Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Dynamics of Hype

A common feature of technology hype is the shifting relationship between signifier (a word or phrase) and signified (what the word is supposed to mean). Technology concepts may emerge slowly through a complex social process; the sociologist Bruno Latour refers to these emerging concepts as Black Boxes.

I found the following observations in a discussion of the hype around "nanotechnology".

  • The relationship between the signifier and the signified can change over time.
  • People can argue about what a signifier means.
  • Signifier-signifed relations can be political.
  • One sees an ideological landscape of explicit and implicit assumptions, with much competition to establish definitions.
 edited by Susanna Hornig Priest, Sage 2010.

The Encyclopedia makes the point that "nanotechnology" is an emerging technology - incomplete and with unclear consequences (ibid p 486) and identifies "nanotechnology" as a polysemic or multivalent signifier: in other words, the same thing can mean very different things to different people.

What the Encyclopedia says about "nanotechnology" is true of many technologies, especially those that are most overhyped: at present, these would include Big Data and Cloud.

Innovative concepts typically go through some or all of the following phases.

1. People starting to talk about the concept. (Assertion)

2. Other people rejecting the concept as meaningless, dangerous and/or unnecessary, while trying to bundle it together with earlier concepts. (Denial)

3. Vendors trying to attach the concept to a wide range of new and existing products. (Divergence)

4. Some common understanding may emerge as to what the concept really means. (Convergence)

5. A split appears between a narrow purist interpretation of the concept and a broader more ambitious interpretation. (Divergence)

6. Several different industry groups develop alternative definitions. Subcategories emerge. (Convergence/Divergence)

7. Vendors produce deliberately confusing statements, wishing to show both that they confirm to the standard(s) and also differentiate themselves from the standard(s).  (Divergence)

8. The concept only stops changing its meaning when it ceases to be interesting. (Convergence/Death)

By the way, denial often follows Kettle Logic. That concept doesn't make sense, and even if it did it wouldn't be technologically feasible, and anyway we already have a perfectly good word for it and lots of people are already doing it so we don't need a new word.

If you compare the Gartner Hype Curve (it's not a cycle) from one year to another you will see some of the consequences of this shifting and subdividing terminology. For example, Thoran Rodrigues notes that different cloud technologies are in different points of the curve and wonders about the shifting positioning of Cloud Computing from one year to the next. (The cloud's place in the hype cycle, Tech Republic Sept 2012).

The Gartner Hype Curve (it's not a cycle) is supposed to track hype rather than reality, so we may suppose that it describes the trajectory of the signifier rather than the signified. There are many terms that have become discredited or unfashionable, but the underlying technologies have been quietly adopted by many large organizations. Conversely, there are many terms that are still "hot" but whose adoption is problematic. What Gartner's Hype Curve (it's not a cycle) fails to explain is the evolving relationship between the signifier and the signified.

Updated 29 July 2014

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