What Is the Lunatic Fringe (of Technology)?

The earliest adopters of new technologies are commonly referred to as the lunatic fringe. Sometimes also known as the bleeding edge — a reference to leading edge but with strong emphasis on the degree of pain experienced when coping with the rough and difficult aspects of new technology. Traditionally the term has been applied to social and political beliefs and movements, but this paper is concerned with usage in more recent decades (40–50 years) for technology.

There are several distinct categories of lunatic fringe:

  1. Technology developers and promoters with seemingly far-out ideas about what a proposed new technology can do.
  2. Technology developers with actual products based on far-out ideas.
  3. Non-mainstream technology users and customers using the technology in ways undreamed of by its original developers.
  4. Customers willing to try and even buy almost any new technology to evaluate for possible use for future organizational needs.
  5. Customers with very real problems which do not have acceptable off-the-shelf solutions and for which some new technology seems as if it can be used to creatively cobble together a solution.

All of the above are variations on the concept of the lunatic fringe, but only the latter — real customers with real problems looking for real solutions — is the subject of this informal paper.

Again, there are many uses of the term, many outside or predating the use for technology,

I first learned of this concept from talking to an old hand at Digital Equipment Corporation when I worked there as a software engineer back in the late 1970’s (1978/1979.) He explained to me how it was a tradition at the company, at least in the very early days, for successful products to get their start not with big splashy marketing campaigns for the final, finished, polished products targeted at big companies, but with basic, bare, rough technology that lunatic fringe customers were more than happy to try out — and help improve with feedback — long before the technology was ready for mainstream adoption. For example, their logic modules introduced (1958) before they introduced their first computer (1959/1960), which enabled bleeding-edge (lunatic fringe) research labs to build their own digital logic solutions in the days before minicomputers and microprocessors were available. Or their early minicomputers which had virtually no software or even much of an operating system to speak of. In fact, these lunatic fringe early adopters frequently helped to debug and even develop the early software. Zero in the way of hand-holding, customer service, or support. But lunatic fringe customers were chomping at the bit (a little pun!) to get their hands on any and all of the earliest and most primitive technology.

Of course, these days companies spend vast amount of time, money, and resources to “get it right” and assure that even the most dimwitted of customers can feel comfortable with new products, although their success at achieving that goal is spotty best despite all of that determined effort. So, even today, the early adopters (bleeding edge customers) still qualify somewhat as the lunatic fringe, but not to the degree as they did during the early days of past generations of products when there was nowhere near as much product maturity and hand-holding customer service available.

Two other common terms are beta release and alpha release, both coming before an official general release. Normal leading-edge customers are frequently willing to try out beta-release software, but commonly it is only the lunatic fringe who are willing to take a risk with an alpha release which is not even stable enough for beta testing.

Technically, alpha and beta releases can occur for any version of a software product, even releases well beyond the initial release (1.0). What makes the lunatic fringe stand out is their willingness to charge forward with a sense of wild adventure with alpha releases before even the 1.0 release of a new technology.

What are the essential qualities of the lunatic fringe (of technology)? For starters,

  1. Have real problems to solve which are really hard problems, not amenable to off-the-shelf solutions.
  2. Aggressive problem solvers. Moving fast, need solutions fast.
  3. Willing to build their own solutions, given basic off-the-shelf building blocks of the new technology.
  4. Really sharp individuals. Near-geniuses, at a minimum, at least in their particular area of expertise. Dull pencil-pushers and other lightweights need not apply.
  5. Documentation? Little or even none available, but none really needed since they are capable of figuring it out on their own.
  6. Specifications? Not required, but if available, they will be voraciously devoured and any mistakes or gaps will be picked apart mercilessly.
  7. Source code and schematic and circuit diagrams for hardware? Ditto — not mandatory, but very helpful and productive if provided. Digested voraciously and mercilessly. No source code or schematics? No problem — ever hear of reverse engineering — a piece of cake for hard-core lunatic fringe folks! Open source is a big win.
  8. Have budget flexibility to bring in new technologies well before they are ready to be fully justified in normal, longer-term budget cycles.
  9. Patient and tolerant of the roughness of early versions of new technologies.
  10. Impatient and anxious to help push for solutions to any problems they encounter. Commonly they solve problems on their own.
  11. Not willing to concede defeat when they encounter inevitable problems.
  12. Creative. Able to come up with novel solutions.
  13. Undeterred and undaunted by… anything, including bugs, incomplete features, and missing features. Unlike their more mortal peers who get stuck and either need external assistance or give up and concede defeat.

Oddly, there is no decent Wikipedia page for lunatic fringe which captures all the nuances related to technology. That was my primary motivation for writing this informal paper. Actually, my main motivation was because I wanted to reference the term in some writing I am doing about quantum computing.

A commonly used definition for lunatic fringe in technology can be found in FOLDOC — the Free On-Line Dictionary Of Computing:

That definition actually comes from Jargon File:

I traced back through the old versions of Jargon File and it appears to have been added in version 2.1.1, dated June 12, 1990. The Jargon File definition focuses on software and attributes the term to IBM, but the term did have earlier and wider usage and broader meaning.

Wikipedia

As mentioned earlier, there is no decent Wikipedia page for lunatic fringe for technology. I’d invite any enterprising soul to feel free to excerpt material from this paper, including citations, to create a professional Wiki page for lunatic fringe for technology.

This paper is written as original research and my own opinions and personal experience, so as such it is not directly suitable as a Wiki page, but a Wiki page could legitimately cite this paper as source for content from this paper and its cited references, especially the historical sources.

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