Lately I’m thinking about the re-emergence of ideas over time. I’d like to get a better handle on that process, hopefully with a model, and so try to better anticipate when such a thing may occur.
Let me explain.
Most of the time we think of new ideas starting from nothing, then growing through widespread adoption into occupying a significant position in civilization. For example, powered human airflight: after years of work the Wright Brothers invent a working airplane by themselves, and air travel takes off (ahem) within a generation.
There’s a nice visualization of this pattern in an early chapter of HG Well’s Food of the Gods (1904), where two scientists model biological growth. In a chart they represent the horizontal access as time, and the vertical for size:
Some of my readers will be familiar with a variation on this, Gartner Research’s famous hype cycle. That starts off with a rapid growth pattern, changes to a dramatic drop-off, followed potentially by a less impressive, less hyped second growth phase. I really enjoy this model for its cynicism and actual utility (except for Apple products, which never fall from the peak):
Yet what I have in mind today is a different pattern, one of initial growth, dieback, then a period of larger growth. In this model some innovations spark then misfire, go dark, then come roaring back years later.
Virtual reality was what triggered this thought for me. Some of you will remember the excitement around VR in the 1990s. There was a huge amount of hype, from carnival-style rides to movies to DIY projects. In 1997 two of students at the University of Michigan built a VR level for a class project in my Gothic cyberspace seminar. Then VR collapsed into a big bust in the late 1990s. (I think this is one reason for Jaron Lanier’s peculiar career as techlasher and bad writer.) Now VR has come back in a second growth phase, bigger than ever before.
Once I saw this pattern, other examples came to mind. Computer gaming rose rapidly in the 1970s, then suffered a famous crash in the mid-1980s, at least in North America. Now gaming is one of humanity’s leading culture industries. AI has gone through multiple hype spikes followed by “winters,” and now is starting to really shake the world
Apart from technology, there are social and cultural examples. Think of gay rights in America. After Stonewall the 70s saw a gay and lesbian people start claiming space in popular culture and more openly in everyday life, only to get beaten down in the early 80s, with the double attack of AIDS and a right-wing president. Yet gay rights has made steady progress since, from decriminalization of gay sex to the gradual legalization of same-sex marriages.
What powers this particular dynamic? The history of innovation and cultural change offers a rich trove of examples and many different forces. An idea can be ahead of its time, and only blossoms once social conditions change. An invention can overpromise and underdeliver, either for internal of external reasons. Popular taste might shift. Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm (originally 1991) offers many cases of an initial idea failing to go mainstream, primarily by not winning over mainstream populations.
A first wave of growth, followed by a crash, then triumph: what are the best frameworks for thinking about this kind of trajectory?
Economics uses boom-bust-boom as a description of the normal business cycle. Here’s one typical visualization:
Here’s a Wikipedia image for rolling recession:
More abstractly, the shape that keeps coming up in my visually challenged brain is of a U-shaped curve.
If this pattern is a real one, I’d like to figure out how to use it in the futures way. How can we determine if a rising idea or innovation is the first in a two-boom cycle? Better yet, which busted ideas are getting set to come roaring back? Which failures can we understand as awaiting a rebirths down the road?
One way is to follow the money. In her important Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (2002) Cartlota Perez shows how investment capital drives new tech. It’s not sexy, but tracking where the money is being sunk should give us a good hint.
Another it to look for changing conditions that an innovation depends on. For example, if the early 1980s’ spike in Cold War tensions helped quash gay rights, then Gorbachev’s rise and the USSR’s dissolution took that condition away, helping the second phase of gay liberation occur. On the technological front, VR demands a lot from tech (graphic rendering, memory, bandwidth); the digital ecosystem is now a more congenial space than it was in the 1990s.
Are there other examples of such U-shaped development trajectories?
And which boom-and-busts can you think of that are awaiting their glorious next boom? A few possibilities:
- Peer to peer computing (big boom in early 2000s; crushed by copyright and security)
- Green politics (huge strides in the 60s and 70s; quashed and marginalized effectively by the GOP in the 80s; rising now among the youth)
- Virtual worlds (think of the meteoric Second Life rise and fall)
- EDITED TO ADD: Psychedelics had a rapid boom and bust in the 1960s and 70s. They might be enjoying an uptick now, partly due to the gradual decriminalization of cannabis, partly due to some new activities, like Michael Pollan’s public interest.
What others are out there?
PS: my son offers another take on this U-shaped innovation, one aimed more at an innovator’s morale and general inspiration:
Don't know the name, but we have to avoid giving up, and not be satisfied with what little we get. Reconstruction was another example of the problem.
— Owain Alexander (@captainreddy123) September 2, 2019