In Tech We Trust

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Should Tesla Motors be wary of the hype cycle? The company’s recent admission to the SEC that it has not yet finalized the design for its Model 3 electric car, that it doesn’t know that it can produce the car on the originally projected timeline, and that it still needs to do extensive testing on the design quality hasn’t dampened the excitement surrounding the vehicle and its (as of now) late 2017 release, which is predicted to be the biggest consumer product launch ever. These revelations, even paired with the patterns of production delays and recalls established by Tesla’s earlier luxury vehicles, have seemingly had zero effect on the hundreds of thousands of people putting down $1000 deposits for the car.

The report does, however, have some commentators asking: Is Tesla Model 3 overhyped? By which they mean: will the overwhelmingly high cultural expectations for the electric car outpace the actual product that Tesla is producing?

This question is a reflection of culture’s relationship to new products and the tech world in general. We are in an age of fairly uncontested faith in the transformative power of technological advancement, when secular belief in the potential of progress means that we idolize Silicon Valley’s saviors (like Tesla’s Elon Musk). The segments of culture that create, support, consume, and comment on tech world output have a great emotional investment in the promises of this advancement, and hype as a mode of cultural commentary is the most optimistic form of this investment, a rhetorical space for communal expressions of our faith.

Within this world, the concern with whether a product will match or actually earn this faith—the question of whether or not something is overhyped—is reflective of a fundamental wrinkle in culture’s relationship to new technology. Beyond the cultural compulsion toward total faith in the potential of technological products, most consumers don’t have a nuanced understanding of how these products actually work. Because of these deficiencies, a conversation about expectations is preferable to and easier than a conversation about utility or technical details.

The hype surrounding Oculus Rift and VR in general is representative of this lack of interest in engaging with a new product beyond its immediate reputation: the mere existence of VR technology has media companies like The New York Times mailing cardboard headsets to subscribers and making expensively produced video to watch on them, boiling up excitement for a technology that, as some have admitted, so far has no clear use value other than for gamers. We have no idea why we care about VR, other than the fact that it’s a new and shiny object.

It’s for this same reason that we tend to broadly overlook the social effects of new technological products and the culture that produces them, as evidenced in the fairly belated response to Silicon Valley’s rapid overhaul of San Francisco’s demographic face—it’s easier to simply point out the promising glimmer of the new than to interrogate it. The worry over whether or not a product will meet expectations, and the self-satisfaction that comes from the ability to pronounce a product over- or under-hyped, function to displace the cultural conversation about a product and its real effects, and to favor a separate conversation that focuses only on a product’s reputation.

The true stakes of hype are absolutely nothing, at least as far as brands are concerned—it doesn’t really matter if hype manages consumer expectations, because brands benefit simply from the existence of these expectations. Until the tech bubble bursts or culture becomes cynical about tech prophecies, brands like Tesla and Oculus can continue to effectively play to the cultural faith in technology and its gods.

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