Becoming Aware of Hype with Gemma Milne.
Gemma Milne joined us on the Make Things Better podcast to discuss hype.
- Gemma Milne
- 52 mins
Tom: Hello and welcome to episode five of the Make Things Better Podcast. Today, I have Gemma Milne on the show. Gemma is a writer and researcher in tech and science, and I’ve just read her book, smoke and mirrors. So we’re going to be talking a lot about hype in this podcast, but first of all, do you want to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background Gemma.
Gemma: Hey, thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be on the show. Okay. A little bit about me. Well, as you say I’m a writer and a researcher. I’m currently doing a PhD at UCL at the moment, in the science technology studies department. And I’m specifically looking into kind of like the ethics and political economy of corporate futurists. So I’m really interested in people who talk about the future and get paid to talk about the future, in corporate contexts and kind of what’s, I don’t want to say the right way of doing that, but what are all the intricacies, the systems and types of people that end up doing that and how it impacts the world. But beyond that, I write about science and tech of all sorts for freelance writers. So for all kinds of outlets. My background is pretty varied. I have a maths degree, but I’ve worked in advertising and investment banking. And I was a chef for a little while. So I’ve done lots of different stuff, which I think kind of informs how I think about the world. I tend to have quite a multifaceted view on things and I really like to try and think about systems and how things work and I don’t know, how the meat was made, I suppose, or how the sausage is charmed or whatever the phrase is. I don’t know how it goes.
Tom: Is that from being a chef?
Gemma: Yeah. Maybe, maybe it’s that. I don’t know. But yeah, I don’t know. I have always been really drawn to trying to work out how the world works, whether it’s trying to understand the types of mathematics or physics or whatever, or trying to understand social systems or, whatever. So, yeah, I suppose that’s a little bit about me.
Tom: Yeah. And I was just saying before we started recording that I loved your book because there was so much critical thinking involved. And you didn’t just learn about these 12 different or I can’t remember how many they were?
Gemma: There were nine.
Tom: Yeah, my bad. There was so much to take in. Like I learned so much, honestly, I just finished it this week. Do you want to tell us a little bit about smoke and mirrors actually and what it was about in general?
Gemma: Sure. So smoking mirrors, the subtitle is How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It. So, you know, it’s a book about how hype works, in the world specifically of science and technology or the future more generally. So yeah, there’s nine different chapters and they cover everything from cancer therapeutics to farming and foods to space commercialization, even looking at like aliens and life on other planets. So kind of nine different areas that I think have legitimate, real good science in it. But are often plagued by misleading headlines, ideas, and excitement and idealism that can take people along the wrong path, perhaps of understanding and frankly, make those areas of science and tech less interesting. You know, I think a lot of people think if I’ve written a book about hype, I must be a massive pessimist or a Luddite or whatever, but I’m not at all. I just think that it’s much more fascinating to kind of critically think and engage with science and tech as opposed to being either afraid of it or thinking it’s too difficult or so on and so forth. So I wanted to pick what quite a lot of people see as quite difficult topics. Even things like quantum computing or AI to try and encourage people to get a bit more involved. And, and yeah I struggled with like picking the genre of the book. It’s not really popular science cause it’s got quite a lot of politics and history and economics and other things in there. So yeah, I always try and caution people and say, you don’t have to be like an expert in science and tech to enjoy this book. I really try and make it a bit more of this, as I say, this our system, how the world works kind of stuff.
Tom: Yeah. And you say it at the end of the book, that like everyone should be sort of aware of hype. Well, they don’t have to be aware, but it’s something that anyone can get interested in. I know at the end of the book you were mentioning how you don’t need to be interested in science and tech, or you might have your own psychological biases where you feel like you don’t know enough about science and tech. And you may be a bit fearful of it because of that. But I do think anyone could really read your book because it just does apply to so many different things in life. The other thing is I thought it was quite balanced. Like there’s some areas in it where you talk about how things are being a little bit hyped up. And then there’s other things, where because of hype in the past, now people are fearful, that nothing’s going to happen. Or they do think anything’s going to happen in certain industries in the future because of hype in the past. And that was quite interesting to me. So you touch on nine different way in which hype can kind of have a negative impact or what it can lead to. The first one was hype maintains the status quo. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how hype can do that?
