Expectations (or visions, trend reports, forecasts or “hype”) are a fundamental driver for the development, advancement and implementation of technology in society. They are not neutral observations, but part of these developments.
The shared expectations of a future help all actors (developers, investors, politicians, etc.) to pull together and realise this vision1.
[Expectations] give definition to roles, clarify duties, offer some shared shape of what to expect and how to prepare for opportunities and risks. Visions drive technical and scientific activity, warranting the production of measurements, calculations, material tests, pilot projects and models. As such, very little in Innovation can work in isolation from a highly dynamic and variegated body of future-oriented understandings about the future. […] In a sense, expectations are both the cause and consequence of material scientific and technological activity.
An argument can be made that these expectations are in some ways more explicitly articulated in the last decade, but also normalised in public discourse before these technologies are even available2.
We also see the new normal in the long collapse of avant-garde novelty cycles, such that technologies become normal even before they become real. A.I. is already normal. Universal Basic Income? So August 2015! Driverless cars are normal and they aren’t on the road yet. Your mom was playing Pokemon Go! before some of society’s moral guardians knew to denounce it.
The analysis of a technology is therefore incomplete without a close look at the expectations associated with it.
Nik Brown, Mike Michael (2003), A Sociology of Expectations: Retrospecting Prospects and Prospecting Retrospects, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 15:1, 3-18, DOI: 10.1080/0953732032000046024 ↩
Benjamin Bratton (2017), The New Normal, Strelka Press ↩
Who‘s Driving Innovation by Jack Stilgoe (November 27, 2019). Palgrave Macmillan.
In an uncertain world, technological hype is a way to make claims about the future that seem rooted in scientific rigour. If technologies succeed and become embedded in our everyday lives, we take them for granted and they fade into the background. Nascent technologies, however, must compete for our attention. They must be made visible despite their non-existence. The paradox is therefore that the technological possibilities that are furthest off tend to be the most hyped. Novelty is seductive. New technologies can seem pristine, untainted by past associations.
On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future by Devon Powers. (2019). University of Illinois Press
forecasters are largely a progressive bunch open-minded, curious, and urbane, with a genuine optimism about humanity’s potential and the promise that can come from change. Yet trend work is still susceptible to homogeneity and tunnel vision. As labyrinthine and intertwined as culture is, trends charge ahead, leaving behind those continuing to fight entrenched battles, those unable or unwilling to “catch up”.
Trend forecasters are overwhelmingly white, which informs how the industry conceptualizes “future” and “change”.
Smoke and Mirrors: How Hype obscures the Future and how to see past it by Gemma Milne (2020). Robinson
Investors tend to hedge bets on companies, not technologies themselves, in terms of spreading their risk. They’ll decide that a particular innovation — such as self-driving cars — is one to bet on and then they’ll spread their risk across the many companies and innovators pursuing that advancement.
Venture capital firms (the companies and people within collectively called ‘VCs’) also care about outside perception of their investment moves. They have their own funders, who trust them to put it into sensible companies and schemes to provide them with a return, who the VCs have to keep onside. They also want to be seen as innovative and fast-moving on new opportunities so that more people want to get involved with investing in their fund, and so the best companies agree to take their investment and work with them. Startups won’t just take money from any VC.
For the trendiest companies looking for money, VCs normally have to compete with one another to get the startups to say yes to them. If they don’t want to compromise on the amount of equity the startup is giving to them, they have to prove themselves as the most promising and useful investor for the startup to agree to beneficial terms.
The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton (2006). Profile Books Ltd
The assumption that the new is clearly superior to what went before has an important corollary: failure to move from one to the other is to be explained by ‘conservatism’, not to mention stupidity or straightforward ignorance.
‘Resistance to new technology’ becomes a problem to be addressed by psychologists, sociologists, even historians. But the idea of ‘resistance’ makes sense only if there are no alternatives. It is absurd to talk of resistance to technology or innovation in a world where individuals or societies simply could not accept every innovation, or indeed product, on offer. Resistance is required.
In choosing one technology, society was necessarily resisting many ‘old’ and ‘new’ alternative technologies.
The Sociology of Expectations in Science and Technology by Mads Borup, Nik Brown, Kornelia Konrad, Harro van Lente (July 01, 2006). Technology Analysis and Strategic Management, Routledge
By definition, innovation in contemporary science and technology is an intensely future-oriented business with an emphasis on the creation of new opportunities and capabilities. Novel technologies and fundamental changes in scientific principle do not substantively pre-exist themselves, except and only in terms of the imaginings, expectations and visions that have shaped their potential.
