Because No One Else Seems to be Keeping Tabs — A Glance Back at the Past Decade’s Techno-Hype

The vast majority of people, I find, are very “well-trained” consumers. By that I mean that they have been trained in the way marketing hucksters want them to be. They completely swallow the hype about how soon a thing will be here and how much difference it will make in their lives — and then after the product’s arriving later, or maybe not making so much difference, or maybe never even arriving at all and therefore making no difference whatsoever, thinking in terms of the hype rather than their own lived experience. They dutifully remember nothing and learn nothing, so that they are just as ready to believe the promises of the next huckster who comes along. And they pour scorn down on the head of anyone who questions what might most politely be called their credulousness — when they are not absorbed in the smart phone they believe is the telos of all human history — adding meanness to their extreme stupidity.

Still, as the words “vast majority” make clear, not everyone falls into this category. Some are a little more alert, a little more critical, than others. And sometimes those with the capacity to get a little more skeptical do so.

I think we are approaching such a period, because so many of the expectations raised in the 2010–2015 period are, at this moment, being deeply disappointed — and not simply because the ill-informed hacks of the press have oversold things far beyond their slight comprehension, but because in many a field those generally presumed to be in a position to know best (like CEOs of companies actually making the stuff in question) have publicly, often with great fanfare, announced specific dates for the unveiling of their promised grand creations, and those dates have come and again, sometimes again and again, as a world in need of the innovations in question goes on waiting.

Consider the Carbon NanoTube (CNT) computer chips that were supposed to keep computing power-per-dollar rising exponentially for a generation as the old silicon-based chips hit their limits.

Back in 2014 IBM announced it would have a commercial CNT chip by 2020 — winning what has with only a little melodrama been called a”race against time.”

Well, it’s 2020. That commercial chip, however, is not here. Instead we are hearing only of breakthroughs that may, if followed up by other breakthroughs, eventually lead to the production of those chips, perhaps sometime this coming decade.

Indeed, the latest report regarding the Gartner Hype Cycle holds that carbon-based transistors are sliding down from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” into the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the progress of artificial intelligence, on which so many were so bullish a short while ago, is also slowing down — in part, for lack of computer capacity. It seems, in fact, that even carbon nanotube chips wouldn’t get things on track if they were here. Instead the field’s spokespersons are talking quantum computers, which, to put it mildly, are a still more remote possibility.

Also unsurprisingly, particularly high-profile applications for that artificial intelligence are proving areas of disappointment as well.

To cite an obvious instance, in 2013 Jeff Bezos said that within five years (by 2018) drone deliveries would be “commonplace.”

In considering the absence of such deliveries years after those five years have run their course the press tends to focus on regulatory approval as the essential stumbling block, but, of course, the requisite technology is apparently still “under development.”

Perhaps more germane to most people’s lives, back in 2015 Elon Musk predicted that fully autonomous cars (Level 5) would hit the market in 2017.

That prediction has fared even more badly, with the result that the self-driving car (certainly to go by the number of articles whose writers smugly use smug phrases like “reality check” in their titles) is starting to look like the flying car. (Or the flying delivery drone?)

The Oculus Rift created quite a sensation back in 2013.

Alas, today the excitement that had surrounded it is even more completely recognized as past.

Clean meat was supposed to be on the market in 2019, if not before the end of 2018.

Now in 2020 the Guardian is talking about clean meat’s hitting the market happening “in a few years.” (For its part, IDTechEx says, think 2023.)

In area after area, what was supposed to have been here this year or the year before that or even before that is not only not here, but, we are told, still a few more years away — the Innovations talked up by the Silicon Valley Babbitts and their sycophants in the press receding further and further into the future.

Will it necessarily always be so? Of course not. Maybe the dream deferred will be a dream denied only temporarily, and briefly, with the semiconductor factories soon to be mass-producing CNT chips, which maybe along with quicker-than-expected progress in quantum computing will keep the AI spring of the twenty-first century from giving way to a long, cold AI winter, while perhaps even without them the delivery drones and the self-driving cars arrive ahead of schedule. Maybe, if still rough around the edges, next year will be VR’s year, while this time it really is true that clean meat will be in our supermarkets “in a few years.”

However, as one old enough to remember the extraordinary expectations of the ’90s in many of these precise areas — nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality — the disappointment is already very familiar, and worse for that familiarity, as well as how little in the way of tangible result we have been left with this time around. (The disappointments of the ’90s were colossal — but we did get that explosion of access to personal computing, cellular telephony, the Internet, and those things did improve quite rapidly afterward. What from among the products of this round of techno-hype can compare with any of that, let alone all of it?) And if anything, where the development is less familiar but perhaps potentially more significant, the disappointment is even more galling. (Clean meat could be a very big piece of the puzzle for coping with the demand of a growing population for food, and the environmental crisis, at the same time.) In fact I cannot help wondering if we will not still be waiting for the promised results in twenty years — only to be disappointed yet again, while the hucksters go on with their hucksterism, and a credulous public continues to worship them as gods.

Originally published at http://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.