Gemma: Sure. So if you think about certain kinds of, I’m going to keep saying headlines, cause that’s how most people tend to come across hype. Particularly if you don’t work in science and tech. So, you know, there’s many different headlines that are associated with different kinds of science and tech, which you probably would recognize. So for instance, one that goes alongside artificial intelligence or AI would be robots are going to steal our jobs for instance. That’s like a standard headline you would associate with that technology. If you’re going to talk about cancer therapeutics, then a standard headline would be X is going to cure cancer or X can delay cancer orprevent cancer or something like that. And this talk about it as a sort of collective, this battling sort of narrative and so on and so forth. And it’s the same with many different areas of science and tech. Now, what these headlines do is they tend to, I guess, have people culminate in one idea or a set of ideas about the technology without really giving you that much information about it without really allowing you to ask any questions beyond it. It kind of stops your thinking. So if we were to look at AI one in particular robots are going to steal your job. If you read that headline or you see terminator or something like that, there’s sort of one of two things you can think. One is, ‘oh the robots are coming to get us. They’re invading’ if you’re going to have the more sort of, shall we say crazy or extreme version of it, or maybe you’re thinking, ‘yeah, they’re going to steal my job and that’s really scary’. The other side is maybe you’d think it’d be liberating. Right? Great. I don’t have to do boring jobs anymore because AI is going to come or the robots are going to come and do it for me. But either way that’s quite a limited way of thinking about AI, right? You’re not really going beyond this idea of there’s this robot coming. There’s this other thing coming, it’s not human and it’s going to do something to me, it’s going to impact me. That’s really all that headline is saying, but if you were to think about, basically the same idea in a different way, and the idea is around automation it’s around this idea that robots, AI technology can automate certain tasks that humans do. And if you wrote the headline in a different way, for instance, ‘large corporates are making active decisions to replace human labour with machines in the name of profit.’ That’s a completely different way of talking about arguably the exact same thing. And it completely opens up your mind to whole new questions, suddenly you’re going wait, who are these corporates? And wait, ‘who’s making a decision at the corporate or in the name of profit that doesn’t seem fair what about care, work, and health and so and so forth, you know, in the UK, we don’t pay for that. Where does profit come into it?’ So what hype does and what headlines do in these sort of standardized ideas about certain areas of science and tech is they kind of don’t allow you to think outside the box, as pithy as that sounds, they just reiterate the same sort of ideas, the same fears, the same emotions, the same kind of assumptions that you might have, and it stops you from thinking anything different. Now we were talking about status quo. That also means that you might not vote in a different way. You might not spend your money in a different way. You as a company might not change the way that you innovate. As a government, you might not change your policies. So really these kind of narratives can sometimes cement a lot of thinking, sometimes bad thinking. And therefore not allow any change, sometimes people would say it would prevent progress, but that depends what your conception of progress is really.
Tom: Yeah. The other example that you gave that was quite similar to that was the one about Elon Musk and the brain computer interfaces. And I actually watched that Joe Rogan podcast, that I think you did mention in the book, many, many months ago, and that can actually be quite dangerous though because as you sort of mentioned, people might think that that’s actually going on and that’s maybe more developed than it actually is. And then there’s other people who are kind of working on similar things and then they already think, ‘oh yeah, that’s already been done’, but it might not have already been done. And so that’s the other way, I suppose it can maintain that status quo and actually result in people not developing things as much as they perhaps would have done.
Gemma: Absolutely. And I think it’s that that sort of, age-old thing around how to we try to change mindsets in order to change behaviours or change the way we do things and particularly certain things that happen in society. And I’m sure everybody will have an example to hand where you’re frustrated about how things are done it’s not fair, it’s not right. It’s inefficient whatever your complaint is. And a lot of the time when you really boil down into as to like why stuff isn’t changing. It’s concrete mindset it’s well, this is just the way we’ve already done it, or nobody’s pushing for us to change or, well, those people over there are working on it, according to the headline that I just read yesterday or whatever it is , and so it kind of gets you off the hook, I suppose, of having to make any changes. The very first chapter of the book is the farming chapter. And that’s the one I sort of associated with this idea of status quo because, that’s a perfect example where we read about how we need to make change to the way that we consume, the way we farm, the way we do things and there’s lots of debate around whether it’s veganism or whether it’s buying locally or whether it’s, you know, small older farms, like all different ways, which all have their merits, but ultimately sometimes the narratives around, ‘oh, there’s this, start-up in Silicon valley that is going to grow lab grown meat, or there’s this tech company that’s going to allow us to grow vegetables in inside in vertical farms, you kind of go, ‘oh, well, I guess I don’t need to change my consumption habits because it’s being solved.’ And so sometimes the hype and the enthusiasm and the idealism, it just kind of, sometimes because we don’t want to change because we find it hard to change. Whether it’s in our jobs and being asked to do something by our manager or whether it is our own personal consumption habits or so on and so forth, these kind of narratives give us a way out, shall we see say. And particularly with things like, like how we consume, how we, you know, whether or not we live our lives in a more “ethical way” and so on and so forth.
Tom: Sure. You touched on farming and veganism as an alternative there. It just reminds me of, I was on the phone to my grandad last week and he was talking about, I think they’re called beyond burgers and he was hinting or maybe suggesting that would be a good place to put money in that company right now, because he’s quite into investments and I’m actually going to send him your book because I was talking to him about it the other day, he’s really into current affairs and everything. So yeah, that’d be good for him to read as well.
Tom: But there could possibly be hype around that as well because there could be other companies and there’s going to be competitors. It’s like, just because that’s the company right now, getting all the headlines that doesn’t necessarily mean that in five years time, that’s going to be the main company using, different ways to create these burgers that are so similar to real meat and so that can be dangerous as well.
