Can you be an advocate and a critic of the same thing? I believe you can.
In some ways, we live in a very black-and-white era. I’m sure you have noticed the divides; there are entire countries that appear sharply divided across political lines, and people elsewhere may pick other groups to juxtapose “us” against “them”.
It’s all very counterproductive on so many levels.
Some people align themselves with industries or even technologies – and this they often do in a very simplistic manner; anything that is perceived as a threat to their pet thing is vilified, even if it is the right thing to do or good for the entity in the long term.
Such blinkered, all-in advocates scare me.
Far too often you run into people whose views belong to the category of “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” where a pet approach, concept or technology is seen as the solution to everything.
Hype and financial commitment or dependency are two powerful drivers for creating this kind of malignant alignment. Whenever that happens, the title of one of Ben Goldacre’s books applies: I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.
On the financial dependency, Upton Sinclair has said:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
As a sidenote, that is probably the single best argument in favour of UBI (Universal Basic Income) – to allow people to more freely change their mind.
But you don’t need to ignore all the bad in X to be an advocate for the good in it. I offer three personal examples from the fields of telecommunications, aviation and artificial intelligence.
- I have worked in and around the telecommunications industry for most of my professional life. I believe there is tremendous value provided by the global, ubiquitous connectivity, and the mobile devices and networks we all rely on today would have seemed downright magical just a few short decades ago. With that background, one might think I enthusiastically subscribe to the adage “Whatever can be connected, will be connected” – but I don’t. That thinking is extremely dangerous. I will be speaking about the dangers of indiscriminately and thoughtlessly connecting everything at the upcoming TADSummit Asia conference.
- I am an aviation enthusiast and think the kind of connectivity it provides is also invaluable to the modern world. I find even the smell of Jet A-1 familiar and comforting. That doesn’t mean I am nonchalant about the industry’s very real environmental impact, and I wholeheartedly support developments like France banning short-haul flights where good high-speed rail connectivity exists; I would like to see higher ticket prices to reduce unnecessary travel and allow for investment into better technologies in the long term and carbon offsets in the short term; I have even spoken out against the eVTOL hype.
- I love AI; I use AI agents like Siri daily (after miserably failing to build one myself 25 years ago – speech recognition just wasn’t there yet) and I find things like accurate traffic ETA forecasts remarkably useful. I look forward to the day when I can have my personal AI agent. At the same time, I think many companies are using AI in a manner that is a very clear net-negative on society; these use cases need to be stopped, and we urgently need ground rules and regulation for ethical AI deployment. A troubling amount of damage has already been done by AI systems, and continues to be done.
In all three cases – telecommunications, aviation, and AI – I am both a strong advocate and a fierce critic.
For all three industries, you will find companies, trade groups and consulting entities that sit far on one side or the other, either completely ignoring or belittling the issues on the other side through expert use of motivated reasoning.
I don’t believe in that, and when I find people who do, I have no issues calling their bullshit.
It is my belief progress comes from honestly acknowledging, debating and to the best of our abilities, managing ALL kinds of impacts the topic at hand has – because they are never only ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
No matter what the industry or field, we need more nuanced views of everything, and we need people to be willing to de-escalate their views so as to be able to discuss them in a civilized manner.