Note — Mar 07, 2021

You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype

Excellent piece by Lee Vinsel, about critiquing tech. I’ll readily admit that I’ve done this in the past. Or rather that I’ve amplified criti-hype, often adding a note concerning some exaggerations or inaccuracies, believing that the companies in question deserve the criticism, and thus by removing the problems the rest is worth sharing. Vinsel is correct though, some of the criti-hypers are using the marketing of these companies, taking it as correct, and critiquing from there. He cites Zuboff and Harris, who talk about Facebook almost like it does mind-control, building on the company’s marketing claims.

To put it in the words of some recent articles featured here; big tech is talking loudly about the futures (and present really) they want and some critics are actually amplifying that message even while critiquing. There are plenty of actual misdeeds committed by Google, Facebook, Uber, and others, no need to spend so much time debunking their bunk.

This has a bit of the Gladwellian backlash to it. Critics doing good work fall into an easy pattern, figure out how to monetize, and drift away from the more solid work they once did or might have done.

[A]t 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. […]

[O]ne response to criti-hype should be doing a better job of steering graduate students away from “emerging technologies” which are little more than promissory notes towards actual technological agonies. […]

It is outrageous that I can point to gobs of people in my field working on synthetic biology, “AI,” self-driving cars, and blockchain but not a single person researching septic tanks, mobile homes, trailer parks, or even housing more generally, even though these latter topics are full of technological issues and true human suffering that IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. […]

In my experience, young people enter graduate programs enthusiastic about some pretty unrealistic and dramatic visions of near-term technological change, even including things as ridiculous as the singularity and transhumanism. Nuanced understanding of the history, sociology, and economics of technology is good medicine for this condition.