Gemma: There’s something to be said though about, so this is one of the things about hype that I think is interesting, can have negative effects in many ways, but it’s, you know, I didn’t want to write a book that was just like hype is terrible. I mean, I suppose that was the original idea, but when you start looking at it more, you realize that it’s way more complicated than that. So when you look at things like investment, whether it’s private investors or venture capitalists or big banks, no matter are what kind of level you’re looking at. Investors are not necessarily looking for something that has actual value in the real world. You’re looking for something that is going to have a change, that is going to have value in the sense that your position changes in value. It’s not really about whether or not this thing actually works or comes into the world or whatever. So trading is hype. That’s what that is. Now that doesn’t mean that all trading and all investors is bulls**t like that’s not what that means. However, as we’ve seen so many times throughout history, a lot of money can be made out of absolutely nothing, out of narrative, out of storytelling. And so companies like beyond meat and the ones that are associated with a lot of the, you know, hype-y science and technology ideas of today. Yeah they will probably go up in terms of their value because people are excited about them and that’s what happens in the markets. But at some point, some of them, maybe all of them, I don’t know, will also plummet in the same way that happens if you end up having something that doesn’t have a core sort of value at the center, now I’m no futurist or nobody is, I don’t know if beyond meat, as you say is going to be the one or not the one or whatever, but I suppose it’s the nature of betting when it comes to investment. But I think it’s worth pointing that out when you think about hype, because, and this is the reason why I didn’t, you know, I didn’t want to just say, oh, let’s work out what’s hypey and say why it’s bad. You have to actually look at the sort of phenomenon of hype in order to kind of utilize it in the real world. Otherwise you just get loads of facts about hype or facts about science and tech. You have to understand what hype actually is. It’s not understanding. It’s attention seeking. And so when you understand that a headline or a narrative or a sales pitch or whatever it is, is literally there just to capture your attention. It’s very easy to then go. Well, I better ask more questions, whereas if you look at it as understanding, as knowledge, as truth… you’re not necessarily going to take the next step and go ‘well, hang on a second let me look at this’ now, again, it doesn’t mean that every headline out there is hype and is rubbish, but you need to grab attention for things that are truth, for things that are false, for things that are a little bit of a stretch and so on and so forth, that’s like the attention economy we live in right now. So what I try to encourage people to do is not to go, ‘oh, that’s hype-y don’t pay attention’ is to go ‘that’s hypey. Why are they using hype?’ What’s, why who’s that useful for right now? Is it, it could be useful for me. It could be useful for them, most likely useful for them, that’s why they’re doing it in the first place, but what’s the sort of like, I don’t know, mechanics of it. Why is that working? Are they using emotional language? That’s a bit of a trick. Okay. Let me see if I can go pass that trick and see if there’s actually something in this, or if they’re just capturing me because it’s emotional. So that’s kind of what I try and say, when you look at hypey stuff, it’s not about seeing whether or not something has value based on the headline. It’s about it being a door for you to then explore yourself, right?
Tom: Yeah. That’s a really interesting to hear. And I think having that awareness of something, whether it is hype or not, can be so incredibly powerful because as you say, you can use that to your own advantage. Say with crypto, how many people out there would have bought crypto but would have not valued it that much. So like people would have been buying it despite like some coins, maybe not having intrinsic value, they would have still be buying into it because they’re aware of future hype and how that will make them money. So talking about crypto, it’s a hot topic I suppose, you know, over the last few years it’s been getting a lot more media coverage. How much hype do you think there is in crypto?
Gemma: I think that crypto is, is hype. Like we just wouldn’t and okay. So let me, let me rewind the clock back a little bit. I think that some of the arguments around the ideas behind blockchain and cryptocurrencies around, you know, decentralization and empowerment and, you know, getting away from these centralized bodies and so on and so forth have merit. Right. Of course, you know, it’s quite difficult to argue with that sort of thing as being a good thing in the world, but I think it would be incorrect and also naive to say that that is the role that these currencies and this idea has in the world today. And because of hype, cryptocurrencies are not currencies. They are, you know, they’re assets that people trade right. They’re not liquid, or some people would argue they are liquid, but you’d be stupid to buy a t-shirt with crypto. Like, that’s daft. Why would you do that? You would keep it and wait for the price to change and then trade it. Like that’s what people do with it now. And you’ve had many people talk about the fact that, you know, they, ‘oh, how stupid was I? Five years ago? You know? Using Bitcoin in a vending machine I should have just kept it.’ And it’s like, well, yeah, because it’s, it’s not something that we’re using as money. Right? And it’s the same with kind of blockchain ideas. We talk about this idea of it being empowering and you hear these narratives of it decentralizing things. No, it’s not decentralizing. It’s not democratizing. It is a very good distribution tactic, that’s very different. There’s still centers of power, people with various different kinds of power controlling things. So, yes, in theory, the technology can do all these things that it says it can do, in the same way that any technology can do really good things. A gun can be a good thing, but it isn’t because it kills people. So, you know, it’s this, or people use it to kill people, rather. Is probably the better way of putting it. And it’s the same, in my opinion, with a lot of things. With crypto or now if you’re just in it to get a quick buck and you want to trade. Well, yeah, I mean, it’s the same as trading currency or any kind of other equity or whatever that you want to want to trade, nowadays securities. But that’s a different conversation than talking about it as a sort of liberating or emancipatory thing that exists in the world. And I mean, you mentioned before we came on about the threads from the Dogecoin guy that went sort of viral last week. He was spot on where he was saying. ‘I just think that it’s now this thing that libertarians and capitalists, not great people, utilize. And I think that that’s true. I don’t think it makes you inherently a bad person, if you want to make a quick buck, but that’s your own decision as to whether you want to dabble in something which is arguably ethically quite questionable. And then of course you get all of the energy stuff around it too. I had a lot of people ask me why I didn’t do a chapter on crypto on a book on hype, but I was like, but if you write a book, it doesn’t come out for like a year. There’s no point in me writing anything on crypto now. It will be out of date by the time the book’s published. And it’ll be out of date within a month or within a week of the book being out in the world. But I think it’s a good place to kind of think about hype and think about how it plays out and think about what happens when things go wrong with it and so on and so forth. It’s a great case study.
