Don’t Believe the Hype

A couple years ago, as we heard about innovations in autonomous driving technology, I found myself daydreaming about what this technology would mean for our culture and my own life.  “I bet my own kids are the last generation of American teenagers who will go through that archetypical rite of passage of learning to drive!,” I thought. “In less than a decade, we’ll all be hauled around in brilliant, peppy autonomous vehicles, and fender benders and traffic jams will be a relic of the past!,” I thought.

I’ve recently been learning about some serious flaws in self-driving technology (like, some cars equipped with Tesla’s early autonomous driving technology have a nasty habit of barreling into fire trucks parked in the road), which has me less excited about the technology. Guess I will go ahead and renew my driver’s license next time around, and maybe I should register my son for driver’s ed after all.

This pattern of thinking is an example of the Gartner Hype Cycle, one of my favorite little models of technology and innovation. It’s a simple graph, pioneered by the consulting and innovation firm Gartner, that describes a common pattern of technological capabilities versus people’s expectations over time. It looks like this:

Gartner Hype Cycle

Source: https://www.gartner.com/marketing/about/hype-cycle.html

The cycle starts with the innovation trigger, when a new technology or capability enters the market with great fanfare.

The technology then races up to the peak of inflated expectations, when we breathlessly imagine all the problems this technology will solve.  This is how I thought about autonomous driving until recently.

Often, a technology then falls into the trough of disillusionment (a great name for a shoegaze band). This is the most interesting phase in the hype cycle, I think.  This is where technology no longer lives up to the inflated expectations we once had. Sometimes, we abandon it altogether. Remember when many thought virtual worlds (Second Life, etc.) were the future of interactive experiences?

But the trough of disillusionment is not the end of the hype cycle. Successful technologies follow their time in the trough of disillusionment with a long run up a slope of enlightenment, and eventually reach a plateau of productivity. For example, this is where we might plot e-commerce capabilities today. Maybe e-commerce isn’t without problems and limitations, but online shopping has become a perfectly productive and mundane part of modern life.

The hype cycle is related to a phenomenon known as Amara’s law, named for the Stanford futurist and computer scientist Roy Amara. It states: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

As we consider our technology choices and investments , we’d be wise to stay mindful of the Gartner hype cycle and Amara’s law.  We want to be innovators, but we should watch out for the inflated expectations we tend to ascribe to new technologies.  But we shouldn’t abandon technology that seems to have failed to live up to our early expectations: it may be about to rise from the trough of disillusionment up the slope of enlightenment. 

When we’re considering technologies like gamification, augmented reality, online video, big data, internet of things, artificial intelligence, or mobile apps, let’s plot them on this cycle. It’ll help our decision making.

Now, where’s my jetpack?

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