Insights June 1st, 2023
(This article originally appeared on Futurist.com)
In the annals of American history, few figures are as notorious as the snake oil salesman. These charismatic and cunning peddlers of fraudulent remedies for our ails captivated the public imagination with their persuasive tactics and dubious products. Buy this – gain these benefits. You don’t need to know how this works – just believe that it does and you will feel better – guaranteed.
The strategies, charm and impeccable delivery used by these snake oil salesmen exploited the fears, vulnerabilities and aspirations of unsuspecting customers.
It’s the same with many of the new technology evangelists I see tread the stages around the world. Fabulous claims of tech that soothes the ills of business and the collapsing industrial complex. Tech that ‘fixes’ global warming – that ‘gives us superhuman capabilities – that frees us from the burden of repetitive work – that levels up our creativity and ‘humanity – teleports us into wondrous new digital worlds.
This is where some of these new tech evangelists and snake oil salesmen occupy the same world (and certainly the mindset), and it’s incredibly worrying. They want to believe it is too easily accepted and the rigor of critical investigation is missing.
Beware the New Tech Evangelists
Here are a number of methods to be wary of when considering the presentations and discussions of new tech evangelists AND the business leaders, politicians and influencers in our world that believe them all too readily.
This is the blueprint set out by the snake oil salesmen and we should be over this by now…
- The Mirage of Miraculous Claims
The masters of hyperbole, spinning tales of astounding curative powers of technology that exploit the human desire for quick fixes, offering miracle cures for an array of modern day industrial ailments are rife. Whether promising fully automated business, eternal youth (careful of those longevity folks), instant pain relief from time restraints and stress, or overnight transformations, their claims can often be as outlandish and limited in the true understanding of how these systems work. If it’s too good to be true it usually is.
- Tales of Triumph
To lend an air of authenticity, these crafty salesmen employed fabricated or paid testimonials. These glowing accounts of satisfied customers were artfully crafted to instill trust and credibility, despite lacking any substantiated evidence or genuine experiences. Such testimonials served as powerful tools to sway the undecided and prey on the hopes of the desperate. Ask for the results. The real changes created. Go deep in this investigation.
- The Veil of Pseudo-Scientific Language
To elevate their dubious products to a seemingly scientific realm, people read just enough to arm themselves with skillfully wielded jargon and technological terminology. With their tongues gilded in the language of innovation and science, they can reference obscure use cases and big promises of advancement and/or change. By exploiting the public’s limited scientific knowledge, they aimed to blur the lines between quackery and legitimate medicine.
- The Art of Performance
Tech CEOs and influencers can appear to be masters of showmanship, employing captivating demonstrations to show their audience how to be a part of how these futures could be. These charisma-driven folks make it appear as though products are effective, relying on created situations or limited success rather than genuine wide-ranged efficacy. We see large productions and over-rehearsed demos normalize this behavior. For me it falls short because I am armed with healthy critical thinking. However, if something is truly inspiring then dive in to learn more and find the real-world experts that feel the adulation and pain of the solutions they create that are willing to share those stories.
- Exploiting Emotions
The psychology of deception plays on the fears, hopes, and insecurities of the executives. It’s often used in the sales tactics of those selling new technologies. It’s based on adeptly manipulating emotions to amplify the fear of missing out on a revolutionary shift or exploit the desperation of those seeking relief from our struggles. By striking an emotional chord, these skillfully lure unsuspecting individuals into believing and amplifying their messages. Today we see this with claims around generative AI, climate tech, automation, robotics and more. Understand that we are at the starting blocks warming up and far from ready to run the race. And, know that no amount of belief and hustle is going to make these things work and change our world.
- Undermining Established Solutions
Earning credibility (unfortunately) can come from discrediting the legitimate. In the pursuit of profit they often vilify mainstream solutions, presenting experts and professionals as part of a conspiratorial cabal. By sowing doubt and questioning established practices, they positioned their own products as a superior alternative. This tactic aimed to erode public trust in legitimate – and oftentimes unsexy, not-so-modern looking and established – solutions and fosters a climate where their own net new solutions could thrive. Call out the misinformation and tell as many people as possible about it. Personal empowerment and knowing the truth is the key to our futures.
- The Chameleon’s Disguise
The constant rebranding to evade negative reputations and legal repercussions is obvious and tiring. Snake oil salesmen would change the names and packaging of their products, morphing their deceptive wares into something seemingly new and improved. Today this is done with software versioning and rebranding of platforms with pithy trademarked phrases to inspire purchase. This constant reinvention allowed them to continue peddling their questionable solutions to unsuspecting customers, perpetuating their deceitful practices.
Look to Futurists for Rigor
As futurists we owe clients more than a well-choreographed keynote, or a report that paints a preferable future. Nikolas Badminton and the Futurist Think Tank has worked hard for decades to build respect in the field of futures exploration – the journey has been defined by time intensive research and debate.
We want to remind executives and world leaders that there are 3 main ways of thinking that we must adopt to maintain a clear head and embrace futures thinking and see the true opportunity adjacent to the new technologies in their world – and their evangelists – that promise so much.
- Develop rigor in signals scanning and trend identification
We must do the work of investigating each signal – however strong or weak – we see to examine if the claims are true. We must dial up the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, and accurate. We must then consider the signals in wider contexts of trends that we feel will affect our industries and world. This takes time. There are no shortcuts. Find signals, develop ideas of trends and live with them – sometimes for months. It’s OK to have slow thinking – that’s rigor to me.
- Dial up the human in the equation of change
Humanity before technology – always. What is our pain? What are we trying to solve? Start there. Tech experts can often start with solutions to nothing and then engineer the challenges that we have. Question everything.
- Help people build stories of our futures so they can feel how its feels to be in those place
When we consider futures – 10+ years out – we struggle to understand those worlds. When we imagine ourselves there we are strangers to ourselves. Signals and trends illustrated in scenarios do not necessarily deliver how these futures feel. Humanity has accelerated through storytelling and we must use that truth to accelerate thinking about our futures as well. When we can feel our futures we can truly understand dynamics and bring evidence from those situations back to the strategic planning we have to undertake today.
Let’s remember, the strategies employed by snake oil salesmen were both deceptive and manipulative. Their prowess in exploiting human psychology, coupled with the allure of quick fixes, created a potent cocktail of deception that ensnared countless individuals.
This is the modus operandi of many new tech evangelists, so buyer beware.
By understanding their tactics – and the ways that modern futurists approach the creation of new worlds – we can arm ourselves with knowledge and critical thinking, ensuring we remain vigilant against the modern-day counterparts of these infamous influencers.
About Nikolas Badminton
Nikolas Badminton is the Chief Futurist at futurist.com. He’s a world-renowned futurist speaker, consultant, author, media producer, and executive advisor that has spoken to, and worked with, over 300 of the world’s most impactful organizations and governments.
He helps shape the visions that shape impactful organizations, trillion-dollar companies, progressive governments, and 200+ billion dollar investment funds.
Nikolas Badminton’s book Facing Our Futures: How Foresight, Futures Design and Strategy Creates Prosperity and Growth has been selected for 2023 J.P. Morgan Summer Reading List, and featured as the ‘Next Gen Pick’ to inform the next generation of thinkers that lead us into our futures.