.Once a year, the industry analyst firm Gartner publishes a sweeping set of technology trend reports based on what’s known as the Gartner Hype Cycle. They’re commonly used, for example, in assessing over-eager tech startup companies hoping to launch The Next Big Thing – or as Forbes uncharitably describes them, “the hype-meisters who overpromote into a stratospheric hype zone of self-importance”. Ouch!
Since most over-eager tech talk tends to make my head explode (topics like 3-D printing, mesh networking, gamification, mobile robots, Big Data, near field communication, HTML5 – the list is truly endless), I try to avoid listening as much as humanly possible. I guess that’s why I really didn’t care much about the Gartner Hype Cycle until I happened to be writing about my experience attending Stanford University’s Medicine X conference last month as an ePatient Scholar.
Stanford, as you know, is located in the charming city of Palo Alto, California, in the very heart of Silicon Valley and the Universal Mecca for emerging technologies.
The dream of every tech startup entrepreneur, I learned while at Stanford, is to sell your startup as soon as possible for millions of dollars to Google or Yahoo or Apple – or to anybody, really, who has millions of dollars to give you because of the sparkly brilliance and promising marketability of your concept.
Because of this shared dream, startups must produce really cool technology ideas that nobody else has ever thought of, and then pitch the really cool ideas to people called Venture Capitalists. The VC folks have bags of money lying about, and are looking to invest this money in The Next Big Thing.
Here’s how Hung LeHong, research vice president at Gartner, explains the potential pitfalls of buying into the hype:
“The smarter smartphone is a case in point. It’s now possible to look at a smartphone and unlock it via facial recognition, and then talk to it to ask it to find the nearest bank ATM.
“However, at the same time, we see that the technology is not quite there yet. We might have to remove our glasses for the facial recognition to work, our smartphones don’t always understand us when we speak, and the location-sensing technology sometimes has trouble finding us.”
The five phases of the Gartner Hype Cycle also make perfect sense to anyone who has ever been in a longterm relationship (more on this later).
But meanwhile, let’s revisit the basic explanation of the Cycle’s application in technology, delightfully augmented (below, in italics) by Roy Woods in his Wired column called GeekDad:
- Phase 1. Technology trigger: This phase occurs at the product’s breakthrough, marketing launch or other event that generates significant public and media interest. (As Roy likes to say: “Let the sensational trade articles and blog postings ensue!”)
- Phase 2. Peak of inflated expectations: In the second phase, a frenzy of publicity generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. There may be some successful applications of a technology, but there are typically more failures. (In Roy’s words: “Hollywood has taught us that the world can change overnight!”)
- Phase 3. Trough of disillusionment: Technologies enter this slump because they fail to meet expectations and quickly become unfashionable. Consequently, the media usually abandons the topic and the technology. (Roy impatiently asks: “Dude, where’s my flying car?”)
- Phase 4. Slope of enlightenment: Although the press may have stopped covering the technology, some businesses continue up along this phase and experiment to understand the benefits and to salvage practical application of the technology. (According to Roy: “A few Serious Types start to notice that this could actually be useful!”)
- Phase 5. Plateau of productivity: Technology reaches this plateau phase as the benefits become widely demonstrated. The technology becomes increasingly stable and evolves in second and third generations. The final height of the plateau varies according to whether the technology is broadly applicable or benefits only a niche market. (Roy exclaims: “Finally! Technological maturity and acceptance!”
At the risk of raining on a number of hype-meisters’ parades out there, please note the use of the word “some” in Phase 4: “some businesses continue…” Many do not, sadly, no matter how high their peak of inflated expectations pitched to the VCs.
Consider The Wall Street Journal’s 2012 ranking of the top 50 venture-capital-backed companies – the first year that a health care company has not topped the ranking. For example, last year’s WSJ list-topper (Castlight Health Inc.) dropped out of the top 50 entirely as “the health care industry in general has fallen out of favor with venture capitalists.”
Now, the Gartner Hype Cycle is a generalization, and there are of course many exceptions to this pattern. But recognizing that things usually develop in this manner may be a good way of setting reasonable expectations when launching any major venture in life.
Roy Woods, for example, cites a Bob Cringely PBS article on tech prognostication published way back in the year 2000. Cringlely described a similar set of guiding principles in his essay called Take My Job, Please: How to Predict the Future and Become an Industry Pundit, in which he listed these truisms:
- We tend to overestimate change in the short term.
- We tend to underestimate change in the long term.
- The more specific a prediction, the less likely it is to be correct.
- Past performance is a predictor of future results but not a good one.
- The most reliable predictions are those that follow established trends.
So how might the Gartner Hype Cycle be applied to marriage? Think about this little fantasy:
- Phase 1. Trigger: Boy meets girl. ♥ Wow!
- Phase 2. Peak of inflated expectations: Whirlwind romance. Can’t live without this amazing person! Engagement. Wedding. Happy honeymoon. Great starter home. Friends, parties, fun vacations. Life is perfect!
- Phase 3. Trough of disillusionment: (also known as The Post-Rapture stage). This is a horrible mistake. Can’t stand (pick one or more): his snoring, her driving, his dirty socks on the floor, her girlfriends, his table manners, her makeup all over the bathroom. I’m trapped. I hate my life. Why didn’t I see this sooner?
- Phase 4. Slope of enlightenment: (if you can survive Phase 3) Honeymoon may be over, but hey! I still care about this person. My partner knows me better than anybody. I can predict reactions to any given situation. Maybe we can do this. We will make this work!
- Phase 5. Plateau of productivity: Friendship, comfort, common interests, mutual support, teamwork. Good times tend to outweigh the bad. More win-win arguments, fewer win-lose. Working towards longterm goals. Hopeful.
For more on the latest Gartner Hype Cycle in technology, read the press release. Or learn more on Stanford’s Medicine X conference in When The Elephant in the Room Has No Smartphone (from my other site, Heart Sisters).