Hype tends to be denounced as the fuel of the substandard, the fraudulent and the disappointing. It’s what we blame when companies, technologies or ideas dominate the public consciousness, only to let us down; the invisible force that tricks us into believing the con; the eye-roll-inducing words that tell us to over-invest our time, money and faith into unique “solutions” that within a few months will turn out to be useless.
In short, hype is seen as the domain of hucksters and snake oil salesmen peddling the ordinary as exceptional. And hype has another, pernicious role – that of current-day distraction. In science and technology, it often amounts to a distraction of the public gaze, away from underrated innovation, and towards that which more easily captures attention. Away from the good stuff, towards the shiny stuff.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “hype” as a deception of sorts, a trick deployed “to make something seem more exciting or important than it is”; the Oxford Dictionary of English is more forgiving in its description: “extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion”. Hype has different definitions and connotations, then, depending on whom you ask or what dictionary you consult. And per se, hype is neither good nor evil: it’s a tool. It can be the catalyst for genuine innovation to get funding, attention, and regulatory consideration, and it can do the same for something not so legitimate.
The problem is: fostering hype takes time and money. And not everyone who is working on the good stuff – innovation that is impactful, useful, entertaining, or just original – has the time and money to buy hype. Hype, therefore, isn’t necessarily a fair measure of science and technology worth paying attention to.
Take fusion energy: a technology that has the potential to change energy production worldwide, and reduce society’s reliance on fossil fuels. A technology that has brought together 35 nations to work on a $25 billion science experiment in southern France. A technology which requires solving a problem so easy to explain: recreating the Sun’s power on Earth. Yet, despite growing awareness of the climate crisis, and the “tech will save us” narratives, fusion energy is often confused with current nuclear power stations (nuclear fission), is branded pseudoscience (due to the conflation with cold fusion) and is something most people will happily admit to knowing nothing about. There’s just no social pressure surrounding it as a trendy idea – unlike AI, blockchain, or Elon Musk’s scheme du jour.
It might seem unimportant to have more people talking about fusion energy when there is still much to be done to bring it to market. But as the world scrambles for new green policies and environmentally-friendly corporate practice, one would think fusion energy might at least be hailed as a promising technology. Right now, instead, any mention of it is met with blank faces. The same cannot be said for the hype surrounding electric cars, or solar panels, or household recycling schemes.
Hype is not simply a distraction. It can have another, subtler, more devastating effect: it dilutes awe. Exhibit A for this problem can be found in the field of astrobiology. That might sound surprising, as astrobiology is the discipline studying, in NASA’s words, the “origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe”. Pretty wow, right? Yet one single word has proven able to make anything coming out of the field seem far-away or far-fetched. That word is “aliens”.
Public coverage of life-finding missions to Mars focus on the searching for alien life over more consequential questions such as whether previous missions to the planet have corrupted future experiments by inadvertently transporting biological material from Earth, or what kind of terrestrial life could travel on the outside of a spaceship all the way to Mars, or what constitutes “life” in the first place.
Most of the stories surrounding SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) focus on the quirky individuals who have these “crazy ideas” about listening for and speaking to aliens to see if we’re not alone. They don’t let the public in on the fascinating process of trying to work out exactly what counts as an intelligent alien message in the radio signals received, or let the public ponder what kind of messages we should be sending out to other lifeforms, or give them permission to delve into the question that is actually at the root of what these scientists are working on every day: who are we?
Acting this way has a cost. It’s not just about allowing people to feel awe: it’s about empowering those who are not professional scientists or technologists to be able to participate, instead of being spoon-fed a whizz-bang watered-down version of science as cheap entertainment. Hype doesn’t just obscure the reality of what’s going on in science and technology – it makes it less interesting. It’s time we start to look past it and delight in what lies beyond.
Gemma Milne is a science and technology journalist, and the author of Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It
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