The Physics of Hype

Chris Anderson, in his excellent Long Tail blog, uses basic physics to elegantly place technology hype in its appropriate context. Referring to a recent speech from Michael Wolff hinting that because of the power of the web, Consumer Report (the US Which?) was now a marginal business model, Anderson tries to seperate the facts from the hype:

Actually, Consumer Reports says it has about 4 million subscribers, which by anyone’s estimation makes it non-marginal (although I don’t get the magazine, I do pay $26/year to subscribe to its excellent website). Vanity Fair, or for that matter Wired, would love to have anything close to that. But I think I know what Wolff meant. To understand his claim, you have to realize that there are three kind of people, which being a science geek, I will describe in physics terms (that noise is the sound of a readership stampeding for the exits):

A) Position People
B) Velocity People (first derivative)
C) Acceleration People (second derivative)

Category A people think: “4 million subscribers is a lot. Consumer Reports must be doing something right.”

Category B people think: “It used to be 4.2 million. Consumer Reports is in decline.”

Category C people think: “They lost 200,000 readers in three years! Consumer Reports is dead.”

One of the most linked-to posts on this blog was an attack on Wired Magazine’s tendency to report acceleration more than velocity or position. Anderson, a Wired writer, makes a defense of this tendency, saying that it is the raison d’etre of the magazine. That’s a fair enough comment, but my beef is with the volume, in terms of numbers and noise, of Category C people within technology circles.

Anderson points out that any emerging blip might be the germ of something that changes industries, or nothing whatsover, and ‘end-ism’ (as in ‘this means the end of radio/tv/print media/work/etc’) is an appropriate rhetorical device to report the potential acceleration of any disruptive element. But for me, this vision of pure speed, of a potential world measured purely in terms of disruption and acceleration, is not only exhausting, but also tends to provide a limited lens to imagine the future.

In her excellent book ‘When Old Technologies Were New’, Carolyn Marvin uses the term ‘cognitive imperialism’ to describe the future visions for electrical products and services that were published in electrical engineers’ journals in the 19th Century. In her analysis, most contemporary writers imagined futures in which their own skills and expertise were transformative and increasingly valuable, changing the landscape of the world and transforming business models. In the case of electricity, they were broadly right, but not in the ways they imagined. It is usual in our culture to project acceleration in a straight line forward, without taking on board other drivers that might affect its path. But are there other ways of thinking about the future that place less of a focus on acceleration, and more on position?

An article in The Guardian’s Life section last week reported on the Aymara people of the Andes, who seem to refer to the past as ‘in front’ of them, and the future as ‘behind’. Researchers have been filming conversations with Aymarans and recording how their speech and hand gestures signify their position within a reverse timeflow, with the future moving from behind them whilst they face the past. The reason for this might give us a fascinating insight into why we are so locked into our ‘end-isms’, forever seeing the future rushing forward to erase the past:

Nez [one of the researchers] thinks that the reason the Aymara think they way they do might be connected with the importance they accord vision. Every language has a system of markers which forces the speaker to pay attention to some aspects of the information being conveyed and not others. French emphasises the gender of an object (sa voiture , son livre), English the gender of the subject (his car, her book). Aymara marks whether the speaker saw the action happen or not: “Yesterday my mother cooked potatoes (but I did not see her do it).”

If these markers are left out, the speaker is regarded as boastful or a liar. Thirty years ago, Miracle and Yapita pointed to the often incredulous responses of Aymara to some written texts: “‘Columbus discovered America’ – was the author actually there?” In a language so reliant on the eyewitness, it is not surprising that the speaker metaphorically faces what has already been seen: the past.

It is interesting to compare how the word ‘vision’ is used here – for most of western culture, ‘vision’ is seen as something moving forward, penetrating the murky depths of the future; a ‘visionary’ is someone who can trace accelerating paths from the random matter of the everyday. For the Aymara, vision is literal truth – the ultimate arbiter of experience and therefore the benchmark for claims about the past or future. As the past can be claimed to have been directly experienced, it has more weight, more gravity, perhaps. Marta Hardman, one of the anthropologists working on the study, thinks there are advantages to the way the Aymara think: “We pretend [the past] is not there, yet we’re lugging it with us as we go”.

Perhaps the attraction of Anderson’s Category C thinking is the feeling of freedom we get from pretending we’re not carrying this weight, and that we can just focus on the dizzying acceleration instead. But this is an illusion, and risks the ‘cognitive imperialism that Marvin illustrates. We should instead use Anderson’s ‘physics of hype’ equation as a tool, and encourage a rhetoric in which position is as important as acceleration. After all, to slightly paraphrase, objects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear…

2 comments

  1. James Boardwell

    It is exhausting, I agree. And I think much of this focus on acceleration is due to the value placed on being the fist to a story [scoop] in the blog world. Ultimately, the real value of a product or service is lost because people move on. Boing boing, wired and slashdot are based on acceleration. Position is harder, it requires thought and necessitates an opinion. But the benefits are potentially far greater because if you know ‘how’ and ‘why’ rather than just ‘what’ then you can affect change rather than follow it.

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