Bursting the Bubble: Have We Hit Maximum Tech Hype?

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By Dan Machen, Director of Innovation, HeyHuman

Amara’s Law states: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run, and underestimate the effect in the long run.” This has rung true time and time again, with various cycles of boom and bust witnessed among the technorati – most notably the dotcom crash in 2000. But where do we sit in relation to this fluctuation with the current state of tech? Are we at the peak of inflated expectations on the Gartner hype cycle? Or are we about to tip over into the trough of disillusionment? The answer is – both, depending on your viewpoint.

On the one hand, you have Oculus Rift and the Tesla Model 3. Just over a year ago, these products seemed like vapourware – or science fiction. Now, you can buy your Oculus in the supermarket and people are heralding VR as the ‘Age of Experience’. And anyone with $1,000 deposit can preorder the new Tesla. Technology viewed through these two lenses looks exponentially promising in terms of both growth and value potential. No evidence of an overripe bubble here.

Will these products live up to their hype, though? Or, in our constant quest for the next smartphone-like leap forward, are we all simply putting too much hope in bright, shiny objects? An appropriate sidebar to this conversation is the fact that Apple’s shares are in the doldrums somewhat, after lacklustre iPhone 6 sales took the tech giant’s stock to its lowest levels since 2014. In chasing shareholder value, has Jobs’ giant lost sight of what people want? Also of interest is Nokia – valued in its halcyon days at $300bn; the company just sold for a song at $350m.

So, as ever, there are companies in the ascendant, companies plateauing and companies declining. Certainly there is elevated hype and extraordinary interest in the tech space – always. However, I think we also need to exercise judicious caution. If a wunderkind like Apple can catch a cold, no-one is immune.

Part of the challenge in realising the full potential of tech comes down to one ugly word: greed. As everyone clamours to lasso the next unicorn and buy shares in the next Zuckerberg, they overlook the most important thing technology is supposed to serve: people.

Noted cyber-visionary Douglas Rushkoff commented on this recently, saying we need “a new OS for the Digital Age”. Drawing on his book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Rushkoff said: “We’re developing companies that are designed to do little more than take money out of the system – they’re all extractive.”

Informed by this perspective, if we look at a company such as Uber, its leaked financials show the company lost close to $1bn in the first half of 2015, compared to a previous loss of $671.4m. Yet, against these sobering figures, the company’s (net) revenue is set to triple to more than $1.5bn — and it has $4.1bn in cash (and equivalents) in the bank, according to The Information’s report. Far from facing an existential threat, Uber’s profits are on the up. The only cloud are those reports we’ve all heard from disgruntled Uber drivers themselves – about fee hikes they have to bear and increased competition apparently making many consider turning in their Prius keys.

I think the point here, as illustrated by Oculus, then Apple and finally Nokia, is that tomorrow’s unicorns can all too easily become today’s donkeys. Especially if the agenda of the business or service in question is ‘extractive’ – placing venture capitalist returns over human service design and provision. I think this concern is further amplified by the fact that it does feel, right now, like we are at the peak of inflated expectations – meaning our vision is skewed by hyperbole.

The solution lies in a philosophical reframe – by changing our way of thinking about tech development, we can filter out the hype and, crucially, maximise value. Dwindling attention spans and increasing impatience mean we must focus on human service design above utility – because, in so doing, we enrich people’s experience and extend and protect the future value of our technologies.

The opportunity to maximise technology’s potential is, therefore, in focusing on delivery with a human touch. The experience of using tech, how it liberates us, extends human abilities and keeps us ‘in the flow’ of our lives. Bottom line: poorly applied tech is worse than no tech at all – which is why we regularly default to simple solutions because the computer (and our patience) says no.

The kinds of relationships people have with technology brands are changing. In the Digital Age, the brands that will dominate are those that evidence evolved ‘human brand behaviours’, including the ability to adapt, simplify and actively listen; essentially, tech that puts ‘people first’. By embracing their innovation and development in a human way, brands can marry the personal touch with the convenience that tech can offer.

It’s really down to that question of ensuring ‘life in flow’ – and this is our new focus at HeyHuman. We’ve consciously re-engineered the agency to interrogate those behaviours that really drive what people do, identify the relationships people want (and which help them to grow), and determine how to make the experience of a particular product or service both easy and human.

Circling back to Amara’s Law, if we accept technological advancement as inevitable – especially in the long run – we must move to mindful human brand behaviours and put people first. That is key if we are to avoid the trough of disillusionment and realise the true value (outside of the hype) of this decade’s technology bubble.