Tom: Yeah. It’s just changing all the time so I can see why that would be difficult. Were there any other topics that you were tempted to write about, but you didn’t include in the book?
Gemma: I considered writing about VR, for a little bit. But, I only wanted to put sort of legitimate stuff in the book, that I think I could make an argument for in the sense of it being worthwhile, to some degree. And I don’t see that with virtual reality or augmented reality, I think, those are technologies that have been massively buoyed up by a lot of different kinds of hype, particularly in spaces like advertising. I used to work in advertising and VR and AR were huge there around, you know, how could you put adverts you know, at the side of a football pitch, if you’re watching a virtual football game and all this sort of stuff, and I just, I became very disillusioned. Also very simply, I get car sick and the minute I put a pair of goggles on I get super ill so, and they haven’t solved that yet. So I don’t see it becoming the sort of big thing it says it is, so that, that was another topic that I just, I couldn’t really, maybe from a medical education standpoint, is maybe the only kind of argument I can think of that it becomes a, a sort of world changing technology. So I only really wanted to include things that it would be useful for people to know about from a more positive standpoint, if that makes sense.
Tom: Yeah. Like all of your topics, they were things that would probably impact people across the world on like quite a macro scale. Whereas with VR. I was speaking to someone about it the other day, who was on the podcast about accessibility. And she was saying how like so many people do get sick from using VR and less than 3% of people have ever actually used any VR in their life and so on. And so, yeah, I can see why you’d possibly leave that out.
Gemma: It’s not at all comparable to how much it’s spoke about, right. Although I would argue actually nowadays like 2021, it’s definitely cooled off, you know? Whereas when I was sort of started thinking about the book, which would have been about 2017, 2018, it was still a very hot topic in terms of, industry press, tech press and so on and so forth. But, I’m not, you know, I’m not trying to say I knew it was going to cool off, but I just didn’t, I didn’t really feel like it had the future that was being written about it. So I figured it would be out of date by the time I wrote about it and perhaps just not worthy of a whole chapter. I just didn’t think there was enough on it. And again, I didn’t want any of the topics in the book to feel like they were included in that, I was just sort of saying, this is absolute rubbish. Don’t pay attention. It’s going, ‘no there’s loads of hype, but that also means you have to pay attention. It’s not about discarding it and saying, ‘oh, that’s super hypey. AI is hype-y so let’s not think about it.’ It’s like, no, there’s actually a lot of really important things we need to consider with these technologies. And they are having impacts and they will continue to have impacts. But if we don’t reckon with them in a way, then that’s when the hype becomes really dangerous. And it goes back to that sort of status quo sort of thing. Whereas something like VR was like, I just, I don’t think it matters if people, some people don’t really pay attention to it, at least not at the moment maybe be in the future it will be in my hat. Who knows?
Tom: Yeah. Fair enough. During your research because I’m sure you must’ve done quite a lot of research. Was there anything that stood out to you as possibly the most exciting in terms of new technologies for the future?
Gemma: Gosh. I mean, I suppose it depends on what you’re interested in. Cause I think what makes technology really interesting is not necessarily the tech itself, unless you’re just the sort of person that really loves, getting into the intricacies of how things are built or the science behind or so on and so forth. I think it’s more around what kind of impact it’s going to have on society, on culture, on the way we live our lives. And, the way we even talk about the technology at hand. So I suppose, I mean, for me, the chapter that I found most intriguing to write about was probably around fusion technology. Because I felt like it’s something that not a lot of people know very much about. People are very confused about it. They get mixed up with fusion and fission. Thinking it’s the same as nuclear technology. Which it’s not, or they think it’s pseudoscience, which it’s not. The way things are working with how it’s being developed is fascinating. It’s quite a kind of drama filled story, which I go into in the book. But it also, you know, genuinely does have the potential as a technology to be hugely impactful and completely, you know, not to sound hype-y myself, but to change energy systems, which is something that I think we don’t really hear that much about, you know, like what would it mean to, you know, we hear about renewables, but it’s the idea of, oh, they can just plug into our existing systems. It’s like, well, could this, you know, new technology actually do that. And then you think, well, what does that mean? Will we have to rebuild pipes. And what does that mean for me turning on my light? I think for me technologies that are changing those kinds of conversations and change how we think about these massive, as you say macro systems, to me is more exciting than a new gadget or something that’s kind of, I mean, a lot of people get really excited by computer brain interfaces, which I completely completely. But for me, I kind of see them as, as sorts of gadgets to some degree, which is interesting, but I don’t think has the same sort of like real world scale as something like energy.
