Access, ownership and adoption

Posted on 14/05/2014


Change happens both quicker and slower than we imagine.

Once upon a time (nine years ago) there was this big new thing everyone was talking about. They said it would change the world. Today we barely question it; it’s just another part of our lives. So it did change the world after all. Right?

No prizes for guessing what I’m talking about. Social media, perhaps? Equally, it could be just another of the many shifts we’ve seen the past 20 years: the Internet, the smartphone, brands like Amazon, sites like IMBD. They’ve each added a new layer to what makes our everyday reality, and become ingrained.

Having lived through multiple Moore’s Law cycles, I’ve spotted a few small patterns in how changes take place. These are just noticings, mind, but they seem to keep happening, year after year:

1. We’re tremendously fickle

It was hard not to get excited when Google first demo-ed Glass. I was sold the first time I saw the Pebble smartwatch. But then something else soon appeared and I moved on. The “Hype Cycle” models how people behave when they discover and start using technology: after days/weeks/months we slide into a “trough of disillusionment”, frustrated or tired of our new playthings. I’d say this pattern goes well beyond technology – it applies to anything: from news stories, to fashion, to food. Within the web, we seem to have developed for ourselves a wonderful self-perpetuating world of newness, constantly being replenished and eternally in flux. Change is now the default.

2. Late adopters pick up things fast, and in surprising ways

BRIC and now MINT countries weren’t the first to get the hots for mobile phones, but now they’re showing up the big kids (USA = 103.1 mobile phones per 100 people; Lithuania = 167.1. SOURCE). And often in different ways. Social media use in places Brazil is unlike anything we’ve seen in Europe, and China has now built its own continent entirely when it comes to the web. Given the right conditions (political, financial, social) we’re able to adopt new tools and behaviours rapidly.

3. High adoption doesn’t mean a better understanding

Confession: even with a decent understanding of code, I don’t really know what’s going on in the background of most websites or apps. I’ve sometimes enough curiosity to look under the hood, but never for long enough to really understand what’s happening.

Even at a far simpler level, how many Facebook users really know all of what you can do on Facebook? Or how to navigate there, despite using it every day? A friend of mine pointed out he’d lost the poke button – it’s been so long since I last used it, I’d forgotten it existed. Generally, our technical and practical abilities are shallow because we only use the basics.

What I’m driving at is we’re not living in the futuristic world we might imagine. We hammer away at screens and keyboard having learnt that the “p” key, produces the letter we wanted to scribe, but never knowing why or how. We access, then adopt, but rarely adapt technology. Because we haven’t bothered to figure out how it works.

What this shows me is that the traditional notion of ownership/access is not a great indicator of an “advanced” society. Internet access for all is hardly a great achievement if most people are sitting through listicles on Buzzfeed. Sometimes, simple and shallow do the job just fine. But we’re hardly building a world of successful “digital natives and immigrants” if they don’t know the first thing about computer logic. Or if they can’t find their way round WordPress. We’re not such clever monkeys after all.