Vapourware claims to solve a real problem in a way that seems impressive for its time. Your money is gone before the truth comes out: the purpose is real but the product is vapour. But vapourware doesn’t work with the subscription model of the Software-as-a-Service market. Our perception of software as a product has changed as well. Marketing for software emphasises features, properties and potential rather than any concrete purpose. The products are real but the purpose is vaporising.
The internet, the web, and email give us unprecedented access to other people, information, and entertainment. They serve their purpose. That’s why they’re irresistible. In contrast, algorithmic content feeds induce engagement to supplement their purpose. They are irresistible by design.
Criticism of harmful tech should always be aware of this distinction. When ignored the criticism is easy to dismiss as anti-progress. Paul Graham does exactly this in his 2010 essay The Acceleration of Addictiveness.
“It’s the same process that cures diseases: technological progress. And when progress concentrates something we don’t want to want—when it transforms opium into heroin—it seems bad. But it’s the same process at work.”Paul Graham – The Acceleration of Addictiveness, July 2010
The conflation of addictive usefulness and designed addictiveness strengthen his dismissive stance. It’s also important to recognise his arguments hinge on technology and not products. AI doomerism fuelled by proprietary AI product releases does the same thing. Capitalist owned AI products are not getting an inch out of control if no one is paying for them. But call them technologies and the business accountability vaporises.
“You can’t put the genie back in the lamp” builds on the technology generalisation to create a sense of inevitability. It implies we are the ones who need to adjust and adapt, not the genie. It implies that these things will hurt us but only if we don’t learn how to protect ourselves from them. Debates over abstract concepts like addictive technology or existential AI risk distract us from foul play on a product level.
Gamification and manipulative engagement techniques allow products to thrive without a concrete purpose. Marketing for Notion uses broad purposes like “productivity” and “collaboration”. People love using Notion but they have to define their own purposes that the software can serve.
Marketing for reverse vapourware contains no trace of purpose at all. Web3 may be the best example of this. Web3 marketing, CEOs, and VCs rarely claim a concrete purpose. If they do it’s either dependent on some future event, described as unrealised potential, or doesn’t hold up to five minutes of critical thought.
We define our own purpose and for a product which can cause harm, finding a purpose is the fool’s errand. The businesses behind the products choose the purposes they endorse and distance themselves from the ones they oppose.
They can define the criteria for their own success and they free themselves from any criteria for failure.