Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change

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By Bob Seidensticker
Berrett-Koehler, 2006
272 pages, $15.95

Software expert Bob Seidensticker began his research into technology change during an eight-year stint at Microsoft. In Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change, he offers a balanced, historical perspective that is a useful antidote to the widespread, often uncritical hype about the pace of and prospects for such change.

Of the nine myths he debunks, the first two are the inevitability of exponential change — with change always increasing at progressively greater rates — and the predetermined success of new technologies. He makes it clear that, even for successful innovations, the rate of change usually follows the S-shaped logistics curve, with long lags between invention and takeoff and with extended bursts of growth followed by declines. Markets may become saturated, consumers may be unable to make use of additional features, there may be social resistance to the new technology, or innovations may fail for many other reasons. Although an exponential process — Moore’s Law — governs the rate at which the power of the microprocessor grows, doubling every 18 months, improvements in the functionality of computers have not advanced correspondingly. Ten years from now, with supercomputer equivalents on our desktops, it’s likely we’ll still be coping with spam in our e-mail inboxes.

Even successful technology is rarely an unalloyed benefit. It usually performs some features of the required job at the expense of others, it may have unintended consequences — think software bugs and viruses — and the technology itself often requires substantial maintenance. The Internet hasn’t “changed everything,” Mr. Seidensticker asserts, pointing out that, for at least the past few centuries, important information has always had an outlet and much of the new information is less valuable than the old. As he puts it, “Some Internet applications are important, such as e-mail, research, company Web sites, and e-commerce. Some are new, such as connecting members of obscure hobbies or finding buyers for used goods. But the important applications aren’t new and the new ones aren’t important.”

The fact is that humankind has long used technology to satisfy its essential physical needs — clothing, shelter, heat, safe food and water, health, and safety — and the latest technologies cater to higher-level but less critical needs. The author illustrates this with a helpful pyramidal diagram based on Abraham Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of human needs. Although many of the individual observations about technological change have been made in the past by others (which simply reinforces the author’s point about the value of old information), it is helpful to have all that curmudgeonly skepticism combined here into a coherent single book.

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