three toy robots
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“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper” — T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

While T.S. Eliot may have perfectly captured post-World War I angst in his poem "The Hollow Men," ending with a whimper is simply not going to happen. That is, not if tech marketers have anything to say about it.

Here’s a view of the state of hyperbole in today’s tech markets.

Attention Grabbing 'New' Technology Headlines

A recent news headline got me thinking about the fine line between interesting product positioning vs. hype when capturing attention for new tech advances.

The article, "New approach to math gives kids 'hands-on' experience with numbers" caught my attention. As a tech marketer and a former university-trained mathematics teacher, I was eager to find out what was new. The article was interesting and well-written, sharing how a new software approach is giving kids a ‘hands-on’ experience with numbers. Education professor Nathalie Sinclair from the Tangible Mathematics Project explained children’s struggles with math are largely due to an inappropriate school focus. To counter that, new software products have been created with an innovative approach.

“Rather than focus on numeric computation and procedural repetition, our learning tools try to endow children’s mathematical ideas with the representational power of their fingers, and to personalize and make tangible their early experiences with number and operation.”

So what’s “new” behind the tech hype is just counting on our fingers, the original human digits now paired with the digital world.

Related Article: Cutting Through AI Marketing Hype: It's About Machine Learning

Mind Boggling Truths

Sometimes the tech hyperbole speaks to our imagination, talking about technology that we hope could be true.  And when we dig beneath the fancy headline, there is indeed a good deal of underlying truth.

A few months ago, I was happily amazed by the headline "Physicists reverse time using quantum computer." It was based on a study published in Scientific Reports, where the researchers claimed to have performed an experiment “investigating time reversal and the backward time flow.”

Immediately images of one of my favorite movies of all time (pun fully intended), "The Time Machine," jumped to mind. Only to be quickly quashed as I investigated the facts behind the tech hype. 

As an article in MIT Technology Review explains, “The real world is not that way.” It turns out the study was one of a series of papers on research into the possibility of violating the second law of thermodynamics, closely related to the notion of the one-way direction of time. It is true that the researcher simulation returned the state of a quantum computer a fraction of a second into the past. It’s also true that they calculated the probability that an electron in empty interstellar space will spontaneously travel back into its recent past.

Cool stuff, but more hype than actual time reversal.

Experiencing Tech Hype Fatigue

Hyperbole may seem inevitable when exciting technologies are involved. But it is easy to understand how repeated overstatement and unrealistic speculation can create tech fatigue.

Last year, I wrote about "What’s Next for Blockchain" with a measure of optimism that it would find its way from hype to practical adoption, moving from cryptocurrency to areas like smart contracts and shipping manifests.

“With blockchain, an asset has a record of origin and a history of ownership. And with blockchain, a current owner can authenticate a transaction that would cause an asset to be transferred to another owner. These capabilities mean that blockchain can form the basis of trust for critical business transactions across multiple value chains and industry sectors.”

While there are applications starting to prove the hype true — a number of logistics products built on AWS for example — blockchain continues to win its place on the list of most overhyped tech.

Blockchain made it to 4 Most Overhyped Technologies of 2018 and took top honors in a 2019 poll of tech pros in a recent survey from CodeMentor, in which 46% of respondents said they had no plans to learn the technology within the next three months, while 10% said they just weren’t interested.

Related Article: Blockchain Will Stall Until it Finds Its Killer App

Unintended Consequences

Sometimes the hype proves to be 100% true ... eventually. Take cloud computing — one of the most hyped technologies of a decade ago — now exhibiting its worth in practical adoption across a wide variety of use cases, industries and geographies.

What harm could there be then in a little hype along the path to a promising technology proving itself?

A great deal according to Wim Naudé in "AI's current hype and hysteria could set the technology back by decades." In a title that itself has a measure of hype to it, Naudé's premise is that most discussions about artificial intelligence (AI) these days are characterized by hyperbole and hysteria — that AI will either solve all our problems or destroy us or our society — and that “could actually end up turning people against AI research, bringing significant progress in the technology to a halt.”

I agree we should be concerned with the level of hype over smart bots. While it is most often the real world advances rather than the dystopian debate that most pay attention to, unintended consequences have happened before, including funding droughts due to loss of public trust.

So, if tech hype often rings hollow, and may even be harmful to innovation, why does it continue? 

Related Article: Confused By AI Hype and Fear? You're Not Alone

The Cycle of Technology Hype

There is a natural cycle of technology advancement that includes the notion of hype. In its Hype Cycle methodology, advisory and technology research firm Gartner provide a view of how a technology will evolve over time. Their graphic representations include the now infamous peak of inflated expectations, followed by the trough of disillusionment and ultimately the plateau of productivity. Some technologies travel more quickly through the cycle than others, and some never make it, but for all the methodology offers insight to managing within the context of business goals.

This is perhaps our best reminder that at the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world when we hype technology.

As marketers, and technology observers, we just appreciate the chance to talk about possibilities. And that is all well and good, just as long as we don’t conflate that with the amazing, exciting, first ever, mind busting tech features that we can deliver today.