Technological branding through words and imagery can fuel the creative fires of inventors, enthusiasts, and engineers. Yet, when glimmers of new ideas and emerging technologies are made public (or viral) too early, negative perception can stall and even prevent further discovery. Is it possible to strike a balance?
My interest in branding takes a circuitous path. A brand, of course, is only as good as its product. But what about when branding predates the product? Sometimes a brand goes beyond a signifier — beyond a unifying logo, slogan, or mascot — becoming an aspirational tool. Technological branding through words and imagery can fuel the creative fires of inventors, architects, engineers, sci-fi writers, and the general public.
Technological branding through words and imagery can fuel the creative fires of inventors, architects, engineers, sci-fi writers, and the general public.
A name, an idea alone, can inspire the theoretical and engineering work that lead to invention, whether in reality or only, for now, in our minds. Think of the concept of the time machine, or the first rudimentary steps toward understanding genetics or quantum phenomena. Or the promise that we would walk on the moon. An utterance, an instinctive grasping at discovery, at worlds beyond our own, often leads us to discovery. Sometimes, the “brand” is what makes the product possible.
Yet, when emerging conceptions of the world or of new technologies are given in fetal form to the public, violent or close-minded reactions have stalled and even prevented further discovery for decades upon decades. Think of Copernicus, or Galileo.
Even today, there are examples that make one want to pull one’s hair out. People with the power to fund and implement ideas carry around unnecessary false associations like weights around the neck of progress. There are times when the naming of something seems to cripple it, or at least put it into a coma. These years of technological purgatory are often referred to as “winters.”
Winter evokes the frosty tensions of the cold war. But in this case, the battles are fought for technological, not political supremacy. The most famous of winters lasted from when John McCarthy first coined Artificial Intelligence in 1956, until at least 1996 — with IBM Deep Blue beating Gary Karsporov in chess. Some would argue that the AI winter continued until SIRI was first released — when some form of AI was ubiquitous in all of our lives.
In the 1980s, another technological winter began. Eric Drexler coined Nanotechnology in 1986. But the term has only recently reentered discourse through a positive lens. Nanotech — referring to molecular self-assemblers that could lead the way to emission-free factories and solving cancer, that could fight disease and enhance our brains — was more than a term, more than a brand. It was a blueprint that gave us the keys to solving the problems of society.
Nanotech — referring to molecular self-assemblers that could lead the way to emission-free factories and solving cancer, that could fight disease and enhance our brains — was more than a term, more than a brand. It was a blueprint that gave us the keys to solving the problems of society.
It gave us hope that unlimited configurations of molecules could overturn any hurdle in our paths. Now, due to politics, funding restrictions, and most importantly, unrealistic time expectations, nanotechnology has become synonymous with anything small, which is far from the brand it had so successfully established during those first years. Drexler speaks of his experience:
“I’ve encountered a lot of people who sound like critics but very few who have substantive criticisms. There is a lot of skepticism, but it seems to be more a matter of inertia than it is of people having some real reason for thinking something else.” Is inertia both the inertia of current technologies and institutions, or is it also inertia of branding disconnects? Was it just so much easier to identify with potential progress in biology and chemistry, that this new word “nanotechnology” was discarded quickly in favor of continued exploration in these specialized fields, rather than the multidisciplinary approach necessary to create something that was encapsulated by a word that seemed more science fiction than engineering and science itself.”
The same could be said for Virtual Reality, which Jaron Lanier coined around the same time. Video games were starting to occupy more of our time, and Star Trek Holodecks gave us visions of a future that opened portals outside of everyday life. Our imaginations would be the creators and explorers of near and distant futures. Lanier beautifully laid out this vision:
“If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.”
What if VR could also do this?
Lanier created the most powerful version of Virtual Reality for the time, but like Nanotechnology, it was a little too soon, and holodecks a little too far off. The phenomenon of tech Winters is one that scientists and inventors have become rightly cautious of. It is a difficult balance to strike — not missing the moment, but not bringing one’s baby out into the world too soon.
Cognitive Scientist Gary Marcus speaks about how the AI winter still continues due to the limited nature of what AI can accomplish. Yet, Marcus sold one AI company to Uber and started a second one. Many in the field think of AI as machine learning. The question is whether that term changes anything in the development of algorithms, or in the perception of AI.
Virtual Realty still requires headsets. Jaron Lanier continues to work in the field, at Microsoft making the next generation of Hololens that unites virtual reality with augmented reality. As for true Nanotechnology, there had been almost no sun rising in the field until very recently when at least four companies received millions of dollars in funding. Drexler himself is getting patents again for Nanotechnology ideas. But in part due to some justifiable memories of the nanotech winter, he is rebranding in a much more precise, less sci-fi way — describing his work as Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM).
From AI to Machine Learning, Virtual Reality to Augmented Reality, Nanotechnology to APM, we see a kind of anti-branding. What will happen with Quantum Computing, the latest of the big brands of transformative technologies? Will it drift into winter and come out the other end, rechristened Parallel Processing Computing?
Considering these larger ideas, we can go very far back. Chemistry has existed, at least in experimental form, since the dawn of humanity, but was not coined until 1661 by Robert Boyle. The same can be said for Physics, first coined by Aristotle — which morphed into a generalized epithet for the entire field of natural philosophy until our understanding swung back to Aristotle’s original sentiment in the late 19th century. Nanotech, for instance, might meet the same fate. Will it traverse a path from Nanotechnology to APM and back to Nanotech?
I do not have the answers to these questions. Should the brand or the successful product come first? How much of a glimmer of success should exist before we release an idea, or a brand into the world? Edison’s approach is one blueprint. The Phonograph had no initial hype, but landed almost instantaneously, fully realized, with its name. Others quickly rebranded the invention as a Gramophone (this is where the Grammy awards come from). The corporate brand, the Victrola, disappeared a decade after the company did. There are too many examples to cover, but we all have a corporate brand in mind, most of the time. The Fridge, the Kleenex, Scotch tape, the Jacuzzi, and my favorite discarded one, the Davenport (for sofa, if you don’t remember that one).
Does a brand summon a storm of controversy, a swarm of science fiction, or a desert with no oasis? Does naming bring on a technological winter, or is it coincidence? The real question is not about corporate branding success, but about the psychological, political, and imaginative effects of a name — and its power to incentivize, inspire, or disappoint.
To discuss more, please comment and review my SXSW2020 proposal, where I hope to discuss these questions with Dr. Eric Drexler, Sr Research Fellow, Oxford University, and Founding Father of Nanotechnology.