Thursday, August 23, 2018

Hark the Herald Reporters Sing – – another magical heuristics post

I was reading yet another piece talking about how some Silicon Valley/Silicon Beach company was about to do some impossible thing. As I was mentally compiling a list of factual errors, fallacies, and improbabilities, it suddenly struck me that I was approaching the piece from a completely inappropriate framework. This wasn’t an analysis of a business model; it was the foretelling of the coming conquests of great men. The numbers and anecdotes given in the piece were not evidence and context; they were portents.

We’ve certainly discussed the idea that the discourse of the tech industry is rife with the language and imagery of myths and magic, and we haven’t been the only ones to notice (Paul Krugman recently described the rhetoric of crypto currency supporters as “messianic”), but reading that piece I was struck by an implication which I believe had evaded me up to this point. What are the psychological effects of these stories on the people who tell them?

If tech journalists are increasingly inclined to see figures like Elon Musk as messiahs (and if you think this is over the top, go back and read the Rolling Stone cover story), isn’t it inevitable that these journalists who are announcing the coming of these messiahs will start to think of themselves as heralds?

Up until now, we have tended to describe these reporters as conmen or suckers, but just as two categories are not mutually exclusive, neither is this one. If you dig into the history of charlatans, you’ll have no trouble finding promoters who were both willing accomplices and true believers.

I’ve been struggling to explain the seductiveness of the bullshit narratives which has come to dominate our discussion of science and technology. Part of this unquestionably comes down to the appeal of the pitch: the future is not only brighter than you could imagine, it’s also going to be cheap and easily attained and it’s right around the corner. It’s not difficult to imagine people wanting to believe this, but that still doesn’t fully explain how so many smart and skeptical people have fallen for the obvious flimflam and have rejected the rational for the magical heuristics.

I suspect the psychology of the herald plays a large role here. While it certainly doesn’t hurt that these stories are good copy or that these “messiahs” have appropriately majestic lifestyles (sometimes, the next best thing to being rich is hanging out with the rich), but the reporters covering the stories also have the sense of being part of something great even if their role is only to witness and record.

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