That’s IT?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Managing expectations is a familiar idea on Wall Street: The point is that what matters isn’t just how you perform, it’s how everyone else expects you to perform. If you come in above expectations, you look good. If you don’t live up to expectations, you look bad. It doesn’t matter how high you jump, it’s where the bar was set.

The debut of the Segway Human Transporter is an interesting case study in how the expectations game works in the real world—or in the world echo-chamber media hype, anyway. We first heard of this device many months ago, although at the time, no one knew what it was. It even had codenames: Ginger and IT. Whatever it was, IT was supposed to be big, bigger than the Internet, something that would change the way cities are laid out, and so on.

Inevitably, the actual device seems rather disappointing—a two-wheeled scooter thingy that runs on a battery. The inventor, Dean Kamen, demonstrated the Segway yesterday on Good Morning America, whose hosts rode the thing around a little bit and at least acted as though they were impressed. Given the hype that surrounded Ginger, however, it’s safe to say that many observers were not impressed at all. The Segway goes about 15 miles per hour and costs $3,000. The Daily Show suggested it might be improved by adding two more wheels, a large compartment for several people to sit in, and an engine capable of highway-compatible speeds.

The Segway is a victim of hype. Most inventions, when new, seem clunky, expensive, and impractical. Maybe the Segway will be improved in ways that will make it more attractive to more people, or maybe it will find niche uses. But it’s hard to look at the thing as it is today and feel that your life is poised for a major change.

The New York Timesgives a concise summary of how the Segway got so hyped before it even came to be: A book proposal apparently laced with sweeping assertions and over-the-top comments from Steve Jobs and other visionary types, but lacking any hard details about the actual invention whose creation the book would describe, was reported in This was, if you can remember back this far, in the incredibly slow news period between the presidential election aftermath and Sept. 11. “Hundreds” of media reports, by which I mean published musings, followed. In the absence of facts, the musings got more fantastic. Expectations got out of hand.

Kamen seems to have a shaky grasp on the expectations game. The Times describes him as claiming to have been “mortified” by the hype. On the other hand, “he argues that the Segway could cause cities to be redesigned, help wean the world from oil dependence, compress time and space for pedestrians and raise productivity for corporations and government agencies.” I would say that this falls short of modesty.

Anyway, Kamen isn’t a fool or a crank—he’s a justly lauded inventor with a real track record of success. And while the current version of the Segway is unlikely to cause a frenzy of demand, it has some pretty intriguing attributes. (There’s a good pro and con discussion thread at MetaFilter here.)

So did the hype help or hurt Segway’s version of the expectations game? In the immediate term, it might seem to have hurt. Nobody really wants to see his invention laughed off as a giant bore on late-night TV. But wait! Without the initial unbelievably specious wave of hype, would Kamen have gotten a chance to debut the thing on Good Morning America? And would that debut have been rehashed by every media outlet around? And would I be writing this piece? I doubt it.

The next step will be the clever idea of every gizmos editor on the planet to have a reporter take the thing for a test drive and write up the results. Even if most of those test-drivers are underwhelmed, it won’t really matter, because now that there’s a backlash, the stage is set for a wave of anti-backlash revisionism. The more spiritedly the Segway is written off as a dud, the lower the expecations get, and pretty soon even its most trivial successes in the marketplace become evidence of “surprising resilience” and “underestimated potential.” Maybe I’m exaggerating, but hey, what did you expect?