Real words or buzzwords?: State of the Art

Aug. 1, 2017
Despite falling out of favor with marketers, the term still serves an important purpose in security

Editor's note: This is the 12th article in the "Real Words or Buzzwords?" series from contributor Ray Bernard about how real words can become empty words and stifle technology progress.

The other day I realized that it has been a long time since I have heard the phrase "state of the art" applied to physical security industry products. I wondered if technology is advancing so fast that it’s not possible or useful to identify a "state" of things anymore because it’s really a continuously moving picture. If that’s the case, would dropping the state of the art term be such a bad thing? So many products have been said to represent the state of their art—but didn’t—that maybe it’s a good thing for that term to fall by the wayside. Maybe it’s just an outdated concept. Would it be so bad if we never thought about "state of the art" again?

After all, we’re dealing with technology. What does "art" have to do with technology? That’s just science. Or is it?

On closer inspection, even if we never use the term "state of art" again for sales and marketing purposes, it can a be a powerful (and I don’t use that word lightly) perspective for right-setting our own thinking regarding technologies that we’re considering or developing. It is one way of dealing with a decades-old problem that continues to plague the security industry, to everyone’s detriment. To understand how that works, we have to take a look at the various definitions for "state of the art" and discover why and how “art” is an important part of the picture.

Defining State of the Art

Grammarly tells us (presented below with added emphasis):

"The advertising buzz phrase state of the art began as a noun phrase referring to the current highest level of development in a field, but today it’s also often used as a phrasal adjective meaning at the highest level of development. In the latter use, state of the art is usually hyphenated."

Thus Grammarly reminds us that the "state of the art" is a noun when you write it without the hyphens (example: "He is studying the state of the art"), but an adjective when you write state-of-the-art with hyphens (example: "This is a start-of-the-art product").

Then Grammarly describes the real-words-to-buzzwords path that the term has followed: "In advertising and elsewhere, the phrase has been rendered almost meaningless through long overuse. In using it, one risks sounding like an uncreative salesperson."

Cambridge Dictionary says: "very modern and using the most recent ideas and methods."

Collins English Dictionary says: "If you describe something as state-of-the-art, you mean that it is the best available because it has been made using the most modern techniques and technology."

MacMillan Dictionary says: "state-of-the-art equipment or technology uses the newest and most advanced ideas and features."

There is a common thread in these definitions that also appears in Wikipedia’s description, which—as you can’t help but notice—brings up the real-words-to-buzzwords phenomenon again:

“State of the art (sometimes cutting edge) refers to the highest level of general development, as of a device, technique, or scientific field achieved at a particular time. It also refers to such a level of development reached at any particular time as a result of the common methodologies employed at the time.

The term has been used since 1910 and has become both a common term in advertising and marketing and a legally significant phrase with respect to both patent law and tort liability.

In advertising, the phrase is often used to convey that a product is made with the best possible technology, but it has been noted that ‘the term 'state of the art' requires little proof on the part of advertisers,’ as it is considered mere puffery. The use of the term in patent law, by contrast, ‘does not connote even superiority, let alone the superlative quality the ad writers would have us ascribe to the term.’"

The Buzzword Graveyard

So, the official consensus is that state of the art as a term has some meaning, but because it has been misused and overused, it has a negative impact and should be avoided. It has arrived in the buzzword graveyard.

But I don’t think that it’s a useless term. I think it can serve an important purpose if we look closely at the definitions and focus on their glossed-over aspects. Here is a small list of the "start of the art" concepts that the security industry has ignored, and which—had they not done so—would have put the industry on a different and better path:

  • Techniques
  • Ideas and methods
  • Level of development
  • Advanced ideas

I have often said and written that the security industry is five years or more behind in adopting information technology, but 10 to 15 years behind in adopting the related IT practices. This results in poor implementations of the technology, as occurred with the transition from analog to digital communications for security systems and devices—in other words, the adoption of standards-based networking.

Most companies only partially adopted the standards or even neglected them. This is why it was a not uncommon customer experience for the IT department to run a Nmap scan of the network (a common practice), and have the IP cameras go offline. It’s why major brand name access control systems were still stuck communicating at 9600 baud (an old hard-wired communications speed) over an IP network connection, when the network was at least 10 times faster than that, even as late as 2005. It’s why the industry put devices on the network starting in the late 1990’s that didn’t support Simple Network Management Protocol, and the industry didn’t develop a standard for a physical security device MIB (SNMP management information base data file) until 2015.

A Useful Concept for State of the Art

State of the art for any technology is not just the physical and electronic bits and pieces—it’s the set of advanced ideas, methods, and techniques involved in the highest level of development for a particular technology. That’s why the word "art" is involved. As Max Kanat-Alexander, the Technical Lead for Code Health at Google and former Chief Architect of the Bugzilla Project has said on his blog, "The application of any science is an art . . ."

Here is how to apply the concept of state of the art, in a way that will never fail you. There are questions listed below that are applicable to manufacturers and security integrators as well as consultants and specifiers.

When developing a product and incorporating specific pieces of technology, ask these questions:

  • Where did this technology come from?
  • What advanced ideas, methods and techniques were involved in the development of this technology?
  • What ideas, methods and techniques are involved in its application?
  • What guidance should be provided to customers, system designers, and installers for its use, based upon best practices in application and deployment?
  • How can we assure that the results we get represent the highest level of development for this technology?
  • What standards are involved for the use of technology, and what how can we maximally apply them consistent with our product’s scope and purpose?
  • What is the larger technology context for what we are working on? What are the best development techniques and practices that apply?

If you don’t ask these questions, you can’t have a state-of-the-art product.

When selecting a technology, especially given the rapid state of technology advancement, it is important to know where the product stands relative to the highest level of development in that area of technology. One example is the new generation of security video analytics, which is generally not well understood. The Security Industry Association has a technical paper on this that explains why it is such a big deal. To understand the state of the art in video analytics, you must to know the concepts in this paper. The current generation of video analytics came out of heavy research into self-parking cars and autonomous vehicles. There are many advantages to this new digital technology that don’t exist with analytics developed for analog video systems.

That’s not to say you can’t deploy a previous generation video analytic. Their value did not disappear. However, for the sake of obtaining an appropriate return on investment, regarding both security-effectiveness and cost-effectiveness, you should know where the product stands with regard to the current state of technology.

When evaluating or selecting a product, ask these questions:

  • Where did this technology come from, and when?
  • What ideas, methods and techniques are involved in its application?
  • What guidance is being provided to customers, system designers, and installers for its use, based upon best practices in application and deployment?
  • What standards are involved for the use of technology, and how do those relate to our use of the technology?
  • How can we assure that the deployment results we get represent the highest level of application for this technology and achieves a state-of-the-art deployment?

When used by marketers and sales people, the term state of the art is of little value. When the concept is applied by product designers and engineers, and also by designing and specifying consultants, the concept can help assure a high-value deployment.

About the Author:

Ray Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities ( He is the author of the Elsevier book Security Technology Convergence Insights available on Amazon. Mr. Bernard is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council (SEC) and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security.