Tom: Yeah. And I had no idea about the fusion project that’s going on in Europe.
Gemma: In France yeah?
Tom: Yeah. How much money did you say was put into that? It was a huge sum?
Gemma: I’ve got here by 2014, the cost will soar to 10 times the original figure, almost $50 billion, but I mean, that was seven years ago, so that will be a lot more now. But yeah, ITER is the biggest science experiment on the planet and nobody’s heard of it. I T E R but you pronounce it eater and, yeah, it just completely blew me away that something, it’s not so much the money it’s not even, you know, cause I think you see these big numbers for me. I don’t remember numbers. It doesn’t really mean something to me. When you say 50 billion versus 50 million, I’m like, okay, whatever, one’s bigger than the other, but it’s the scale of how there’s many different nations working on this. It’s physically huge. It takes up tons of space. And it’s been going for such a long time. And I think when you sort of discover something like that, of such scale and magnitude that is not talked about as much as the size of it, that’s when I kind of, I get quite interested. Yeah when I discover ITER years ago, you know, there’s always been that sort of. Why, why don’t I hear about what’s going on here? Why is this not in the news, not in the same way that we talk about CERN? Or we did talk about CERN tons and all the controversies around that, how expensive it was, what science they were doing so on and so forth. But with ITER, it’s just kind of almost silence. You could easily have news reports about how we’re spending so much money on this. Or France has said this. And the US has said that, Japan has said that, you know, there’s loads of geopolitical stories, all sorts of stuff, but it just kind of seems to slip under the radar. Until now though it’s getting more coverage now, because things are starting to heat up. The ‘turning on’ in four years time in 2025. So I expect there’ll be a lot more coverage, coming out. But without people having the context, you just have this science experiment in the south of France and you’re like, ‘I don’t even know what fusion is. Why are all these nations doing it? Why is there controversy? I don’t want my money to be spent on this.’ And then you’ve got all the political narratives and so on and so forth. So again, without having that ability or the confidence to like dive in. ‘Hold on a sec. What is this? And why aren’t people talking about it? Or why haven’t they in the past?’ It can be so easy to sort of fall into the trap of perhaps not, not fully getting it. And that’s what I always try and get away from when it comes to science and tech coverage.
Tom: Sure. How much do you think complexity impacts hype and headlines, because I think fusions, you know, it’s a lot harder to come up with a good headline on funsion energy and ITER than it is to say robots are taking our jobs or we’re going to cure cancer?
Gemma: Yeah. Well, I mean, you could argue, there is a very good headline for fusion which is limitless energy. That’s the headline around fusion. The thing is it’s become a joke. So people don’t really believe it, and it is hyperbolic. However there’s elements, there’s always elements of truth in hype, but anyway, I’ll let people do their own Googling or they can read the chapter to read a bit more about it specifically. But with complexity, yeah I would say that is one of the things that’s massively at the root of why hype propagates and why we seek out hype. We want simple answers. You want to be able to Google something and get the answer. You want to be able to know. Do you know what if I have this vegan meat instead of this normal meat? Am I doing better for the planet? Yes or no. And the answer, it depends is unsatisfying and it’s work. You know, when someone says it depends, you think ‘oh God. Well, what else do I need to know in order to understand this fully, how much research do I need to do? What sources am I going to use? I don’t even know where to start.’ And so there’s a resistance to things that are complex. And, you know, again, it sounds pithy, but like the world is complicated. Like it’s not simple. And if we keep seeking out these simplified ideas then we’re not going to understand, that is the reality. And so it’s, it’s harsh, but it’s true. So you kind of have the choice of, well, I need to get more comfortable with complexity. I need to work out strategies or emotional ways of dealing with it. A lot of people don’t deal emotionally with complexity, or I stick my head in the sand and don’t do anything, you know, it’s your choice, which one you want to do. What’s dangerous is when you, you think you understand something without delving into the complexity, because you’ve, you’ve read something overly simplified. But it is interesting. I think this last year, coronavirus is here now. I think talking about complexity before coronavirus to people, shall we say, who are engaged with media, adults, was sometimes quite a difficult task, right. To try and make this case, that all we need to think about systems and things can be both right and wrong at the same time. And it’s complicated and all that. And whenever people were asking me, you know, when I was being interviewed before about things, they would say ‘How should journalists change the way we do things? And I’d always say they have to write about systems, you can’t write about solutions, you have to write about systems. And it was like, ‘nah, that’s boring. That’s too difficult or whatever.’ And then coronavirus comes along and suddenly there’s no toilet roll in your Sainsbury’s and people are like ‘Hold on a second. This is complicated. There, isn’t a simple solution for this.’ We have to try and look at this integrated system and we have to try and work out how things flow. And, oh, wait a minute. Healthcare is related to retail, which is related to vacations, which is related to like my mental health, who knew it. And I’m not, I don’t want to say that people were stupid before, and they’re not now, that’s not the case. It’s just, we weren’t really used to talking about things in this sort of system frame. And that’s basically the only way we’ve been able to talk about, or we’ve had to talk about coronavirus over the last year, because there’s no other way of reckoning with it. We have to look at it as this thing that has impacted global systems of all kinds. So I think that, you know, one thing that could be positive to come out of the coronavirus, and there’s obviously so many negatives, is that I do think our propensity to think about and accept complexity is a bit higher because we are expecting it from the media and we’re not expecting simple answers anymore on coronavirus, even though we are demanding them. We saying to the government, please tell us what to do, but we all know it’s not that simple. There, isn’t a simple answer here. It’s really difficult. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be leadership. Don’t get me wrong. But I think that hopefully we’ll have good impacts in terms of how people think about hype in all different areas of life and all different ways that they get their media on all different topics. You know, the world is interconnected and not simple. And particularly when you’re talking about really complicated things like energy systems or food systems or health systems, or, you know, international travel, anything that is requiring, you know, science, tech, law, politics, social, societal, culture, like finance, all different things. If you’re trying to find a simple answer, you’re most likely going to miss something. You’re also, unfortunately, never going to get a total full picture cause that’s also impossible. So, yeah, I try and help in the book kind of show how you can somehow try to construct about a map of how to navigate these systems and how to think about them to at least have a bit more information than just what you would get in a headline.
Tom: I think that’s a really good way of thinking about things in my opinion. And I think we’ll find probably more challenging for people and like my generation and people even younger in the future is probably having that attention span because of the internet and all of that easy access to all the information you could want. And just like quick Google searches. It’s something that I think is going to become a challenge, I think in the future, because it’s something that I think a lot of people do. You mentioned in your book actually that there’s people now buying these tools, which is all related to the BCI brain-computer interfaces, where they’re meditating with some use of technology and they’re costing hundreds of pounds. And that just didn’t make much sense to me because for me, it’s like the whole point of meditation is surely to like train your mind to get better at concentrating yourself, rather than using something external to do that. That’s kind of the direction we’re going into. And that, it just seems like such a lazy way of going about trying to achieve the task that you want to achieve.
Gemma: Yeah, I mean you’ve brought up so many themes here, you can think about this on so many levels. Okay. So think about it from a market perspective. You’re saying, you know, people can just Google things. Yeah people are there to fill this gap of simplicity that we want. Certain things are products as well. You know, this toothbrush is the one that’s going to save you from most cancer forever. No, that’s not how it works, you know, but the point I’m making is, because we have a hunger for these kinds of narratives. And, these kinds of solutions, shall we say, people will offer it? They’re not always evil people. They’re not bad people. They think they’re being helpful sometimes. Sometimes they are just out to make money, but the point is, is that there’s a market for this stuff. So that’s the first thing you also touched on this point about meditation? I think that. It’s been written about so much, the sort of cultural trend that we have around productivity, about making the most of our time, about, you know, oh, have a bath, but make sure you listen to a podcast at the same time so that you’re not wasting the time in the bath. But the point I’m making is, we know this sort of feeling that we kind of have to be doing stuff all the time. And I think that that also plays in to the hyped up narratives because when you feel like you’ve got an answer to something you can almost put it to bed. You can be like, okay, sorted that. Right. What’s next on my to do list. What’s the next thing I need to read about, what’s next to understand. So on and so forth. It doesn’t really kind of allow for exploratory, contradictory ideas. You know, veganism is good and is also bad. Ah, how do I deal with that? You know, and, and I think there’s a sort of tension that a lot of people have, and a lot of it is because people don’t have time because we live in, you know, a capitalist economy. That’s not great for people, but the point I’m making is it’s not just because science tech is inherently hype-y, it’s linked to the fact that this is how markets work, which is how we have an attention economy in the first place. But it’s also linked to a lot of social trends and cultural trends that we all feel as individual human beings. That then is both influenced by the market and the society that we live in, but also constructs the market and society we live in. So, it’s really difficult to break out of this stuff as well. And I think if you kind of, allow for that, there must be an answer to this simplicity idea. For example, ‘My email is a mess. There must be a Google Chrome plugin that will sort my email’ you know? And then you kind of think about it and think there’s probably something deeper here than me not being able to organize my email. Maybe I’m getting too many. Maybe I’m signing up for too much stuff. Maybe I’m trying to get too many opportunities. Maybe I should step away from my laptop for five minutes. It’s more than these kind of simplified band aid over a gaping wound solutions. And I think it’s, it’s that kind of thinking we need to shift as well, not just the complexity stuff, but like why am I even averse to things being complex in the first place? What’s that? How does that feel?
