‘I have the book of magic tricks right here’

‘Smoke & Mirrors: How hype obscures the future and how to see past it’ by Gemma Milne is published by Robinson (£13.99). With kind permission from the publisher we share the introductory chapter.

It started with ghosts in the 1700s. ‘Conjured ghosts.’

A box would hide the projector, beaming a spooky image at an angled mirror inside, and the ghoulish form would emerge from the hole cut in top of the box to light up the plume of smoke generated on stage, to the horror of the audience apprehensively looking on.

Magicians would use the trick to delight audiences; charlatans would use it to con; but soon the smoke-and-mirror technique would become a classic in the magic toolbox, known as the original clever way of creating illusions.1

Nowadays, most magicians are known as entertainers, not witches and wizards. The audience walk into those theatres ready to suspend their disbelief in the pursuit of wonder and fun. Maybe one person wants to sit back and be wowed, maybe another wants to play detective to spot the sleight of hand, but either way, they know, and accept, that the magician on stage will be on a mission to fool.

And the magicians are masters of the craft of fooling. There are the physical props with hidden parts inside, but there’s also their deep knowledge of how to create a trick in the mind of the audience. Magicians know exactly how to shift someone’s thought process onto their desired path; to make someone believe something impossible; to misdirect. Without a degree of psychological manipulation, there is no magic trick.

Of course, magicians are honest deceivers. There’s a reason that David Devant, the first president of the famous Magic Circle, is remembered for his catchphrase: ‘all done with kindness’. And, of course, non-consensual fooling – or lying, as it’s more commonly known – is almost never a truly kind act.

But what does it mean to be accidentally fooled? To be swept up in tantalising ideas, or trusted opinions, or simple hope that something false is true? To be tricked somewhat, not out of malice from a magician of sorts behind the scenes, but by simplified narrative, distracted focus or an unchecked desire for something to be true cloaking rational thought?

This powerful tool capable of misleading is hype. And it’s powerful because it’s not always a tool that someone somewhere has chosen to wield, but because it can so easily be misconstrued, carelessly used and spread like wildfire.

There are many stories of lying, deception and misuse of power; but I’d argue that hype can be even more damaging than deliberate, sometimes criminal, actions. Conspiracies too make for intriguing reading, but the curious power of hype is one that, in my mind, makes for an underdiscussed truth much stranger and more compelling than speculation.

Before we go on, we should probably define hype. Some describe it as extravagant or intensive promotion; others define it as the use of a lot of advertising to make people interested in something; others go for, simply, exaggerated publicity. Whatever specific words you go for, it’s clear that when we use ‘hype’ to describe sentiment, it is somewhat biased towards a particular perception not because of the facts about its merits, but because of the particular words and narratives surrounding it.

Sometimes those words and narratives are warranted; sometimes they are not. Sometimes hype perfectly encapsulates the future being built; sometimes it obscures it. Sometimes it results in socially beneficial over-embellishment; sometimes it changes the course of progress for the worse. The crucial thing then is not to halt all hype or banish its use across the board, but instead to understand when we are presented with hype and how to sort the fair from the problematic.

Hype, like any tool, isn’t inherently good or bad. It can be the tool with which we gather communities around positive societal change, and it can be the tool that misleads to satisfy the ill-conceived wants of a few immoral actors. Sometimes people don’t even know they’re propagating it. But when hype starts to grow unchecked, it doesn’t really matter who started it and why; what matters is that it is spotted before any damage happens.

Unfortunately, and in some cases, tragically, this can be far easier said than done.

Those who work in science and technology are often tasked with and driven by making the world a better place. And understandably so: their work is mostly comprised of progressing onwards from one state of knowledge to the next, and then applying this new knowledge to the world around them. It’s broadly an ambitious activity, fuelled by optimism, tenacity and unwillingness to settle for an unsatisfactory result when more can still be done.

It’s also a complex area, both in terms of depth of understanding of those at the coal face, as well as keeping up with the pace of discovery and invention. And in trying to work out exactly what’s happening in science and technology, you can often be confronted with a lack of understandable information, an abundance of over-simplified generalisation and indecipherable ambiguity. It’s in these conditions that hype tends to be wielded as a tool to aid communication and comprehension, but they’re also the conditions that make hype ripe for unhinged propagation.

Beating hype individually can be as simple as spotting it, as its power is in its illusion, but if we’re to avoid consequences that affect society at large, spotting and contextualising hype must be done collectively by the masses to stop it in its tracks.

My hope with this book is to show you that anyone, regardless of scientific background and confidence, can learn to see past hype. We can’t get it right every time, but surely with more people even just stopping to consider whether something they hear, see or read is hype, our collective societal intelligence massively increases.