Such expectations can be seen to be fundamentally ‘generative’, they guide activities, provide structure and legitimation, attract interest and foster investment. They give definition to roles, clarify duties, offer some shared shape of what to expect and how to prepare for opportunities and risks. Visions drive technical and scientific activity, warranting the production of measurements, calculations, material tests, pilot projects and models. As such, very little in innovation can work in isolation from a highly dynamic and variegated body of future-oriented understandings about the future.
Navigating foresight in a sea of expectations — lessons form the sociology of expectations by Harro van Lente. (September 01, 2012). Technology Analysis & Strategic Management
Gordon Moore, the director of Fairchild Semiconductor in the USA predicted in 1965 that the complexity of integrated memory chip would double every 18 months. This prediction was based on an extrapolation of the trend since 1959, when the integrated circuit was introduced.
The prediction of Moore remained valid with such precision that it has been labelled as Moore’s Law, as if it were a natural law. The sociology of expectations, however, points to the central role that the prediction has been playing in the strategic game between the manufacturers of memory chips. They take the prediction of Moore’s Law as a yardstick for their own progress and for further investments. When the promised specifications run the risk of not being met, additional measures are needed, such as entering into strategic alliances. Companies use the prediction of Moore to decide on the R&D goals and the size of the investments. They regard this as the right strategy because they assume that others will do the same: self-preservation implies to obey Moore’s Law as the authoritative view of the future.
Clearly, Moore’s Law is a self-fulfiling prophecy.
The Business of Expectations: How Promissory Organisations Shape Technology & Innovation by Neil Pollock, Robin Williams (2010). Social Studies of Science
Words Matter:How Tech Media Helped Write Gig Companies into Existence by Sam Harnett (2020)
First is the format problem: that wide-eyed, first-person review-style inherited from older tech publications. This sets reporters up to approach apps like Uber and TaskRabbit not as journalists digging into how the companies that make these apps operate, but as consumers interested in the experience of using the apps.
A second major problem is that modern tech reporting lost almost all interest in covering actual technology. In the tech sections of media organizations like The New York Times or on websites like TechCrunch, you’re not going to get advice about building your own computer or the ins and outs of a new programming language. Instead you’re going to find stories about the services and products of corporations that leverage the internet and digital devices to make money. This tendency made it easy for reporters to gloss over the lack of real tech innovation behind apps like Uber and Instacart and to fetishize them as new technologies.
The third major problem is the imperative to break the story. This is always a pressure in journalism, but it’s ramped up even more for tech reporters, whose reputation is staked on being the first to know about the latest new thing. This encourages reporters to create and repeat jargon which furthers the case that what they’re writing about is truly new. There’s not much of a tech story if you approach Uber like a cab company or DoorDash as a food delivery service.
The Crisis of Venture Capital : Fixing America’s Broken Start-Up System by Jeffrey Funk (February 01, 2021). American Affairs Journal, Volume V, Number 1 (Spring 2021): 3–26.
The poor performance of VCs and start-ups and the corresponding sense that they are mostly trend-chasing copycats are both indirect results of superficial training, and so part of the blame for these problems must fall on business schools and universities. […] A recent Stanford research paper argues that such hype about entrepreneurship has encouraged students to become entrepreneurs for the wrong reasons and without proper preparation, with universities often presenting entrepreneurship as a fun and cool lifestyle that will enable them to meet new people and do interesting things, while ignoring the reality of hard and demanding work necessary for success.
Venture Capital’s Role in Financing Innovation What We Know and How Much We Still Need to Learn by Josh Lerner & Ramana Nanda (2020). Harvard Business School.
Borg Complex https://thefrailestthing.com/2013/03/01/borg-complex-a-primer/ by L.M. Sacasas (March 01, 2013).
A Borg Complex is exhibited by technologists, writers, and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.
What‘s Behind Technological Hype by Jeffrey Funk (2019). Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 1
To begin, [analysts] can inquire about existing implementations. Has the technology been implemented, what are customers saying, what is the financial status of the suppliers?
Second, decision-makers must consider both the value proposition and the cost structures for the new and old technologies. How much of an advantage does the new technology offer?
Third, are improvements occurring that will positively affect the cost structure? New technologies always have problems, but the real question is whether there is progress toward a viable solution in terms of cost and performance.
Fourth, for a technology still early in development, decision-makers must look for similar technologies that might provide insights into the new technology’s economics.
Hype wastes resources and time and distracts from more plausible pathways for improving productivity or solving social problems. Diminishing productivity growth, falling corporate R&D productivity, and the declining value of Nobel Prize–winning research are real challenges that require careful thought and analysis. Hype makes it harder for scholars to address these problems in a careful, thoughtful way because it misleads them into thinking that productivity will get back on track once growth in AI surges, blockchain takes off, Uber and Lyft refine their business models, and so on.