As I write this, I'm reminded that 10 years have passed since the NASDAQ index was at an all-time high and we were at the pinnacle of the dot-com bubble. In recollecting those heady days, it seems to me there was a spirit that still haunts us today. It is coolness, and in honor of the anniversary, it is worth a little analysis.
Innovation is a constant feature of information technology, yet the way innovation is presented varies widely. Sometimes innovation is marketed from an engineering perspective, as is often the case in hardware that appeals to macho interests in speed and power. Other forms of innovation are cerebral or intellectual, such as new methodologies. But a good number of innovations are simply presented as being "cool." Just what are the essential characteristics of coolness?
This topic ought be of interest to data managers, because whatever data management is, it is not cool. This judgment may be hurtful to some data managers, but why should it be? Personally, I have grown a little tired of being expected to present a happy data management face to every innovation just because it is cool.
Things that are cool are also things that are new. Things that are a couple of years old are never cool because they are just too old. This is odd. It means that things cannot get progressively more cool as they develop, which is strange because products get better over time. It would seem that mature products cannot be cool - but immature ones full of bugs can be. Of course, new generations of existing products can be cool too, but they have to be sufficiently different from what has gone before to receive this accolade.
Coolness seems to be a way of marketing something where the use cases are rather foggy. Recalling the dot-com bubble, a lot of products and services were hyped as being cool but never proved to be very useful. All too quickly this was realized and the bubble burst. Sometimes it seems that the cooler the products and services are, the less useful they are. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between coolness and utility. After all, the same unconvincing use cases are trotted out for cool things: making restaurant reservations, discovering more about the life of Michael Jackson, being connected and available to be contacted at all times of the day and night, broadcasting to the world the meaningless trivia of my life, and so on.
The terms used in coolness are significant. Coolness tends to draw terminology from a particular source - the world of childhood and adolescence. Cool terms are often derived from cute, cuddly, toy-related, sporty, sexy, surfer, druggy or rebellious jargon. Coolness is appealing to youth. This is a well-known marketing strategy, particularly effective in a youth-obsessed culture. Coolness is not for the old; therefore, if I embrace this cool thing, I cannot be old.
Ever since my children went though their teenage years, I have been skeptical about young people providing me with information. Metaphors and analogies connected with cool products always draw heavily on adolescent experience. Spokespersons for cool products project a youthful aspect and affect the cliquishness of high school teens in order to convince the rest of us that we are not cool unless we adopt their attitudes and buy whatever it is they recommend. You will not see mature men or women promoting cool products. It is always done by kids, guys and gals.
A major problem with this attitude is that all prior knowledge is deemed irrelevant. This is extremely dangerous in IT and data management. It is simply too easy for proponents of a cool product to tell everyone else that things are now so different that criticism based on previously accumulated wisdom cannot apply. Critics will be told that they "don't get it." Persistent criticism will, in fact, be proof of "not getting it." This is reminiscent of teenagers telling their parents that they do not understand whatever situation they are in. But in the setting of an enterprise, such pressure can be a lot more intimidating. Nobody wants to ask questions that can be bounced back in a way that forces the questioner to justify whatever basis they have for asking such questions. Safer to keep quiet and nod your head in agreement.
No doubt there are other attributes of coolness, but these seem to be the most obvious ones. Some of this, perhaps a lot of it, is unfair. Many products and services have been marketed as cool but really have been innovative. Some have been truly great. Yet, there is something just too easy about using the ploy of coolness. In his book "The World of Yesterday," Stefan Zweig describes how a century ago, youth was utterly distrusted and young men tried to make themselves look years older. This sounds ridiculous today, but why should coolness not be an equally ridiculous historical phase? And it is entirely possible that this phase is a good deal more damaging. Ten years on from the dot-com crash we have grown scars upon scars, and what have we learned?