Truth vs. Truthy

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Cinematic effects add to on-screen drama and are less present in everyday life.

You can see this stark difference when you compare technology as depicted in movies versus its actual deployment in real life. In big budget thrillers, the counter-terrorist command center is glowing with giant viewing screens controlled by batteries of high-powered computer terminals.

Thanks to a very visual and emotional impact, truthy technology from Hollywood has an outsized influence on real world product designers. The hand gesture controls of Minority Report — which would cause tremendous arm strain in the real world — are a notorious example. I've previously written about the tech industry’s truthy fixation with adding “futuristic” blue light sources to products, primarily due to the recent availability of cheap blue LED and the influence of science fiction franchises like Blade Runner.

In the movies, a raid on a terrorist might look extremely exciting, with government agents utilizing fancy technologies on multiple monitors in sleek office conditions. In real life, Obama oversaw the Bin Laden raid in what looked like a Holiday Inn meeting room next to someone on an old laptop. Institutions themselves often engage in this self-mythologizing: The CIA’s museum for tourists looks vastly more exciting than its actual monotone corporate office in Langley.

When we’re drawn to technology first depicted in TV and movies, we need to be especially mindful that its value is much less than its surface appearance. It distracts from the realization that generally, technology should be a pass-through interface. Instead of noticing the device, we want to just use it. Xerox PARC’s Mark Weiser has a quote about UI which still rings strong:

“A good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, we mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool.”

You don’t notice a window when it is clean; you look through it. You only notice the window when it is dirty. In the same way, when a technology works, you don’t notice it; when it doesn’t, you do.

How do we identify truthy technology?

1. The Rush

Many people are suddenly rushing into it without any clearly defined purpose, for fear of being left behind or missing out.

No one makes good decisions in a panic mode. Without understanding the fundamentals of what a new technology is, many executives rush to say that they’re including a new technology in their offerings. Then the offerings themselves are created in a rush, are brittle, and break down.

2. Truthy tech promises to do too many major things too soon

Part of processing a new technology is to decide on its best use; it also involves carefully weighing the difficulties and trade-offs inherent with implementing any new tech. (As the late media theorist Marshall Mcluhan put it, “every extension is also an amputation”.)

By contrast, truthy tech comes with a battery of evangelists broadcasting a crazy cohort of applications without any consideration for how to actually implement them. In 2023, Twitter was drowning in viral posts of the “Top 10 use cases for ChatGPT that will change everything by next year!” variety.

But the revelation of the idea is just a tiny part of the implementation, which tends to be bureaucratic, expensive, and slow. We’re often told, for example, that generative AI will totally disrupt health care — but are not also told how difficult and time-consuming HIPAA compliance and FDA approval alone can actually take.

3. Fear. Technologies are more likely to be truthy when they inspire fear in the popular imagination

New technology often excites some early adopters while filling most others with deep unease that can quickly become fear. The very act of presenting a given technology as “new” and “disruptive” discourages people from seeing it on a continuum of what’s already been developed, or the history of its origins.

“Artificial intelligence”, for instance, suggests something that is threatening to the very fabric of being human, but it’s been in common usage for decades, in video games and other products.

The very term “artificial intelligence” was actually first created for a very human reason: Back in the 1950s, academics wanted a new name for their upcoming cybernetics conference, because MIT professor Norbert Wiener, who wrote the seminal book on that topic, often showed up at any conference labeled “cybernetics” and dominated the conversation. People might be less fearful about “AI” if they realized it was originally coined in order to avoid an overbearing conference participant.

Just as movies and TV excite us about visually appealing if unrealistic technology, they also terrorize us by presenting technology at its most dystopian. While there is ample reason to be concerned about the negative externalities of LLMs, much of our public conversation dwells on the most highly speculative, implausible dystopian scenarios, like those depicted in The Terminator and The Matrix movies.

The far more tangible concern is that the idea of LLMs are being abused and misunderstood right now. People have already died or been seriously hurt due to the mistaken belief that cars really can “self-drive”, or that 2023s popular LLM model ChatGPT “knows” how to diagnose medical conditions. We’re distracted from discussing the real and current problems with LLMs due to the seductive power of truthy depictions of them.

4. Truthy tech fades quickly; truthful technology wins out over the long haul

It’s difficult to remember a time when Google Search was a pervasive part of the web, but at the start, it seemed too odd and alienating for most people. Launched in 1998, it was first a quirky college project competing against heavily-funded and promoted search giants like Yahoo! and Ask Jeeves, which presented the web in clear, easy to read link summaries.

Google, by contrast, displays its search results as an infinite wall of text. It took years of slow but steady growth among early adopters to realize, despite (or rather because) of its messy, no-frills approach, Google simply worked.

It took Google nearly a decade for the company to eclipse its much larger, truthier competitors. Throughout that history, Google’s user experience has largely remained unchanged — it’s just that we the users have learned to see its effectiveness through the chaos.

This is likely why, ironically enough, we rarely see people using Google in movies and TV shows — its search results look too cluttered to read well on-screen. (A fake search engine called “SpyderFinder” shows up on multiple TV shows.) Google search, in other words, is not truthy enough for Hollywood!

In summary, tech is more likely to be “Truthy” if:

  • It was first depicted in TV & movies.
  • Seemingly everyone is rushing into it for fear of missing out.
  • It promises to do too many major things too soon.
  • It inspires fear in the popular imagination.


Truthiness in tech is not new. It goes back to notions from the 1890s of a culture filled with flying cars and jetpacks. Many generations grew up with the exciting Truthy covers of Popular Science magazines. After seeing outbreaks of truthiness repeatedly come and go for several decades, I’ve started to wonder if there is any reliable way for us to immunize ourselves against technology’s most grandiose, unsustainable promises. Maybe it’s just human nature for us to get momentarily excited about the latest bauble. Perhaps all we can do is keep in mind that being dazzled by truthiness is basically part of our DNA. Truthful tech, by contrast, wins out over the long haul!