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—10 x 10 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.
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