Emerging tech

Many hats make light work: How to see the truth hidden by tech hype

When every new technology is hyped as the next big thing or death-knell of civilization, these six ways of thinking sort exaggeration from opportunity.

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Hype is increasingly playing a big part in the worst decisions around technology. Investors and journalists alike fell for Elizabeth Holmes’ shiny pitch for her non-existent blood testing technology Theranos. Fitness tracker Jawbone, once valued at 3 billion US dollars, was among several wearable tech firms to go spectacularly belly-up as it became clear the market wasn’t as expected.

Decision-makers in business need to be able to sort hype from opportunity, basing their choices on level analysis, not amped-up marketing.

Seeing past puffed-up narratives and getting to the core of claims means making more informed decisions around technology, investing in the most promising next steps and building a business strategy with concrete foundations.

You needn’t necessarily wade through the mountains of information we’re faced with every day to spot hype.

As a science and tech journalist and advisor for Innovate UK and the European Commission on start-up funding, my job is to work out what’s hype and what’s not.

Here are six ways to hone your critical thinking and better understand the complexity, adapted from my recent book, Smoke and mirrors: How hype obscures the future and how to see past it.

1. Understand what hype is for

Most people think hype is a bad thing, and it can be a problem in that it sends us along the wrong path. But there’s more to it.

If ‘consensual’ fooling is what magicians do (you go to a magic show to be fooled,) ‘non-consensual’ fooling is lying. Hype could be considered ‘accidental fooling’ – the messages are not intended to misinform, but the person receiving them can easily get the wrong end of the stick.

Hype is powerful. People use it because they’re keen to get out what they think are important messages. They want to grab your attention. For example, government health guidelines intend to inform society. They might use hype to ensure people receive the message loud and clear.

When you remember what hype is for, you may see a message differently. Ask yourself why the communicator might use hype. Are they trying to sell something, convince you to change your behavior or to expose a problem? Think about why and how the message got in front of you when interpreting it.

2. Find the nuance

Many headlines and start-up pitches include absolute statements, like “AI will revolutionize health” or “robots will replace farmers.” Statements like these are shortcuts to establish a jumping-off point. They’re not necessarily false and normally contain a trace of truth, but they miss out a lot in their simplicity.

To find the nuance, say to yourself, “Well, it depends.” You’re not denying another’s expertise but getting yourself into a questioning state. When you start from a place of “Well, it depends,” your mind can better explore scenarios that test the statement. For example, “It depends what kind of job I have as to whether a robot will replace me.” Just three words can open your mind to nuance in absolute statements.

3. Look for your fanaticism

If you work in tech, you’re probably a techno-optimist: Someone who believes technology is a force for good. We wouldn’t have much innovation without this excitement and optimism, but we need to be conscious of where our excitement turns into fanaticism.

Emotional desire can blind us to the reality of societal impact. We can build and promote things that may be harmful to those unlike us. It’s more than putting ourselves into other people’s shoes; it’s taking a step back and asking, “Do we need this?” We know technologies can evolve and lead to related industries, becoming a problem over time. We should ask ourselves these questions in the development process to prevent unintended consequences down the line.

Another question to prompt this thinking is, “If this technology were to grow in mainstream adoption, what would be the dystopian science fiction novel written about it?”

4. Wear more hats

The difference between those who successfully think critically around ideas and those who shy away from it isn’t intelligence, but how readily they embrace complexity.

Searching for the right or wrong answer is hard when faced with a complex question like, “Is AI good or bad?” There’s a lot to consider. You need to ‘map’ the full system of ideas somehow, know the different scenarios in which the question must be answered and draw a conclusion.

A simple way to start gathering the nodes is to wear different hats, one by one. Put on your own hat. What does the question mean in your personal life or business? Then put on your supplier or your management team’s hats: What does it mean in theirs? Then consider working in a country not your own, in a different industry or being someone working 50 years in the future. This is a way to remove your blinkers and so, see past the hype.

5. Work out what’s curbing action

Hype can make people think someone else is solving things, so they don’t need to do anything. For example, in the food industry, hype around vertical farms and lab-grown meat lets us ‘off the hook’ of changing their habits. The ‘tech will save us’ mentality stops us making more considered decisions about what we eat today.

We can also work out, beyond the narratives laid in front of us, what fears or cultural tendencies build ideas in peoples’ minds they’re unwilling to confront. For example, the phrase “We’ll find a cure for cancer” exudes hope, tenacity and courage. But it also shields fear that we still have far to go, and, of course, fear of death. This fear and, in some cultures, the taboo against talking about death, means it’s become anathema to question those working in this field. It feels like doubting those on the front lines. Our trust rarely wavers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – many efforts in cancer therapeutics are successful – but when anything is culturally sacred and immune to criticism, much-needed constructive ideas are stifled. Consider the culture and public sentiment around the topic you’re investigating.

6. Work out who is responsible right now

Hype can sometimes give us narratives that relinquish our responsibility around technology. For example, “Robots will steal our jobs.” It’s an easily spread and understood idea, with an element of truth, but lacks important detail.

If you take away the hyped narrative, realize it’s a comment on the future of automation and rephrase it to “Company executives are going to choose to replace human jobs with robotic machinery,” another element becomes clear. Instead of talking about Terminator storming in to claim your job or the technological singularity and when it might be achieved, immediate discussions around responsibility, decision-making and societal economics come to the fore. We need to work out who is involved in the technology’s development right now and ensure their responsibility isn’t hidden beneath simplified, hyped narratives.

While decision-making in business is often the hardest part of the job, spotting hype in technology – and so preventing yourself and your business from succumbing to it – needn’t be difficult. When you next come across a headline you think may be hyped, following these steps will help you make better decisions.

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About authors

Gemma Milne is a technology and science writer who specializes in biotechnology, space, energy, health and quantum computing for publications including Forbes, BBC, The Guardian and Quartz. She is also the co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast and will soon publish her first book about hype in science and technology. She's a fan of books, powerlifting, travel and the occasional gin and tonic.