The Techno-Socio Fit

By Bob Seidensticker

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In the mid-1970s, interstate highway mileage signs were updated to show the distances in kilometers. The U.S. was finally going to join the rest of the world in adopting the metric system. It was about time—the U.S. had been an early advocate of decimalization and was the first country to adopt a decimal-based currency.

The Metric system is compelling, it is already taught in school, and it costs little to implement. And yet Americans still have not discarded their comfortable but clumsy English units in daily life. Among the nations of the world, the U.S. shares this status with only Liberia and Burma.

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What does this have to do with technology? Nothing! The metric system in the U.S., Esperanto as a universal language, simplified spelling for English—many projects had nothing to do with technology, and yet they still failed. The point? Too often we focus only on the technology side of a product and ignore how hard social acceptance can be.

Let’s look at three ways that high-tech products can be at odds with society:

Technology Fails When it Delivers Too Little

Sometimes, a product in this category costs too much money, effort, or aggravation. Sometimes, there’s too little benefit. Either way, the balance is wrong—the benefits don’t overcome the costs plus the inertia of habit.

The Iridium satellite phone network is an example. It uses satellites in low orbits to provide worldwide telephone communication. You could be in the Sahara, in Antarctica, or on a ship in the ocean—it didn’t matter. Iridium lets you call anywhere, from anywhere!

Well, not quite—you needed a clear view of the sky. Buildings, cars, and even trees prevented the handsets from connecting with the satellite network. And, at a time when cellular services were getting cheap and handsets getting tiny, Iridium was an expensive service with bulky handsets. The customers who could pay for it had better alternatives.

The Concorde supersonic passenger plane flew at over twice the speed of sound. Impressive, but passengers care about the time for the entire trip, including time in transit to the airport, the time at the airport checking in and waiting for the flight, and the ground travel time to the final destination. The Concorde addressed none of these, and it never commanded more than a tiny slice of the airline business.

3D movies were a hit in the mid-1950s. Movie technology had advanced as first sound and then color were added, and 3D was the obvious next step. But viewers didn’t like the glasses and 3D didn’t add much to the experience. These movies became notorious for scenes contrived simply to flaunt the technology. IMAX films have added a little to its respectability, but 3D is still a gimmick.

Technology Fails When it Disrupts Common Practice

This category of failure asks consumers to change the way they normally do things.

The videophone ran afoul of this requirement. The first commercial videophone was the Picture phone in 1964. A flop. AT&T relaunched it in the 1970s. Another flop. How about a consumer version in 1992? Flopped again.

The videophone proposed that telephone customs shaped over generations be discarded. The telephone allows you to multitask (organize, clean, type, or doodle), and you needn’t worry about your appearance.

The CueCat was a PC bar code reader. You were supposed to look in print ads for the CueCat logo (a red :C) next to a slanted bar code. When you scanned the bar code, your browser took you to the web page for that ad. This was much more convenient than typing the URL—or so it was hoped.

In the fall of 2000, Digital Convergence mailed out one million of its CueCats, just a tenth of what they hoped to eventually give away. They expected to charge advertisers for providing leads. Results were swift but unexceptional. In less than a year, the company was effectively out of business.

Before the rapid success of the Internet came the slow-motion crash of videotex. Like hitting your head against a wall again and again, many of the biggest companies in the U.S. spent much of the 1970s and ’80s repeatedly failing to interest the American public in various kinds of online information services. Only with the nonproprietary Web could content create a critical mass.

These three examples asked customers to do things differently, and the customers said 'No'.

Technology Fails When at Odds with Public Sentiments

Some products run counter to social trends—like selling cheeseburgers in a health club.

One observer noted about nuclear power: “Never in modern history has a major technology, with the full backing of industry and the government, come to such an abrupt halt.” Environmental and safety concerns hobbled it.

Though global warming may eventually warm it up, our relationship with nuclear power has been chilly for the past 25 years. Project Plowshare, the use of nuclear bombs for earthmoving projects, also foundered on public opinion.

Food irradiation, which preserves food not with chemicals but by sterilizing radiation, has been studied for 60 years. Whether it is safe or not, it sounds scary, and that has been enough to keep it from widespread use.

An EZ-D DVD is a new kind of rental DVD. Once taken out of its package, the disc begins to oxidize and is only readable for 48 hours. No need to return the DVD after watching the movie—you simply discard it. But the idea of yet more useless discs going into landfills along with all those AOL giveaways has given the technology an environmental black eye.

Too many companies curse customers for failing to see the brilliance of their products, but customers always make choices that are logical to them. And that’s a constant that we must live with.

Bob Seidensticker is an engineer who writes and speaks on the topic of technology change. A graduate of MIT, Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the computer industry. He is author of Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change and holds 13 software patents.