Pokémon GO and optimism as a business model

I played Pokémon GO this weekend, because I was babysitting my nephew, and I couldn’t help but be reminded what a cultural force it was when it launched three years ago. Hundreds massed near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach every day to hunt. Huge crowds sprinted through Central Park to catch a Vaporeon. Disapproving finger-pointers penned whiny moral panics and sermons about how it encouraged crime and provoked danger.

One thing that was not controversial, though, was the belief that it was a harbinger, the thin edge of the AR wedge, only the first of many crossover games and universes. If you had told anyone then that, three whole years later, Pokémon GO would remain the only real example of a widely publicly successful AR/VR app, you would have been laughed out of most rooms.

And yet, here we are. Pokémon GO is still a hit (and remains fun!) but was not the vanguard of an AR/VR onslaught. Magic Leap — which by 2016 had already raised $1.4 billion! — remains at best a disappointment. Which is almost too kind a word for Oculus. AR as an industry has, to oversimplify, largely pivoted to business / work / industrial uses, in the hopes an actual market appears there. What happened?

Note that this isn’t unique to augmented / mixed / virtual reality. 2016 was also the year that Meerkat, 2015’s hottest app, died, because live-streaming video, while it has its valid niche, was not the future of communications. It was also, at the same time, the year that chatbots were going to take over the world. You may have noticed that in fact they did not.

Looking back, is it really that surprising that Pokémon GO was a one-off, rather than the first ripple of a massive wave of change? Or that AR/VR have faltered and failed to meet expectations? Or that Meerkat and chatbots did not define how we would communicate in the future?

Of course it’s not. The history of innovation is a history of throwing new things at the wall and seeing if they stick — or, more accurately, throwing them into a crowd and seeing how the crowd reacts. Most bets on the big, household-name tech startups of the last two decades weren’t bets on their technologies but on how people would react to them. This especially applies to this year’s crop of IPOs — Uber, Lyft, Slack, Pinterest — but also to Twitter and Facebook, and even, to a lesser extent, Apple and Amazon. (Though, interestingly, not so much to Google, beyond the insight “people will use the internet to search for stuff.”)

Of course, sometimes the crowd ignores the offering flung into its midst. Or they choose one from an apparently similar array and turn its collective back on the rest. Are we really so surprised by this aspect of human nature?

We shouldn’t be. But to an extent we are — because, at least until 2016, the Valley’s techno-optimism had pervaded the rest of the world as well, journalists and politicians and the like. It was based on two pillars:

  1. the genuine belief that technology was transforming everything around the world, including politics, culture and finance, and these changes were almost invariably net positive
  2. the surprisingly hard-headed financial analysis of venture capitalism, whose business model consists of being maximally optimistic about 100 different things while knowing that only 10 will actually succeed and 1 will succeed wildly, because in tech that one wild success more than pays for the 90 abject failures.

I don’t need to tell you that 1) is, at best, way more complicated that it seemed, and at worst horrifyingly wrong, while the worst aspects of politics / culture / finance as we knew them turned out to be ferociously intransigent and as able to infect the tech industry right back; meanwhile, the world has wised up to 2), now correctly recognizing VC optimism as a business model rather than a prophecy.

That doesn’t mean technology has lost its potential to be transformative in a positive way. But it means we’ve all grown more skeptical, more judicious, less reflexively optimistic. This is no bad thing. It means, for instance, if and when the next AR/VR hit finally arrives, we should all be better able to distinguish between silly moral panics and truly worrying consequences. At least let’s hope so. Because while the former are very real, so are the latter.