Doc Searls is blogging this morning about the origin of a quote/theory/concept/law related to the idea that, when it comes to the impact of new technology, “in the short term we overestimate, in the long term we underestimate.” Doc Searls credited Paul Saffo for the line but he then found an earlier explanation from David Isenberg to clarify Paul’s role and relationship to the originator of the concept, Roy Armara.
Several years ago, Paul Saffo ran across a 2002 post on my blog (that, unsurprisingly, links to an earlier post by Doc) in which I had, basically, posted a shout-out to him asking about the origin of the concept he calls “macro myopia.” My original post was related to my desire to point out that something called “The Gartner Hype Cycle” was an unattributed ripoff of ideas from Saffo (and, as he says in his response, Roy Armara and Ev Rogers — and you’ll note, he’s more generous in saying that Gartner may have come up with the idea independently — right.). It took a couple of years and a wayward Google search on his part to run across that original post, but he did, and I posted his response in March, 2004. It may address some of the conversation taking place on Doc’s post.
Here is what Paul Saffo emailed me in 2004:
“The idea that we overestimate short-term effects and under-estimate long-term implications of emergent technological change comes from an observation of the last 100-odd years of technology diffusion. As best as I know, 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 my essays on the topic.
I’ll credit Paul for one thing: He talks in a way lay-people can comprehend. It was from hanging out with Paul Saffo for a couple of weeks about 15 years ago at the Stanford Publishing Course where I first learned about technologies and concepts that have, indeed, become the future. He’s perhaps the only person I’ve ever heard called a “futurist” where, over the course of 15 years, I’ve personally observed their predictions come true.