Hype and Hatred

Big Data. Machine Learning. AI. Blockchain. Cryptocurrency. Virtual Reality.

These are all both legitimate references to specific technologies, as well as horribly abused buzzwords.

There’s a cycle of hype associated with anything new and exciting. Names are usually given in the earliest stages, when only a few people even know about the technology, and they decide to name it something cool. When more and more people learn about it, the name continues to be used legitimately for a little while. Once it reaches some critical mass, though, people who don’t really understand the technology start joining the bandwagon just because of the hype surrounding it. There is then a reaction to their overuse of the term (applying it to things it doesn’t really apply to), which leaves some people with a long-lasting disdain for anyone using the term, even if they were in the very first group!

These haters come up with a rule of thumb: anyone using a buzzword must be misusing it. It’s certainly possible that in most cases they’re right: if there’s more hype than substance, the average person you meet will know more about the hype than the substance. This doesn’t, however, make the substance go away, so we need to be just as careful with buzzwords as any other words that we’re talking about the meaning behind them, not just the words themselves.

Because of my role with Michigan Hackers, I once had the chance to be on a student panel for new students wanting to learn how students in upper grades got their internships. The topic of research came up, and because I had done a little bit of research I volunteered some information about my experience. However, I made the unforgivable mistake of saying what I was doing was “big data” analysis, rather than just data analysis. This wasn’t explicitly wrong: I was dealing with enough information that the project required use of a high-performance computing cluster. It probably would have been better not to use the term, but it slipped out.

The real issue arose when another panelist took the opportunity to scoff and talk about how much he hated buzzwords. I think this was a waste of time for everybody—I felt bad, the younger students didn’t learn anything from it, and I don’t think anyone really misunderstood what I meant by “big data” in the first place. I wasn’t claiming to be operating at Google scale.

One problem with hating on buzzwords is that it’s too easy. There are explicit phrases (“big data”) that set off a negative response, whereas others that mean essentially the same thing (“large volumes of information”) slip by because they aren’t on the list. There’s no thinking involved, it’s just simple pattern recognition on the words you hear.

It’s harder, but more accurate, to try to understand what someone really means when they use such phrases. If I go around saying that I’m using a blockchain instead of a database for my new social media app, for no other reason than “other people will think that sounds cool”, then maybe I deserve some derision. However, if I’m using a blockchain for a legitimate purpose, or merely exploring how the ideas behind it could possibly help my business or my cause, there’s really no need for contempt. The hatred is transferred too easily: it applies only to the phrases themselves, not to what they actually mean in context.

While I think this kind of disdain is sometimes counterproductive, I don’t think it necessarily needs to go away completely. You should be free to hate whatever set of ideas you want. If your world is one where “AI” is being abused to mean things it doesn’t really mean, then there could be some value in trying to correct that. I just think that usually it’s going to be more productive to try to meet people on their own terms, and understand what they really mean when they say “AI”, rather than force them to adjust their internal definition until it matches your own.

There are clear paths of incentives for people to continue using (and abusing) buzzwords. If people are excited about something, saying that you’re working on that thing is a good way to get them excited about you. The true goal should be to get exactly as excited as the technology itself allows, and try to tune out what’s purely hype and marketing from what’s really going on. If people on both sides are acting in good faith and furthering their understanding of each others’ true beliefs, then who cares what exact words are used?


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