The Tech Boom Doom cycle

From hype to fear, digital innovation is trapped in a Boom Doom Cycle. It’s time to escape by taking a nuanced approach to risk and reward.

Forget the Boom/Bust cycle; in the tech world we’re trapped in a Boom Doom cycle, and it’s about time we escaped it. But it’s horribly seductive, and we need to understand what’s going on to make our bid for freedom.

Do you remember the heady days of the 2010s? The digital boom was in full swing. Digital tech conferences were springing up all across the world, NEXT among them, as the birth of the app economy supercharged digital transformation. The world was changing, digital was improving it, our phones could transform the world.

Well, now.

A decade on, the world is a very different place, and so are our attitudes to tech. Boom has become doom, and tech companies are increasingly considered the bad guys. The EU is skirmishing with Apple, trying to break its gatekeeping role in the digital economy. In the US, the idea of putting health warnings on social media is being batted around. And AI… well, AI is everywhere, and in every company announcement, and it feels like the future.


People haven’t got quite the same excitement about a new technology that they did a decade ago, do they? AI will take our jobs. AI will accelerate climate change. And worse: AI will kill us all. AI Doomerism is a distinct movement, warning that this might be a path best not followed.

Broken by the Boom Doom cycle

Why the change? Well, one could attribute it to Gartner Hype Cycle exhaustion. That famous peak of inflated expectations keeps coming back to us again and again, but not all technologies make it to the blissful plateau of productivity. The last few years have been particularly bad, as we’ve seen crypto, blockchain, and the metaverse pass quickly up to that peak, before getting lost somewhere on the jill down, or trapped in the slough of despond.

A Google Trends graph of searches for “Metaverse” is instructive here:

A Google Trends graph for “Metaverse” showing a burst of interest from 2021 that dies off rapidly from 2022 onwards.

But AI, well, that’s still on the rise.

But we’re more sceptical than we once were. While the tech companies hype the latest innovation, we no longer bathe in the breathless hype, but look at the downsides, as well as the advantages. And the downsides can be considerable.

We’ve seen and felt the damage that social media can do to communities and politics. We’ve experienced the disconnection and addictive behaviours that phones can bring. The breathless hype of the tech boom days has been replaced by a weary scepticism of the latest Big New Thing from the tech companies.

Getting positive about tech (again)

However, do we need a more nuanced position? Certainly, NEXT24 speaker Payal Arora thinks so, as she argues in her forthcoming book From Pessimism to Promise. As she told the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy conference in Cambridge :

“Pessimism is the privilege of those who can afford to live in despair.”

It is significant that the subtitle of her book is Lessons from the Global South on Designing Inclusive Tech. We, in Europe and the US, can afford a degree of scepticism because, cost of living crisis aside, our lives are generally pretty good. Far from perfect, of course, but still good enough that we can afford to question the value of disruptive technology.

Much of the rest of the world is not so lucky. As Payal explained to Dr Marina Frid of deeplab:

Optimism is the only choice for the rest of the world who have a deep and desperate longing to get an alternative future here and now, not for their children, not for their grandchildren, but for themselves. And we see that reflected in the way in which young people see digital tools. Anyone who goes to the Global South shows that they are excited about digital technologies. And it is not because they are naive about the risks and harms. Many of them understand them. But it is always in relation to what their current socio-economic situations, their materialities, positionalities, options, or choices are. They see the risks we are taking as a trade-off but also as a way for demanding better systems.

The less you have to lose, the less urgent the risks inherent in a new technology are. But, that doesn’t mean people in the Global South are ignoring the risks. This is all about relativity: the balance between good and bad, between opportunity and risk. And Arora argues that the rest of the world can learn from this.

Escaping the Boom Doom Cycle

Arora goes on to draw from anthropology to explore how and why people make decisions about their technology:

And anthropology unpacks them by understanding that, well, people make their decisions on an everyday basis because of certain kinds of reasons, which are tied very much to a sort of everyday rationalism, rational optimism, which gets manifested in actions like, well, I will allow my child to play in a game. I am going to put my profile photo, even though I am going to get misogynistic comments, but I really want to share these things because I know there will be groups that will value them. We are constantly making these sorts of decisions and assessments of risks and opportunities.

And that, of course, is how you break the Boom/Doom cycle we’re trapped in right now. Tech is not going to save the world, unless we help it do it. Tech is not going to destroy the world, unless we let it. Technology is, fundamentally, a set of tools which we can use to better our lives while minimising the risks.

And that’s a dialogue, not a decision. There’s no doubt, for example, that the car has been a boon for the majority of people. It provided us with access to unprecedented personal mobility. And yet, it has brought with it environmental and social damage, that we’re now trying to mitigate through the switch to EVs and new urban planning principles.

These sorts of complex conversations are undermined by simple narratives of gain and harm, however seductive those simplifications are. Boom and Doom are not the only two options. It’s time to chart a technologically mindful middle path.

Picture by Christopher Burns | Unsplash.