Maybe more people are writing about the real and potential problems of technology today than ever before. That is mostly a good thing. The list of books and articles from the last few years that have nuanced and illuminating perspectives on the contemporary technological situation is rich and long.
Recently, however, 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 their most ridiculous, hype-filled criticisms become what historian David C. Brock calls “wishful worries,” that is, “problems that it would be nice to have, in contrast to the actual agonies of the present.” (See also science journalist John Horgan’s recent Scientific American post on the topic.) Perhaps the most beautiful example of a wishful worry is the article titled, “Hacked Sex Robots Could Murder People, Security Expert Warns,” which, sadly for our culture, is not an April Fool’s prank. Part of Brock’s point is that wishful worries are a kind of entertainment. We are, after all, a people that regularly feasts upon dystopian science fiction. Imaginary fears can be fun.
But it’s not just uncritical journalists and fringe writers who hype technologies in order to criticize them. Academic researchers have gotten in on the game. 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…