I’m a science and technology writer, so it’s my job to meet incredible inventors, thinkers and entrepreneurs and tell their stories to the world. It’s also my job to make sure I’m writing thoughtfully, carefully and ethically, knowing that my words can have power in raising people and companies up, or curbing problematic actors. I also work with a venture capital fund, helping them find promising young startups, and I advise government on which company missions merit public money and public hope. My job means trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on in industries, who is legitimate, and what the future potential looks like through many different lenses – financial, societal and more. I’m paid to think critically.

Before I became a writer, I worked in advertising, where I learned the power of messaging both for good and not for good. I watched big companies pick a narrative that fitted the zeitgeist, regardless of how authentic it was for the reality of their company, and sway consumers towards their stories and their stores. I also worked in corporate innovation in advertising, where my job was to travel the world to work out what the latest trends in technology and startups were for the agency’s clients – and I learned that innovation can regularly be a hype-driven marketing tool much more so than a mindset or a research and development strategy.

In short, hype has played a huge role in my career, in finding the best ways to create it, in spotting it, in writing about it, and in striving to beat it. I’ve seen hype do amazing things, frustrate the hell out of me, and horrify me when I can clearly see the dangerous behaviour it can inspire.

I’m by no means perfect in spotting and beating hype – no one is, as we’ll discover throughout this book – but I’m fortunate in that many of my jobs have had some element of hype attached to them, and the diversity of jobs I’ve done (we didn’t even touch on the brief investment banking foray, the summer-camp chef, the door-to-door salesperson, or the wedding waitress) means I tend to look at things through various lenses automatically. I’m a jack of many trades, master of not-getting-stuck-in-a-silo, as it were.

I’ve chosen nine areas of science and technology through which to tell this story of hype. These specific areas are of interest because they are the ‘moonshots’ of our time, and thus they carry many different forms of hype within them. Some are regularly talked about in the popular media, some are only emerging out of the more insular science and technology world, others are beneath the surface. I’ve picked them as they all represent a different kind of hype, and each story of hype results in different impacts on the world. They are all very legitimate areas of science and technology; I’ve broadly stayed away from hype around pseudoscience and stuck to misguided hype around reality. I believe we should all, as citizens of the world, have a firmer grip on the areas covered in this book, regardless of our scientific background. Science and technology are part of society, after all, and being swept up in hype in these crucial areas means – as we’ll discover – potentially very problematic effects on our planet and on people.

This book is split into three parts: Now, Next and Nearing. Within each part are three areas of science and technology relevant to that timeframe, the role that hype plays within them, the existing and possible future repercussions of that hype, and an exploration of how we might spot and contextualise that hype moving forward. Each role of hype, and each ‘method’ of spotting it, can arguably be applied across many chapters and indeed other areas of science and technology this book doesn’t include.

The point is not to just take my word as gospel in these specific realms, but to show how we can all go about seeking out the patterns that hype exhibits and the tactics we can employ beyond these pages.

In the first part, Now, we’ll see the current impact that hype has on our world, in how it helps retain a problematic status quo, how it can be a double-edged sword and how it can shield complexity. In Next, we’ll see how hype is currently swaying the development of crucial fields in how it can curb action, how it can shield flaws and how it can act just like a placebo of sorts, telling us one thing but fuelling another. Finally, in Nearing, we’ll explore how hype affects us as individuals and ultimately damages future progress, in its fanatical nature, in its relinquishing of responsibility, and in its halting of the most crucial activity of them all: critical thinking.

Throughout, we’ll explore that which blinkers us from seeing past hype, such as marketing, perceived expertise, complexity, fear of being wrong, bad incentives, human psychology and idealism. We’ll see both why they blinker us so easily, and what can be done to remove them as hurdles.

Spotting and contextualising hype isn’t about learning the nitty-gritty of how science and technology work, but rather seeing how they fit into the systems of society and looking at ideas through various different perspectives, such as media, financial markets, law, geopolitics, socioeconomics and the environment. No science and technology book is complete without a little intertwining of how the world actually works.

We’ll also discuss those uncomfortable truths about our more active susceptibility to hype, our reluctance to change and our dissociation of various kinds of responsibility.

Hype tends to only rear its ugly head when the majority don’t know that it’s hype; when we don’t collectively realise that we’re consuming amped-up ideas as opposed to those celebrated on merit. And without being able to tell one from the other, what chance do we have actually to engage with science and technology? To consider whether we agree with the celebration of merit or not? To vote for a better future with our behaviour and our ballot papers armed with more, better information?

Hype is an effective tool, there’s no doubt about that, but if we want to wield its power responsibly, or simply curb its potentially harmful effects, we must first work out how the sleight of hand is done.

And would you believe, I have the book of magic tricks right here. 

Smoke & Mirrors: How hype obscures the future and how to see past it by Gemma Milne is published by Robinson and available now.

See also our Q&A with Gemma Milne.

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