The never-ending technology hype cycle

Examine the formative history of almost any major technology that has caught on in the past century, she says, and you’ll discern a similar pattern. First there’s a breakthrough, which generates hype and attracts early adopters and evangelists. Then the media catches on, clutching for superlatives to convey the wondrous future that will soon be at hand. Businesses smell an opportunity and jump on board. The mainstream public’s embrace awaits.

But hype moves faster than progress. To turn a groundbreaking idea into magazine covers, speaking engagements, and buzzwords might take a few months. To turn it into a well-oiled consumer product can take years, or even decades. Disappointed with the results of early prototypes and hungry for a fresh narrative, the same media that hyped the technology turn against it. The public grows cynical. The businesses that were quick to adopt the technology are just as quick to drop it. And the early adopters move on to the next thing. (Kozmo.com, anyone?)

Yet if the technology truly holds promise, Fenn says, it usually doesn’t die. Somewhere, in a tinkerer’s garage or a well-funded lab insulated from market pressures, engineers continue to work on it. They learn from mistakes and gain a more realistic perception of the technology’s strengths and limitations. Eventually, the idea resurfaces and achieves mainstream acceptance.