Are we suffering from "Premature Enlightenment"?

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Jan 12, 2017

How well can we assess the maturity of an innovation? And, in the case of digital systems, is it possible that we are suffering from a severe case of premature enlightenment?

There are reports of increasingly concerning incidents in which digital systems are being compromised by hackers (or, more accurately, crackers, but definitions seem to have shifted). In some cases, hackers are using relatively available means to access or corrupt information in those systems. What are we to think about the suitability of these systems for their purpose?

You are probably familiar with the Gartner hype cyle, the model for the life cycle (but not the death!) of an innovation described by Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskino in their book Mastering the Hype Cycle.  This model has been used (or, arguably [a topic for another chat?!], misused) regularly over many years as the basis for Gartner's regular reports representing the maturity of a multitude of emerging technologies. 

On the idealised curve of the Gartner hype cycle, there are two upslopes. The first upslope leads from the "Technology Trigger" up to the "Peak of Inflated Expectations" which precedes the descent into the "Trough of Disillusionment", and the second upslope is the "Slope of Enlightenment" leading out of that trough and up on to the "Plateau of Productivity".

If this model has any applicability (and does seem to fit well with how we experience many innovations), how are we to distinguish between these two upslopes?

What if the rising "hype", surrounding the interest in and adoption of an innovation, is assumed to be the second slope when, in reality, it is the first? What if the expectations of further enlightenment and increasing productivity might actually be inflated and, in reality, the trough of disillusionment lies ahead? If so, we are getting ahead of ourselves and this seems to be a case of "premature enlightenment"!

The adoption of digital systems is so widespread and the advantages that they offer are so valuable that there are major incentives for, and potential biases towards, believing that digital systems are extremely effective for a wide range of purposes. But what if they are not?

There is also ample evidence that substantial numbers of digital systems have created means of access to confidential information which the developers of these systems have been incapable of securing against even relatively simple means of unauthorised access. What if, for some purposes and for the immediate future at least, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages?

In cases where the release of the information is relatively unimportant, this may not be a problem. But when medical and financial information is being accessed the situation is more serious. And where electoral processes have been implemented using digital systems and suggestions that they might have been accessed and potentially tampered with cannot be readily proven or disproven, this is a substantial cause for concern.

One of the countries with the longest experience of digital electoral systems is Estonia and a report on the security of that system suggested that it should be shut down immediately!


Let's discuss how we assess the maturity of innovations, especially digital systems, during #innochat on Twitter on Thursday January 12th, 2017, for an hour starting at 12 noon Eastern time, based on these questions:

  1. How are we to assess the maturity of an innovation (e.g. according to the Gartner hype cycle)?
  2. Are digital systems a special case for which assessment of maturity is more difficult?
  3. When systems are compromised, what is the balance of responsibilities between the parties involved?
  4. What options are available if maturity has been overestimated (we misjudged which upslope we're on)?
  5. How can we improve our assessment of the maturity of innovations in future?


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