The ‘tech winter’ shows how naive we are

Jordan Guiao

The tech industry has had a rollercoaster year so far. Tens of thousands have been laid off from the largest tech companies, media darling startups have declared bankruptcy and celebrities have backpedaled their endorsements of novel technologies.

Many have dubbed this the ‘tech winter’, a period of prolonged, significant downturn in technology investments and business activities. But even as the tech winter persists, tech advocates now look to newer horizons for better weather – with AI seeming to be on the verge of widespread disruption and innovation.

Moore’s law suggests that technology increases exponentially. What he didn’t account for was all the hype and hype-mongering associated. Take one of the most overhyped tech visions of the last couple of years – the metaverse.

The metaverse, a vision for a fully immersive version of the web powered by virtual and mixed reality technologies has not survived the hype cycle. It has gone the way of other previously overhyped technologies, like Google Glass, NFTs, and anything Elon Musk has ever promised.

At the peak of the frenzy, largely driven by Mark Zuckerberg pivoting his entire company towards its realisation, the metaverse was allegedly “the next chapter of the internet”.

But now, some of the largest and most well-resourced companies that backed the idea have abandoned it. Disney has discontinued its metaverse division, laying off 7,000 employees. Microsoft shuttered its metaverse projects. Chinese multimedia behemoth Tencent cut its metaverse unit, which no longer “fit in” with its strategy.

Most importantly, Meta has now done an about face on the metaverse, amid huge losses, mass layoffs and wide criticism. Even though they are continuing to invest money in metaverse initiatives, it is no longer the hero product, as they remove it from advertiser pitches and company priorities.

Some of its supporters will claim that ‘mini-metaverses’ or alternative versions are happening with gaming companies continuing to build, and Apple’s punt into a VR headset coming later this year. But these fall well short of the grand visions Zuckerberg had for a singular, completely immersive virtual environment.

Many metaverse pundits now try to bundle their embarrassing bandwagoning into the trend of the day — generative AI like ChatGPT/GPT 4 — and speak about it in the same breath as if they’re similar things.

What the naive futurists, thoughtless hype-mongers, and the metaverse’s anti-climactic demise highlights is how susceptible we are to the technology hype cycle.

The technology hype cycle shows that each new piece of technology goes through stages, including heightened excitement and over-promising, a ‘peak of inflated expectations’, followed by a sharp decline ‘the through of disillusionment’, then eventually settles into a more realistic equilibrium.

Seasoned technologists understand this cycle well, and always keep a level head about the latest ‘new thing’ knowing that many will fail to generate traction.

Some may live up to the hype, and perhaps there may be a time when a convergence of technologies allows the metaverse to happen in the way Zuckerberg had hoped, closer to the science fiction version he was inspired by. No one can predict the future after all, but the point is that the short-to medium-term technology predictions, especially unqualified preaching from advocates, are almost always wrong.

For what it’s worth, it seems likely that AI will be world-changing, but the metaverse, cryptocurrencies and Web3 were always worthy of skepticism. The tech pipeline is so vast right now, no one can genuinely predict which technologies will take hold, and which will be discarded.

All we can do is keep our heads together and first try and determine whether any new tech could be significant, or won’t have any legs (just like Zuckerberg’s metaverse avatars).

Jordan Guiao is a Research Fellow at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, and author of new book, Disconnect, Why we get pushed to extremes online and how to stop it.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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