“Expectations are dangerous when they are both high and unformed.”
This is a line from Eva in the novel “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, referring to her expectations of motherhood. In a series of letters to her estranged husband, Eva deliberates on the lead up to her son’s Columbine-style shooting of his classmates and teachers. I received this strangely compelling novel as a present from a literary-minded friend who periodically expands my reading palate beyond my usual diet of airport thrillers, business books and the occasional seasoning of sci-fi. The scarily honest insights leap from every page of this novel, but this one about dangerous expectations made a connection for me to the world of business and technology.
In Mastering the Hype Cycle we talk about the myriad reasons that expectations grow so high so quickly, including the role of imagination:
We’re free to imagine the possibilities because, in large part, there is little else at this point in the life of the innovation to base our judgment and expectations on. The innovation is all possibility unencumbered by real experience.
The unformedness of our expectations at the Peak is a key element in our later disillusionment. We have sense that a trend or an innovation is a “big thing”, but most attempts at quantifying what that big thing will actually deliver sound hopelessly mundane. So the promise remains unformed – “something large and amorphous, a vast big thing so marvelous that I could not even imagine it,” as Eva puts it. When the promised event or innovation does arrive, unformed expectations become “finite and fixed” reality. And reality is all too often mundane.
I remember calling my mother after a Gartner conference during my early days at the company, still on a high from a week of client discussions about the wonderful possibilities for all those emerging technologies. During the call my mother was commenting about the shocking price of brussel sprouts in Romford market, when I was hit with the realization that for most of the world, even the developed world, technology really doesn’t matter that much. If it can’t keep the price of brussel sprouts down, it’s not that relevant. My world of technology felt suddenly very distant from that of my mother.
I was reminded of that conversation as I was finishing up the slides for the Emerging Technologies Radar presentation for the Gartner Mobile and Wireless Summit in Chicago next week. One of the next big things Gartner has been talking about for several years is what we have characterized as the Real World Web – that is, the linking of physical objects and places into the previously virtual and cerebral world of information technology. Various forms of this concept have been discussed for over 20 years, since Mark Weiser introduced the notion of Ubiquitous Computing at Xerox PARC.
The latest version of the Real World Web slide has photos of Smart Spud and Crackless Egg technologies from Sensor Wireless. These are collections of sensors and transmitters shaped in the same size and form as their live-produce counterparts. They travel through the supply chain registering the stresses and strains, bumps and bruises of each part of the process, to help identify problem areas and decrease the amount of damaged items in the future. It is a very real example of what embedded sensors can to today to drive cost savings to businesses and consumers. It’s also incredibly mundane, and probably not something articulated in the early, grand, unformed visions of Ubiquitous Computing, the Real World Web and similar concepts. But the mundane is enduring, pervasive and profitable.
Turns out that technology is about the price of brussel sprouts, after all.