You’re Doing It Wrong: Criticism and Technology Hype

Criti-hype is one of those phenomena that it’s important to be mindful of but not kid ourselves we’ll be free of it.

Recently, I’ve become increasingly aware of critical writing that is parasitic upon and even inflates hype. The media landscape is full of dramatic claims — many of which come from entrepreneurs, startup PR offices, and other boosters — about how technologies, such as “AI,” self-driving cars, genetic engineering, the “sharing economy,” blockchain, and cryptocurrencies, will lead to massive societal shifts in the near-future. These boosters — Elon Musk comes to mind — naturally tend to accentuate positive benefits. The kinds of critics that I am talking about invert boosters’ messages — they retain the picture of extraordinary change but focus instead on negative problems and risks. It’s as if they take press releases from startups and cover them with hellscapes.

At least since the 1990s, university researchers have done work on the social, political, and moral aspects of wave after wave of “emerging technologies” and received significant grants from public and private bodies to do so. As I’ll detail below, many (though certainly not all) of these researchers reproduced and even increased hype, the most dramatic promotional claims of future change put forward by industry executives, scientists, and engineers working on these technologies. Again, at the worst, what these researchers do is take the sensational claims of boosters and entrepreneurs, flip them, and start talking about “risks.” They become the professional concern trolls of technoculture.

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