Digital snake oil
Communities that had never before seen things that were taken for granted in the big cities were easily fooled by miracle treatments that would fix all their ills. By the time the locals discovered the scam, the snake oil salesman and his shills would be well out of town.
Over the last few decades we've seen a similar thing happen with the tech industries, as products and services were sold on the back of claims that could be described as ambitious, if not outrageous.
The Y2K bug was a good example of this as planes were going to fall from the sky and dams collapse if we didn't hire an expensive consulting firm or buy a widget that would remind our computers they were now in the 21st Century.
A similar thing is at work with internet names, where the current push to sell Top Level Domains – a bargain with their $385,000 application fee – is being touted as the fix to everything that is wrong with web addresses.
With digital snake oil it's interesting how often big organisations sometimes act like 19th Century American sharecroppers – all too often we seen ministers and CEOs announce an outsourcing deal that will save taxpayers or shareholders millions, only to later find the only winner was the consulting firm that sold the idea.
A similar trend is at work in the PR industry, Sky News presenter John Kerrison has an entertaining look on his personal website on how social media is being sold as an easy fix for a business with far more fundamental problems.
The sad thing is that there are real benefits behind the grandiose claims; Y2K was a real problem, money can be saved through intelligent outsourcing and social media is a great PR tool.
Eventually hype backfires, consumers are rightly dubious about anything that has the slightest hint of PR spin while the IT sector is viewed with well-earned suspicion by business proprietors, executives and managers.
A good example of this was last week's Digital Readiness report from Optus that found businesses aren't particularly interested in cloud services. This mirrors similar studies by Sensis, MYOB and MelbourneIT which all find organisations aren't too fussed about the online world in general.
The danger with this is there is fundamental shift happening in society and technologies like websites, social media and cloud computing – just like the railroads in the 19th Century – are part of those changes which businesses need to understand.
In an era where snake oil is a commodity there are two challenges for businesspeople; the first is not to be perceived as one of the charlatans and the second is to see the miracle cures for what they are.
Probably the best tool for dealing with the digital snake oil merchants is turn on your own, old-fashioned bullshit detector and treat the shills with the suspicion they deserve.
Paul Wallbank is one of Australia's leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn't explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.