Tech booms, grift, and LLMs

My working life has mostly been in computer technology and software. Mostly as a technical writer but also as a SysAdmin and technology journalist.

And, in my time, I’ve lived and worked through four so-called tech booms:

  1. The Internet/World-wide Web boom of the late-1990s;

  2. The mobile computing and social media boom of the late-2000s (ie, the rise of the iPhone and then the iPhone clones running Android, all coincident with the rise of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, &c);

  3. The Blockchain/crypto boom; and

  4. The LLMs-that-everyone-erroneously-calls-AIs boom.

And I think I’ve figured out what bothers me most particularly about the current wave of Railway Mania.

The grifters are so obviously in charge of this boom and yet millions of people and millions of businesses are still betting various farms on LLMs.

I don’t mean to suggest grifters weren’t a big part of the three earlier booms. Grifters, operating both inside and outside the framework of legality, are always a key driving force in booms.

But the Internet/World-wide Web boom, and the computer-in-your-pocket-plus-social-media boom both had real, and apparent even at the time, structural and technological change built in to them.

Even my reflexively-suspicious-of-all-grand-narratives-by-dint-of-my-upbringing-and-culture self understood that, the inevitable grift notwithstanding, these two booms were happening because significant technological change was happening at enormous scale.

By contrast, the Blockchain/crypto boom smelled off from the start.

The grifters were more apparent in this boom because the actual thing underlying the con — distributed databases with records linked by cryptographic hashes — was underwhelming, at best.

There was pretty clearly no steak, but there wasn’t even much sizzle. To paraphrase and re-purpose Gertrude Stein’s famous line, there was no there, there.

LLMs have much better sizzle than blockchains had (or have). So I get the interest and even the fascination. This stuff demos really well.

But the people at the helms of the companies promoting the sizzle, are so obviously grifting rather than selling.

It is depressing — but not surprising — to be reminded, again at enormous scale, that, thanks to our selected-for cognitive biases, we

  1. still conflate confidence with competence and;

  2. still treat the attention of the many as powerful evidence for the truth or intrinsic importance of the thing being paid attention to.