use hype?

Milne: This whole idea of build, enable, come is not always true—we know that. At the same time, if you cre­ate some­thing that’s prop­er­ly transformative—not incre­men­tal­ly trans­for­ma­tive but prop­er­ly trans­for­ma­tive, I’m talk­ing about fusion ener­gy, here, I’m not talk­ing about an app—I sup­pose I refuse to believe that nobody’s going to pay atten­tion at all. Especially if you then try with the proof that you have. I under­stand that some­times, it’s dif­fi­cult to get to that proof with­out hav­ing the buy in. It’s dif­fi­cult to get fund­ing; it’s dif­fi­cult to get atten­tion and all of that sort of stuff. But I think it’s more impres­sive to find ways around it—to find ways of prov­ing it, to find ways of get­ting peo­ple’s approval and atten­tion and trust—that isn’t almost lying.

I sup­pose that’s where I come back to this whole thing: it’s a tool. You can adver­tise and talk about it. I’m not against adver­tis­ing. I put Facebook ads up to try and get peo­ple to pre­order my book. You need adver­tis­ing, but it’s just about being truth­ful about what it is that you’re adver­tis­ing and not using over-simplified nar­ra­tives that you can…normally no one’s going to push peo­ple in the wrong direc­tion. If I said, This book is going to make you under­stand how to beat hype all of the time.”—that’s the goal of the book. That’s the vision of the book that I believe if you read it a mil­lion times and real­ly take in what it’s say­ing, arguably it might, maybe ful­fill on that. That would be not only hyp­ing, but kind of know­ing that I would be sort of lying a lit­tle bit. That’s the sort of hype I’m talk­ing about. It’s dif­fer­ent say­ing, My goal for the book is this.”

You know it’s fun­ny, the ad that I did on Facebook—I wrote a lit­tle post under­neath the book and I said, I want­ed to cre­ate a book that did…” and I want­ed to do…” and I felt that that was the most respon­si­ble way of talk­ing about my goal for the book with­out declar­ing that if you read it, you’ll get this. I actu­al­ly had some­one com­ment on it being like, Well you should have tried hard­er them.”—because I said, I want­ed” as opposed to, This does”. I was like…that’s the prob­lem. People want to get these sim­ple answers and sim­ple solu­tions that just don’t exist. It’s not the world we live in. 

Mason: A fol­low on to that answer is from the BBC’s Ian Forrester, who asks, Surely you need some ideas or nar­ra­tives that dri­ve peo­ple to think big­ger?” He gives the exam­ple of Apple who are well known to demo things before they are actu­al­ly ready. Eva Pascoe fol­lowed up by say­ing, Well look, could you argue that actu­al­ly, vapour­ware, in some rare cas­es, actu­al­ly moves the world for­ward?” 

Milne: Yeah, but it’s being put for­ward as a vision. I think there’s a dif­fer­ence between say­ing, Imagine a world when…”, It could look like this…”, Here it is here, this is what it would look like, this is what it could do. We’re get­ting there, we’re close.” or not even to be as explic­it, just, Imagine a world where…and it’s right here in my pock­et.” I think it’s just the dif­fer­ence between what is the vision and what is the real­i­ty. 

When peo­ple mis­in­ter­pret your vision, cor­rect­ing it. Not rid­ing the wave of incor­rect infor­ma­tion. That’s where I see the prob­lem. It’s also detri­men­tal for you at the end of the day because if you mis­man­age expec­ta­tions, as we all know, things can go dras­ti­cal­ly wrong. If you say some­thing can do this, We have built some­thing that does this” and then you only need one exam­ple of when it does­n’t work for folk to not believe any­thing you say any­more. It’s a dan­ger­ous line to go down. I think it’s the dif­fer­ence between vision and hard claim, and also what that vision is. How big is it? What kind of promise are you mak­ing to peo­ple? What kind of false hope are you instill­ing in peo­ple? Things are dif­fer­ent between a thing that plays music and feed­ing the world.

Mason: I think that goes back, in some ways, to your idea of respon­si­ble hype. It would be irre­spon­si­ble of me not to rec­om­mend the cur­rent cri­sis. We’ve done so well to get this far and not men­tion COVID-19. I just won­der, Gemma, how do you think hype is caus­ing chal­lenges to our under­stand­ing of the cur­rent COVID-19 cri­sis, or at least the sci­ence behind this cri­sis?

Milne: I think that, actu­al­ly, hype could have been used bet­ter. I think the tool, hype for good, could have been used in a bet­ter way. I feel like there’s a lot of con­flict­ing nar­ra­tives. There are not that many nar­ra­tives that are win­ning out, that are clear. Stay at home: For some peo­ple that’s very clear but for oth­ers, it’s like: Depending on what, and when? Is it okay to go for a run? Can I sit on a park bench or can I not? So you’d argue there’s not real­ly much clar­i­ty and there­fore it’s not a use­ful, hyped up nar­ra­tive. My take on things is that I think we haven’t used hype for good in a very good way, par­tic­u­lar­ly when we’re talk­ing about get­ting pub­lic health mes­sages out to peo­ple and mak­ing peo­ple feel safe and these sorts of things.

One of the biggest nar­ra­tives that I wish was loud­er is, We don’t know. We don’t know. This is real­ly hard. We don’t know. This has­n’t hap­pened before. We don’t know.” Trying to answer ques­tions sim­ply in a sit­u­a­tion that, right now, we still don’t know the answer, is irre­spon­si­ble. You’re kind of miss­ing a trick. Why don’t we hype up the idea that it’s okay to not know, and this is going to be hard and we all have to accept uncer­tain­ty. Why don’t we put time and ener­gy and effort into mak­ing that nar­ra­tive land as opposed to try­ing to give false hope, that can so eas­i­ly be undermined—which is what’s hap­pened mul­ti­ple times, par­tic­u­lar­ly here in the UK.

