The reality of disappointment - We need a new law

Posted: 02.24.17

 The use of the term “Law” applied to an observation or axiom is incorrect and has been over used, but in this world of fake news, and alternative facts, the practice seems totally acceptable. Moore’s law is not a “Law” like gravity, or Ohm’s. There is no repeatable, action-reaction, input-output relationship, just some empirical data that suggests similar results. But calling it a law makes is easier to understand, easier to say in our rush-rush lives, and let’s face it, makes it sexier, cooler. 

You may have heard a few of my axioms/laws: In computer graphics, too much is not enough (1981), or The more you can see the more you can do (1998), or Kathleen Maher’s Practicality gap (2007). 

One of my other observations, from the 1990s is, When the building goes up, the company goes down. That observation, although backed with plenty of examples, isn’t rock solid, exceptions are Oracle, and soon to be Apple and Nvidia who are building their own Taj Mahals (which in Urdu, literally means: crown of buildings) In the various waves of go-go years we saw startup and not so old near startups take their first year or two’s profits and build monuments to their implied success, only to have to lease out, or sell the edifice(s) later, as was the case when Google stepped in to take over SGI’s ultra-modern campus. There are lots of other examples, but I think you get the point. 

The additional law we need should observe that whenever there’s hype, there will inevitably be disappointment. Maher pointed this out in her landmark paper, The Practicality Gap, that traced the notion of the hype curve back to Ev Rodgers’ work, the Diffusion of Innovation (1962). His work studied why some farmers adopted hardy hybrid seed and others didn’t and how the early adopters influenced their neighbors. From there Geoffrey Moore took the model, put a big gap between the Early Adopters and Early Majority and called his ideas Crossing the Chasm. (1991). And later still, The Gartner Group produced their own variation that they articulated as the Hype Cycle (1995), and that name has been more popular. Later in the 90s, the concept of Cool Hunting was born. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a wonderful article (1997) in the New Yorker about two very hip Cool Hunters Baysie Wightman and Dee Dee Gordon. 

Perhaps no one owns the concept of disappointment, but Roy Amara may have said it best when he said “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run,” subsequently named Amara’s law. And to quote Michael Mullany, a partner at Icon Ventures, “We’re terrible at making predictions. Especially about the future.” 

The recent run up and predictable let down of the virtual reality hype cycle, promulgated by Facebook’s ridiculous over investment in Oculus (and subsequent $500 million combined payment to ZeniMax, and shut down of 200 instore BestBuy demo stations due to lack of interest) is but one example. The enormous investments in Magic Leap’s smoke and mirrors and years of excuses for why they can’t deliver (and now scrambling just get their first prototype done) is another testament. 

The over enthusiasm for the new shiny bright thing is both amusing and disheartening to see, especially if you’ve seen several of them over the years as I have. 

The reality of virtual and augmented reality is that they won’t be a reality for some time. That’s not a criticism of the technology or the noble people pursuing those developments, but it is a criticism of the press, pundits, and snake-oil salesmen in many of the “reality” companies and investment firms who should (even if they don’t) know better. 

Again, quoting Maher, “People want this stuff. They wanted 3DTV, and they want VR—but they also want it to work.” The thrill of your first encounter with 3DTV was great, as was your first experience with VR. VR 360-videos still are, and may be ultimate salvation for consumer VR. 

Let’s face it—with the possible exception of the smartphone, there are no explosive markets. Deep learning, or AI, or IoT, or autonomous vehicles, and certainly not VR are not going to be explosive markets reaching 100s of millions to billions of units. The muchmaligned PC still outsells automobiles in units per year—get some perspective. The over enthusiasm for new products and markets is an example of the Emperor’s new clothes, the same kind of hysteria that gets demigods and tyrants elected—faith in the unknown, even in the face of knowing better. 

However, even if we came up with a new law, a new axiom, it’s highly doubtful it would be heeded. We love the shiny new thing, real or not.