When a new technology is presented, for whatever purpose and use, it is normal that at first it is perceived as very promising, generating high expectations in the short term.

However, after a while, these expectations are reduced, causing people to completely forget what, until relatively recently, was seen as something that would not be lacking in their lives.

This phenomenon is known as Amara’s law and is of great importance in understanding how we humans relate to new technological discoveries, as well as the new uses we can make of it in the long term.

Amara’s law

Roy Amara was one of the co-founders of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, USA, in the intellectual heart of Silicon Valley. This futurologist is known for having described the law that bears his name, considered a good description of how new technologies develop and prosper.

Amara’s law holds that, in most cases, we humans tend to overestimate the effects of a new technology in the short term, while we underestimate its effect in the long term .

That is, when a new device, a new social network or technological application appears, at first people see it as something of great interest that they will not be able to avoid incorporating in their lives, and those who have invented them will believe that they will make a significant contribution to humanity or that it will bring them a large profit margin.

The problem is that, in the same way that everything that goes up has to come down, after a while people seem to find fault with these innovations, and those who have invented them see the limitations of the product, or that what they originally wanted their new technology to help solve does not seem to be being satisfied.

The relationship of the law to overexploitation

Generally speaking, Amara’s law can be extrapolated to how we perceive the emergence of new technologies in the market, as well as describing how we behave in relation to it after a certain time.

In fact, Amara’s law has been useful to propose the stages of the so-called cycle of overexploitation , proposed by the technology consultant Gartner Inc. This cycle is the one through which most technological innovations pass.

The usual pattern in people’s interest when a new technology appears is that, at first, there are very high expectations, and then, as time goes by, the original interest is consolidated and even increased. The specific stages of the process are the following five.

1. Trigger

A technological innovation receives publicity, either by the company that produces it, or by the media that wants to explain it as news . In this phase the usefulness of the product is demonstrated, without its commercial use being visible yet.

2. Peak Expectations

The publicity has already made its impact: there is a wave of enthusiasm and interest among the population . Expectations are rising and people are wondering how many applications this novelty could have.

3. Disillusionment

Once the application has been commercialised and people are familiar with it, to a greater or lesser extent, you can see the failures of this new technology, the possible economic waste it entails and its limitations.

Expectations fall , since it is possible that many of the functions that the device or appliance was trusted to be able to perform correctly, it does not do as it should.

However, it is at this stage that those who have manufactured the new technology learn from their mistakes, see real new applications for the product and economise on the production process.

4. Lighting cost

Having seen everything in the previous point, it is clear what the technology is for, how it should be used to its fullest and when it is most recommended .

5. Productive plain

Technology adoption is taking place. The product grows again, now improved, growth which increases or decreases according to consumption.

A real case of Amara’s law: The GPS

A great example of how Amara’s law has been given in the development of new technologies is the case of GPS , the application we all have in our mobiles, intelligent cars and computers.

The Global Positioning System is a project that began in 1978 and, as with many new technologies, its original purpose was military. The program began by putting 24 satellites into orbit that work together around the planet. The main objective of this was to be able to locate easily the troops of the United States abroad and to be able to give them provisions, without running the risk of making a mistake in their location and being attacked by the enemy.

However, despite the fact that today we know how useful it is, this programme was cancelled time and again in the 1980s. The first operational use of this technology came in 1991 during Operation Sandstorm in the Gulf War, although the US military was still reluctant to use GPS devices and required further successful demonstrations to eventually adopt it.

Today it is not only used by the United States military. Its usefulness is very evident when you see that practically most people who have a mobile phone have replaced the paper map with the convenient GPS application. But not only allows us to know where a place is and where we are , it also calculates how long it will take to get there, as well as how the traffic is, public transport schedules and interesting establishments nearby.

In addition, large transports such as shipping and airplanes make use of this device, avoiding entering the same route as other large vehicles, as well as avoiding deviating from where they have to go. It would be unthinkable today for an international airport to decide to disconnect the GPS signal from the aircraft, since doing so would mean air disaster.

All these utilities were not something even imaginable for those who developed this technology in the 1970s. Surely they could only think of its military utility, never that some particular person would use it in their day to day, or that it would serve to organize stays in the big cities.

So, as we can see, Amara’s law is very well met: there were high expectations of GPS for military use, the army was reluctant to use it and expectations fell. Bugs were corrected and all the many utilities that GPS has today were discovered.

But the GPS was not a unique case. Other great technologies have also experienced the same path from the time they were designed until they reached the general public. Computing, the sequencing of the human genome, renewable energies and even home automation all had their ups and downs in terms of how promising they proved to be.

New technologies in the classroom: between hope and disillusionment

Although Roy Amara did not intend to explain the sociological fascination that human beings have with technology, his approach makes it possible for us to understand more deeply how the abuse of new technologies, because of how new and striking they are, has been a problem in a quite important area of society: education.

Between 2010 and 2020, there were few schools in Spain that did not opt to incorporate all kinds of new devices in their classrooms: projectors with electronic screens, tablets, laptops, mobile virtual campus applications and a long list of others. There was a widespread philosophy that all new information and communication technology (ICT) was inherently good .

However, just as expectations were high at the beginning, many teachers and students in innovative schools began to become demotivated because the technology, no matter how good it was, as it could not be handled and, in many cases, it did not know how to get the maximum potential out of it, did not bear fruit.

Relating it to Amara’s law, it is clear that Spanish education (and that of many other European countries) was negatively affected by the desire to innovate with anything in class, thinking that, magically, academic performance would be increased. However, the moment it was understood that this was not the case, discouragement arrived and it seemed that the centres had spent large amounts of money on devices that, in practice, seemed to only accumulate dust.

But, as Amara’s law rightly states, we tend to overestimate the effects of new technologies at first, and later end up underestimating them, making it very difficult for us to understand the real and beneficial uses of them.

For this reason , once we have seen the errors in deciding which technologies to put in the classroom and understand how they work, we can get the most out of them , as well as encouraging teachers and students to become familiar with them. Moreover, in the case that it is decided to incorporate new applications and devices of the latest technological trend, it will be necessary to foresee what their real use will be in the classroom, in addition to asking whether it is really worthwhile to incorporate them into the institution.

In the same way that in the last 10 years technology has presented dramatic changes, being that of the Spanish educational centers a particular case, it is known that in the not too distant future, in the next 5 and 10 years equally important changes will also take place. For the new ICT to be useful in schools, they must consider whether they are prepared or really need them to incorporate them.

If, as is already the case in Spanish education, they are incorporated in a very disruptive way, the degree of uncertainty will be very high, which could have a negative impact on the school curriculum, since teachers will either not know how to handle them properly or will choose not to incorporate them into their classes.

Bibliographic references:

  • Amara, R.; Boucher, W. I. (1977). The study of the future: an agenda for research. Washington, D.C.: General Post Office. OCLC 3200105
  • Amara, R.; Institute for the future (1972). A framework for national science policy analysis. Menlo Park, California: Institute for the Future. CLT 4484161. P-18. “Reprinted from IEEE transactions on systems, man, and cybernetics, v. SMC-2, no. 1 January 1972.
  • Amara, R.; Institute for the future (1973). Draft summaries of four workshops on the social impact of the computer. Menlo Park, California: Institute for the Future. OCLC 709544477