Always 5 Years In The Future

Browsing popular science/tech news sites often creates an impression that great new advancements and products are just around the corner, but somehow they seem to never actually arrive. Common examples include super-efficient solar cells and cures for cancer or AIDS. If one is to believe the news stories there is a new breakthrough nearly every week, but for some reason you still can’t buy any of those marvelous inventions at your local store. After a while this may create a feeling of disillusionment, leading to comments like “this story is just pure hype” and “we’ll never hear about this tech again.”

So are those allegedly revolutionary discoveries really “just hype”, or are people simply a bit too impatient?

Disproportionate Disappointment

Humans have a tendency to assign disproportionally high weight to absolute statements. That is, if someone says “I’m 95% sure this will work” and somebody else says “I’m completely sure this will work”, an average human will not treat the second statement as simply 5% more confident – instead, they will consider it as an entirely different, way more reliable type of statement. People like confident, clear-cut opinions.

What does this have to do with anything? For one, it shows us one of the reasons why journalists universally hype up every new invention as “breakthrough” and “revolutionary” – and why we’re so sorely disappointed if it turns out not to be. A supposedly revolutionary tech that doesn’t work out (often because it’s not economically feasible) is perceived as a failed revolution, when in reality it would have amounted only to a moderate improvement over existing tech if it was achieved. Similarily, if something does work people will still often feel it’s a failure because it doesn’t deliver on the unrealistic initial promises.

Even if an article includes actual numbers most people who aren’t intimately familiar with the subject matter would skip them and base their expectations on the author’s (emotional) statements, which would lead to heightened expectations.

Due to ubiquitous hype we perceive failures as more significant than they actually are and see successes as less impressive, and we quickly become jaded. But don’t rush to conclusions yet.

Impatient Estimates

The first patent for the transistor was filed in 1925. The first microprocessor was introduced in 1970. It is generally accepted that technological progress is becoming faster, but it still takes years – even decades – to test and implement new technology.

Naturally this sucks – the pop-sci stories get people excited (that’s their purpose after all), but in the end it turns out you have to wait till 2015 to see practical results. Therefore it’s easy to feel cheated even if the story doesn’t over-hype a discovery and provides a realistic estimate on when it will be available.

Speaking of estimates, I have one final point to make. When a journalist describes some cutting-edge technology and mentions it should be commercially available in, say, three years, that doesn’t mean in three years time you will be able to buy the new gadget from your local retailer. In fact, it most likely means that three years later wealthy corporations will be able to buy a few units for obscenely large sums of money. Assume it will take another 5-10 years for the technology to become affordable and commonplace.


As some of you might have guessed, the conclusion to this story is quite unsatisfying – the impression that those “breakthroughs” never seem to materialize is fueled both by hype and by lack of patience. In perspective, it is clear that “progress marches on” but the importance of discoveries is frequently exaggerated and stuff always takes longer than expected.

But you knew that already, didn’t you? The reason people take the stance that “it never works” is that they feel the need to have a definite, 100% opinion – even if it’s likely incorrect. Saying “sometimes it works and sometimes people lie or make mistakes” just feels like a cop-out.

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