Sep 6, 2019 • 21M

Technological Charisma

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Thinking out loud about the future of the world, as shaped by technological serendipity
Episode details

In this episode (21 minutes) I talk about the idea of technological charisma. What it is, how to create it, and the upsides and downsides of pursuing it.

1/ There are technologies that are like charismatic megafauna. We pay disproportionate attention to them, and tend to overindex on them in forming broader views of technology trends.

2/ There are pluses and minuses to pursuing technological charisma, and people tend to have strongly ideological responses to the idea of technological charisma. Some people dislike the theater and pageantry as being somehow dishonest, others love it and own it, both as producers and consumers.

3/ Technological charisma creates a brand premium in the case of companies, and soft power in the case of nations. When you are perceived as the market leading company, or a technology-leading nation, you will acquire high marketing leverage. Your marketing will be unreasonably effective.

4/ A good way to understand technological charisma is with a 2x2. On the x-axis we have marquee versus non-marquee. On the y-axis, we have WYSIWYG vs. smoke-and-mirrors.

5/ Any technology will have elements of all 4 quadrants to its charisma, but some are more purely of one type than others. The 2x2 has examples.

6/ The 4 aspects of charisma are: the flagship aspect, the quantity-as-quality aspect, the underbelly aspect — which embodies a kind of gritty cyberpunk charisma if you think about it — and the theater aspect.

7/ The trick to charismatic technology is engineering it consciously, while pretending that there is something ineffable and organic about it. Charisma engineering is basically like stage magic.

8/ The reason you get a brand premium or soft power, the reason your marketing is unreasonably effective, is that the magic trick actually works, not because something actually magical is going on. This is not the same as the thing itself succeeding or failing. You can have very charismatic failures, as space programs illustrate, where the thing fails, but the charisma doesn’t.

9/ Charisma failure is when the trick doesn’t come together, and the effect is not outrage at being defrauded, but a mix of disappointment and chagrined amusement. As consumers, we want to be successfully tricked, bewitched, enchanted. That’s why we yell shut up and take my money when somebody tries to curb our enthusiasm.

10/ Unlike magic or pure theater though, when charismatic technology works, it works even if the trickery is revealed. In fact, it compounds the charisma because people feel like they’re on the inside, and in on the secret. Part of the cult, nerding out over the details.

11/ On the flip side, when the magic fails, we react more like we’ve betrayed. We get mad about underbelly aspects that we previously ignored. The luster fades, the halo around the creators fades. All we’re left with is something like a backstage view of a bag of tawdry tricks.

12/ So, the thing is, the effects of charisma are short-lived. The brand premium, the soft power, the unreasonable effectiveness of marketing, all have an expiry date, and quite likely, a strong backlash to come once the charisma fades.

13/ So what’s the takeaway here? Should you pursue charisma? I think you should. But you have to be aware of the limits of charisma engineering. It is primarily a tool in the fake-it-till-you-make-it toolkit, so if you use it, stay aware of the expiry date, accumulate as much real power and reserves while you can, and make plans to weather the backlash if there is one.