Sunday, July 8, 2012

Diffusion of Innovations and Resistance to Change

The ordinary 'horseless carriage' is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.—Literary Digest, 1899.

If we were to compare our lives to those of our ancestors a hundred years ago, what would we say has improved? Almost everything. Our modern society is full of inventions, which we now take for granted and that have made our lives much easier. Cars, computers, commercial flights, to name just a few; they all share a similar story.When they were first created and marketed, some people—even experts—were reluctant to accept them. Lord Kelvin declared in 1897 that radio had no future. Television was thought to be a fad and a Fox movie producer believed that people would soon get tired of staring at a box. But we know very well what happened to these two novelties: we can no longer conceive a world without them.

Some of us think about what we have and not what we need. We think evolution has taken us this far and nothing new could ever come up in the future. The beauty of new inventions is that they solve problems that we think we didn’t have because we are so used to working with our current inconveniences. In other words, we don’t know any better. Thus, since we are wired to expect certain difficulties from what’s already out there, we tend to distrust things that disrupt our current mind frame,
things that could —and will— change our lives for the better. The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall in 1957 said about computers, “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year.”

But then, how is this solved, and how do we jump from invention to adoption? According to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (1962), people progress through 5 stages: knowledge (first exposure to the innovation), persuasion (active search for information on it), decision (acceptance of the concept of change, advantage/disadvantage weigh-in), implementation (employment of the innovation, determination of its usefulness), and confirmation (final decision to continue using the innovation). If the innovation is finally adopted, it spreads via various communication channels.

An important part of this process is the acceptance of change, and this comes along with the acceptance that the previous technology is indeed inconvenient. For example: people are still discussing whether e-books will ever displace the heavy and burdensome paper books we’ve grown up with for generations. Once they accept the fact that printed matter could and should be a lot lighter than it is, the path to the new technology is open.

The automation of processes is another aspect of progress that has been subjected to the same cycle of distrust and acceptance of change. Our modern society keeps trying to facilitate things for everyone and at the same time increase productivity. Voting is a clear example of this. Some people resist the idea of exerting their right to suffrage through electronic means simply because all they know is manual voting.
However, most people are finding it “easy” or “very easy” to cast their ballot using voting machines, and this recognition of convenience is one of the turning points for the general adoption of this new technology.

As we see, the only way for our society to progress is to stop resisting change. The good thing is that once convenience is recognized within an innovation, its adoption is guaranteed. Having said that, given the strong positive reviews from the common people, manual voting is on its way to being considered an uncomfortable thing of the distant past.