The main point is that it’s worth trying to predict technology triggers and asking what those triggers mean.

There is value in answering the question so what?

A secondary argument is that questions beginning with what if? can be very interesting, but far less reliable than so what?

What is a Technology Trigger?

The term Technology Trigger is from Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

They defined it as:

A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.

Gartner Research

The term has been deprecated in favour of the term innovation trigger. However, as an owner of the hardcover book Managing The Hype Cycle (2008), I still call it a technology trigger. Maybe it’s the little hipster in me. Thank you Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskino!

There’s a lot of fun in the Gartner definition. A technology trigger is a potential technology breakthrough. It’s a proof-of-concept. It triggers significant publicity. It isn’t usable. Commercial viability is unproven.

I’m curious about your reaction to those five words:

  • Potential;
  • Proof-of-concept;
  • Publicity;
  • Usable;
  • Viability.

Your reaction might have a lot to do with where you sit: pre-trigger or post-trigger.

What Causes Technology Triggers?

If you think of technology triggers as an impenetrable black box, as something that can’t be known, then the question of what causes technology triggers is nonsensical. Everything that is useful happens post-trigger. And you find out about it because of hype.

If you think of technology triggers as artificial anomalies, as something that can be explained and a system of activities that actively learns to resist explanation, then the question of what causes technology triggers is interesting.

People cause technology triggers. People create the potential. People create the proof of concept. People create the initial publicity. Large groups of people amplify that publicity. People decide if it’s likely to be usable. People assess viability. The answer is people.

Cause is an interesting word isn’t? Cause can be about credit, attribution, and recognition. Does the person that created the potential get 100% of the credit, attribution, and recognition? Does the person that created an initial demonstration get 100%? Does the connector that made the link between the potential and a market, and told the initial story get 100%? Does the touter that got the first few dreamers to invest in the viability get 100% of the credit?

Given 100 percentage points, how many points get assigned to which factor? Does a plurality of the points go to the people that create the potential? To the creators of the proof of concept? And so on. Are there other factors beyond the five enumerated above that are more important?

Predicting Technology Triggers

A technology trigger means that a creator has generated just enough reason to believe. They’ve created enough material to be crafted into a story or an amplified message. The role that professional storytellers play is very important in generating public opinion on the potential. They amplify the reason to believe. That reason to believe is what triggers the building of hype.

Sometimes, the creators of the physical technology potential are also excellent creators of the social technology potential. I think of this as the exception rather than rule. I think it’s more successful as a team.

How is reason to believe created?

I think it starts with questions starting in what if? Some questions are interesting to different people, at different times, for different reasons. For instance the question: What if I could kill somebody at a distance before they have a chance to kill me? is an extremely interesting, persistent, question across time. What if I could communicate with anybody instantly using text? is another one that has been pretty consistently interesting.

There’s a set of enumerable what if questions that are not interesting right now. What if the replicator from Star Trek TNG was real? It’s a neat question, but it isn’t interesting right now because precursor technologies haven’t been discovered yet. What if we could turn ocean water into clean electricity? Just as the question What if heavier than air controlled flight was possible? was neat in 5000 BCE.

The set of questions aren’t interesting because they don’t answer so what? in a satisfying, believable, way.

There are different kinds of creators. Some creators work on big what if? questions with very little prospect of a compelling so what? in their lifetimes. They are exploring technological frontiers for the sake of exploring technological frontiers.

Some creators work closer to the trigger point than others. I’ve met a few of these very interesting, very creative, people. They’re interesting.

The key in predicting whether or not a given technology is close to the trigger point is all about finding out who and why is asking so what? and evaluating the probability that others will believe. Often, the calculation of whether or not others will believe is predicated on whether or not you believe. Sometimes, people are able to estimate the probability entirely separately. I’ll leave that idea with you.

Concluding Thoughts

Depending on where you sit, everything before or after the technology trigger may be irrelevant or relevant. After the technology trigger, one has to endure or enjoy the hype, the trough, and gradual climb to mass market acceptance and steady productivity gains. Before the technology trigger, one has to endure or enjoy the steady grind of science.

It’s worth trying to predict these triggers because the exercise can help you understand what those questions mean. Getting ahead of so what? can offer a useful frame of understanding, and may also help to clarify which aspects of technological progress are most impactful for your life.

It may also help you parse the hype from practical promise, resulting, perhaps, in better judgement.