Tom: Yeah, that’s really interesting to hear because it made me think about how our society now is sort of setup, because we create as humans, we often create our own world. We create our own reality. So we’ve constructed a society which perpetuates our innate faults and innate desires. So yeah, it’s just like a perpetuation of our human biases into society. And then we have to go and deal with those again, because we’ve socially constructed all of this. So that’s an interesting perspective to have, and I’ve not really thought about it too much like that before. In terms of your work as well. And like kind of having that checklist of productivity, I kind of like just went through your book quite quickly over the last, like three or four weeks. Like ever since I asked you to come on the podcast and you fortunately agreed. I was like, yeah, let’s get this done, I want to read and I got into it and really enjoyed it and everything. But if I didn’t have like a checklist of like, I need to read this, I want to know about this. I probably would have spent even more time sort of going through it, researching all the different names, researching all the different topics in a bit more detail myself. And I think that’s kind of where that simplistic thinking can be a little bit detrimental, where you are just trying to check things off, because then you’re not exploring topics in as much detail as you probably want to. But what would be better? It’s like I have this goal for the end of this year to read, I think, like 20 books over the next 5 months and really, that’s probably not healthy. That probably is kind of pushed onto me by culture and society and productivity and all these hacks and so on. Whereas maybe it’d be better for me to just take my time, maybe read like one or two books and really explore them it in a lot more detail.
Gemma; Well, I mean, I hear what you’re saying and I definitely agree with you in many ways, but you know, to the tradition of Smoke and Mirrors, it’s more complicated than that. You know, I too have like, I’m going to read X many books this year. I need to finish this book this week because otherwise I’ll be off target. Or, you know, so I do that with everything, with my emails, with my writing. I hold my hands up in the air. With productivity, I’m a nerd. I like that stuff I like to-do lists. I think that there’s a difference though, between succumbing to it and it ruining your life and you just taking a step back and being like, this is just how my brain works and I know there’s limits to that. And it’s probably gonna cause me issues sometimes, but I’m willing to make that compromise because it makes me unhappy to not finish books quickly or whatever else. So I think it’s about thinking about it, right? It’s not about saying. This is wrong or this is bad or so on and so forth. And like one example specifically with smoke and mirrors. And you mentioned it right at the start where I have in the conclusion, a checklist of nine things you can do to help your critical thinking. Now I thought long and hard about whether to include this in the book. And I do sort of mention this in the conclusion that it feels antithetical to put a checklist to critically think in a book that’s about not just following checklists and not just doing what you’re told and thinking more broadly. However, I know that that’s what people want from books, right? We read for knowledge, we do. We all need shortcuts to get through life because we can’t do everything fully all the time. If we read only two books a year, really in-depth. Yeah. Maybe you’d get a lot from those two books, but think of all the books you couldn’t read, you know, all those sort of things. So we do need shortcuts and as long as you understand the limits of them. They’re okay to take. Right. You know, I’m gonna take the shorter way on the motorway instead of going the nice scenic route, I’m compromising by not getting to see the sea but I’ll get there faster. It’s the same sort of calculation that you do in your head. And it’s the same with any kind of shortcut you take in life. So I don’t think there’s anything necessarily nothing wrong with doing that, but again, it’s just doing it mindfully or doing it in a way where you’re like, I’m understanding that this might take me along the wrong path. I put these nine things in there. And number 10 is like, just please don’t actually follow this list, like take it as inspiration and use it, absolutely. Please, I wouldn’t have wrote this book if I didn’t think it could be useful. But at the same time you’re right. It is about going away and researching yourself, not taking everything I say as gospel for crying out loud. Right. Cause that would be hype.
Tom: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I’ve got a lot the list here.
It’s about picking and choosing the stuff that works for you at the right time, right? Like again, just being conscious of like well if I’m making the decision to dive deep into this, then yeah, it comes with the cost of not doing something else. I mean, it sounds like such an obvious thing to say, the limited time on the planet, all that jazz. But I do think that it’s not about, over-analyzing every single decision you make going, oh, this, I think this will take an hour, so that’s fine. But that will take two hours which is a bit much. That’s obviously obsessive. But I do think it’s about not getting to the end of something and thinking you have perhaps full knowledge, if you haven’t done that exploration. It sounds obvious, but I mean, folk retweet things and think that that’s gospel. I mean Twitter even has a functionality now where you can’t retweet if you haven’t read the article and I know this because I’ve tried to retweet stuff that I haven’t read. So, you know, you’re confronted with this stuff all the time, but then I’m always like, you know, excuse me, how are you policing me. But the point I’m making is that it’s again, it’s just about being conscious of how much you think you know, or don’t know, how sure you can be of something. Whilst also not, you know, turning into some conspiracy theory person that doesn’t believe anything at all. Cause that’s also not useful either.
