Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tech Boosterism

[More notes for the upcoming book]

Journalists have a natural tendency to be supportive of efforts to serve some public good. There is undoubtedly an element of self-interest here – – philanthropists and local heroes make for good copy – – but I suspect of main driver is a sincere desire to advance worthwhile causes. This is completely understandable and even, to some degree, praiseworthy, but it can also be dangerous.

Accounts of volunteers cleaning seabirds after an oil spill can create a false sense of having addressed a massive problem. Feel-good stories about imaginative school fundraising projects (disproportionately found in relatively wealthy districts) seldom mention the ways that funding by community can exacerbate educational inequality. Press releases on hedge fund managers always omit the tax benefits, the strings that often accompanied the gifts, and the reputation laundering bought with what is frequently very dirty money (see the Sacklers and the opioid crisis for example).

The damage caused by uncritical and unthinking supportive journalism really kicks into high gear when you combine it with other biases and corrupting factors. This problem is particularly acute with technology. Most journalists quite reasonably see technological progress as being good for society on the whole. Therefore, the default setting of a report of some demonstration or new development is "isn't that great?".

Unfortunately, this default approach is generally combined with a weak grasp of how technology works and progresses, particularly when it comes to things like proposals, prototypes, and producing viable products. Add to that the tremendous role of hype, the enthusiasm for conventional narratives (in this case frequently involving Silicon Valley messiahs, often with what can only be described as magical powers -- see magical heuristics), and the occasional flat out scam. The result is a press corps that ranges from a mainstream that is strongly inclined to believe what they're told to converts with a cultlike faith in Elon Musk and company.

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