One exam­ple I keep com­ing back to is what hap­pened with the Oxford paper at the end of March? For any peo­ple who don’t know, there was a University of Oxford paper that was a preprint that was pub­lished that insin­u­at­ed that over half of the pop­u­la­tion had already been infect­ed by coro­n­avirus. At the time, that was a real­ly huge thing to be think­ing and it was influ­enc­ing a whole load of, Oh, we’re going to have to change a whole load of the poli­cies.” and that sort of thing. The FT pub­lished this, the head­line was like: Half of the Population May Already Be Affected, Says Oxford Study—or some­thing like that—and it was up for a week. Loads of peo­ple were com­ment­ing on it, politi­cians were com­ment­ing on it, peo­ple were fear­ful of this. It was a nar­ra­tive that real­ly caught on. There was hype around this idea of half the pop­u­la­tion. A week lat­er, the FT pub­lished a let­ter with a whole load of pro­fes­sors, epi­demi­ol­o­gists and what­not from Oxford and Italy as well, say­ing it was wrong. There was an assump­tion that was made that was not sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly lit­er­ate. Then there was a whole load of hype around the idea of: These sci­en­tists are bad­dies. They should­n’t have pub­lished this and the FT are ter­ri­ble, and all of these sorts of things. Then we had all of these calls for: The sci­ence needs to be done bet­ter, and all of this sort of thing. For any­one who is in sci­ence, preprints are a nor­mal thing to hap­pen, and cor­rect­ing preprints is a good thing. That is sci­ence work­ing well. The prob­lem is that a news­pa­per came out and report­ed on a preprint with­out tak­ing the con­text, and the mes­sage went crazy.

There is an inter­est­ing thing where it’s like, how do we work around the fact that the vast major­i­ty of the pub­lic don’t under­stand how sci­ence works? Do we start doing sci­ence behind closed doors and start going back on all of these amaz­ing move­ments we’ve had in open sci­ence, and preprints being a great thing in that sense? Or, do we now, in a sort of fren­zy, try and explain preprints to the whole of the UK, which is obvi­ous­ly ludi­crous? In some sense, we either have to be extreme­ly trans­par­ent about absolute­ly every­thing or use hype for good for these sim­pli­fied nar­ra­tives that peo­ple can hang onto or trust. 

I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think there’s been tonnes of—there’s been mis­in­for­ma­tion and hype around mis­in­for­ma­tion and God, look at all of the 5G stuff—but I don’t actu­al­ly think there’s been some real­ly inter­est­ing hype nar­ra­tives that have been help­ful. I mean, lots of peo­ple are stay­ing at home, but it’s still con­fus­ing. 

Mason: In that case, how do we keep peo­ple who use hype account­able? Do we need some­one cen­sor­ing hype? Do we need trust­ed experts to decide what gets air­time? I guess we’re kind of see­ing that right now with YouTube being very selec­tive over how it’s algo­rith­mi­cal­ly tak­ing down COVID-19 con­tent that does­n’t agree with the World Health Organisation. Can we build that account­abil­i­ty in so that hype no longer becomes an issue in the future?

Milne: My solu­tion to hype is that every­body thinks their way around it. Hype only has pow­er in its illu­sion, and if more peo­ple start­ed from a mind­set of crit­i­cal think­ing, hype would­n’t have its pow­er. It would still be use­ful because it would still gath­er atten­tion and peo­ple would look at it in a nuanced man­ner. I’ve thought a lot about this. Is it the same as adver­tis­ing laws? Could you com­plain to the ASA and all of these sorts of things? You can do that with hype some­times because you can argue that it’s mis­in­for­ma­tion in some instances, but it’s not an easy thing to reg­u­late. Sometimes, it’s just being real­ly loud. It’s also some­times mes­sages that are true but out of con­text, and all of these sorts of things. Maybe this is the ide­al­ist in me com­ing out, which does exist, which is that I think the best way to try and make the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter is for indi­vid­u­als to change the way they think about mes­sag­ing and hype. Just know­ing that hype is a thing, and being more aware of it. That is the goal of the book. It’s to try and be like, you have the pow­er. The pow­er of hype is in its illu­sion and the spread of its illu­sion, and that only hap­pens if a lot of peo­ple retweet. You don’t retweet or you think about retweet­ing, or you com­ment above the retweet or some­thing. That’s when you start cre­at­ing that nuance and hav­ing the spread. Again—idealistic—we can’t obvi­ous­ly get absolute­ly every­one to do that, but I do think with more peo­ple doing it, maybe you don’t need that many peo­ple doing it to curb it. You prob­a­bly need to test that a bit more empir­i­cal­ly.

Mason: So on that note, it feels like we all have a respon­si­bil­i­ty here. Gemma, I just want to say thank you for join­ing us today.

Milne: Thank you so much for hav­ing me.

Mason: Thank you to Gemma for shar­ing her insights into hype can obscure the nuances of the sci­en­tif­ic process.

You can find out more by pur­chas­ing Gemma’s new book, Smoke and Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It, avail­able now. 

Don’t for­get, you can watch the full, unedit­ed video of this con­ver­sa­tion at Futures Podcast dot net, where you can also find out about all of our live stream events. 

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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).


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