Tom: Yeah, I guess like, it just kind of comes down to being aware and trying to think rationally and taking more time on some things than others. It’s like, I went into a shop the other day and I really couldn’t decide whether I wanted to buy this shirt or not, I went up to the counter and I said ‘excuse me do you have a coin on you because I want to flip a coin?’ So she goes downstairs to get a coin. She didn’t have one at the counter because they only took card which is fair enough. Comes back up, flip the coin, and then it was tails. I only go ahead with anything when it’s heads. So I just walked out of the shop and just wasted two minutes of her time. I felt so guilty. That’s how I make decisions. Sometimes I honestly do. I have to do heads or tails.
Gemma: Hey, you know, I think it’s also about working out how much your decisions matter. Right. I mean, a shirt might be really important if it’s what you’re wearing to a funeral of a loved one for instance, that might have a lot of meaning for you. Other times, it’s like, I just need a shirt. I don’t really care. It just needs to look nice. And that decision doesn’t really matter as much. So again it’s not being obsessive and thinking about every minute of every day in a how can I make sure this is productive or useful. But at the same time, it is about, you know, making those decisions yourself and, crucially, you know, let me say that again, making those decisions yourself, what do you think is right and wrong? You know, what do you think is the best thing to do? Don’t like turn to some like blue tick person on Twitter to tell you or some podcast or whatever. Think about it. We’ve all got the same brains at the end of the day we’ve all got the capacity to think. It’s just whether or not you want to spend your time doing that and how much you sort of attribute to the ones that are perhaps spending more time or less time than on that than you are. So, you know, Smoke and Mirrors and all of my work is kind of about what I believe is really about the fact that we should all feel far more empowered to get involved in thinking about. Particularly in Science and Tech. I mean, this sort of anecdote I use is think about the amount of people that will have an opinion about a new album. Beyonce has got a new album. Let’s say. I don’t think she does, probably a bad example. Anyway, let’s say Beyonce has a new album. People will have an opinion on it. Do all those people know how to read sheet music? Do all those people know the inner workings of a trumpet. Like do all those people, did they study it like the Royal academy of music for 22 years and know how to compose an orchestra or conduct an orchestra wherever? Like, no. But you can have an opinion on it because you have different ways of assessing things and in science and tech, I think a lot of people don’t associate it with opinion cause they see it as true. You know, like science is truth. Science is knowledge. But a lot of science is not true, a lot of their knowledge, a lot of it is based on politics and what’s being invested into at the right time. Or the biases and the personalities of the scientists or technologists who built things in the first place. Right. So opinion and thinking about how things work and how things flow through society is really, really important. And it shouldn’t be something that you shy away from, just because you’re like, you know, don’t have a maths degree or don’t wear a white lab coat, therefore I have no say in this and I couldn’t possibly ever, you know, have an opinion on whether or not we should invest in fusion energy. No, you should have an opinion on whether we invest in fusion energy if you’ve read about it, because it’s at the end of the day, it’s going to impact your life. And, it’s the same with any other piece of science and tech.
Tom: Amazing stuff. Thanks so much for coming on Gemma. Final question for you, before we wrap this up, what would you do? Or what would you advise other people to do to make the world a little bit better?
Gemma: Oh, what a question? What would I advise people to do to make the world a little bit better? Go on a walk without your headphones in on your own for like half an hour, at least twice a week. Well, I think that, I don’t know. I feel like the world would be a little bit better if we were all, I don’t want to say a little bit more chilled out because people have real problems, you know? But I do think that it’s, I actually really hate the term mindfulness. I think that it’s been co-opted in many horrific ways. But I do think that there’s something to be said about trying to just be at one with your brain for a little bit every now and again. I know I benefit from that a lot, whether that’s thinking through a bit of research that I’m working on or whether it’s just like ‘God, I feel, I feel a bit weird today and I don’t know why’ and I go on a walk and In normally sort it out by the end. If you don’t want to just go and walk on your own, put your headphones on. But record a voice memo and talk to yourself out loud because people will think you’re on the phone. So you don’t feel like you’re being weird. Cause I would feel like that if I was just talking to a cell phone. But I feel like, I don’t know. It doesn’t replace things like therapy obviously but I think it’s a nice way of trying to work out what’s going on in your head. And I sometimes get some of my best research ideas out there and sometimes just work out why I’m like pissed off at my partner and it’s useful. So that would be a top tip as well, record voice memos, but make it look like you’re on the phone so you don’t feel weird.
Tom: I like it. Thank you. Thanks so much for coming on. I appreciate your time. Where can people find you and your book?
Gemma: Sure. Well, Twitter is probably the best place to find me and it’s got my website link there as well. It’s just @gemmamilne — my name. And my book is called Smoke and Mirrors — how hype obscures the future and how to see past it. And you know, you can get the paperback back. You can get the audio book, you can get the ebook it’s now available basically everywhere in the world in English. They just released it in the US last month, except like a few countries like Saudi Arabia, for some reason, I don’t know. Anyway. So you can, you can get it there and have a read and let me know what you think. I’m always, always excited to hear what people think, what their favourite bits are, what bits they disagree with and what bits they went and read more about it and all that jazz. But yeah, probably Twitter is the bst place.
Tom: Okay, thanks so much for coming on. Thank you to everyone listening, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.
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