Saffo responds (just when was about to give up)

Saffo responds (just when I was about to give up): I feel like Marshall McLuhan has e-mailed me an explanation of where that whole “medium’s the message” thing came from. (No, wait. McLuhan has been dead for 25 years, so I guess receiving an e-mail from him would be significant for other reasons.)

First, a little background. If you are among the five regular readers of this weblog, you will recognize the name of noted futurist (and really great guy) Paul Saffo as I have referred to him often. Just last week, I referred to his term, “macro-myopia”, in pointing to a Wall Street Journal article about “advertisers being lured back to the web.”

Yesterday, Paul sent me an e-mail explaining the origins of his work related to the macro-myopia concept. (Ironically, it was not my post last week to which Paul was responding, but to a post I made over two years ago in which I complained that I couldn’t find the origin of the term and whinned that he wouldn’t answer an e-mail request.)

So, without further delay, here is what Paul says about the part he played in the efforts to understand patterns of acceptance of ultimately successful technology. (Note: I added the links to a few words in Paul’s e-mail.)

Hi Rex,

I stumbled across your Feb 8 2002 blog ref (Roy Amara, IFTF’s first president, was the first person to explicitly note this phenomenon, and thus at IFTF, we often refer to it as Amara’s law. I started talking about it publically in 1985, and Roy had been talking about it for at least 10 years before that.

But like all good ideas, this has multiple roots and multiple contributors. For example, Ev Rogers authored a seminal book on technology diffusion title “Diffusion of Innovations” — first published in 1962, with multiple subsequent editions. Ev’s work is what brought s-curves to the attention of audiences beyond the history of technology community. In the mid-80s, “hockey-stick curves” became a focus of attention in Silicon Valley, often derided because of the frequency of its appearance in start-up business plans. Ultimately, the hockey-stick portion of the curve was memorialized by Andy Grove and his references to the “inflection point” — the point at which the curve takes off.

My small contribution (I think) to all this was to focus on the neglected part of the S-curve — the flat part of the curve before the inflection point. In the mid-80s, I began arguing that understanding the flat part was crucial to making sense of the innovation process, and that it revealed that even in Silicon Valley, diffusion was remarkably slow. I also argued in the same period that the then much derided “hype” was in fact a crucial part of the diffusion cycle, an element of communities persuading themselves to cause change to occur. In this regard, I did react with some surprise years later when Gartner began pitching their “hype-cycle,” but simply assumed that they had independently come to the same conclusion as I had years earlier and hadn’t noticed by essays on the topic.

While it may have taken two years, it was well worth the wait. Paul, as always, my admiration of you continues to follow a hockey stick curve.