Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The User as a Resister of New Technologies (or Hail the Couch Potato)

Legal scholars have recently discovered the user of new technologies. But, we tend to concentrate on a specific type of user – the user as an innovator. We look at the user who designs, who changes a technology to reflect his needs. For example, much has been written about users innovating with open source software. We also pay ample attention to new users’ abilities to create using digital technology and the abundant content available on the Internet.

I do not wish to belittle this recent focus on the user as an innovator. But, I believe our concern with users should be significantly broader. After all, the user as an innovator is not our typical user. I want to suggest in this post that we begin paying attention to the ordinary user – the couch potato.

You may be wondering – why dedicate our time to the couch potato – isn’t our goal to encourage users to actively participate and innovate to promote progress? I propose that we focus on the ordinary user because despite the common belief that a technology failed because it was inherently destined for failure, it is this user who routinely makes decisions about whether to adopt or not to adopt new technologies. Users resist new technologies in different ways. Sometimes they actively resist them. Demonstrations against nuclear weapons are an example of active resistance. But most commonly, users engage in avoidance resistance. Examples of avoidance resistance are plentiful. From a woman not buying genetically modified food in the supermarket to an aging poet refusing to replace his typewriter with a computer.

I suggest that we start focusing on the user as an adopter of new technologies. The importance of concentrating on users daily adoption decisions lies in our emphasis on progress as an important socio-legal value. We care about the user as an innovator because we believe that innovation promotes progress and human welfare. But, if a brilliant new technology is not adopted, the progress goal itself is frustrated, and our investment in innovation is wasted.

In my next post, I will use the stories of two technologies: Videotext systems and the email to illustrate the importance of paying attention to user resistance.


Blogger Lyria Bennett Moses said...

I agree that the user as adopter is not frequently discussed. But what does a focus on the user as adopter offer that is different from the focus on dissemination found throughout your work?

2/18/2009 10:08 PM  
Blogger Arthur Cockfield said...

As a couch potato myself (as I generally don't fall into the early adopter category of technology consumers), I prefer to sit back and wait to see whether the new technology will somehow add value to my life--I guess I let the market help me to make this determination. Sometimes I wait because I also worry about the unintended consequences of adoption (for example, high speed home Internet access sounds great until you eventually realize your work life has blurred into your home life ... then it's very hard to turn back).

Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back, I think, does a good job at teasing out how users deal with the unpleasant and unanticipated consequences of technology. Not sure what role law should play throughout this process as we typically defer to the market as the mechanism to protect us couch potatoes.

2/19/2009 9:11 AM  
Blogger Gaia Bernstein said...

Lyria, what I hope to do eventually is go beyond looking at dissemination generally to trying to understand factors which are relevant to user resistance specifically. I believe it may be possible to categorize types of user resistance in order to try to resolve them.

Art, I agree that the big question is what is the legal role. I think we have become accustomed to saying that it is all about commercialization. But, at the same time, we are completely comfortable with having the law intervene in the innovation stage, through the intellectual property regime. Why shouldn't the law intervene in the commercialization process to encourage adoption and help alleviate barriers to diffusion?

2/19/2009 3:48 PM  
Blogger Lyria Bennett Moses said...

There is arguably a distinction between encouraging innovation and encouraging diffusion, in that the market can have a greater role to play in the latter. The government can help ensure that lots of good stuff is thrown up into the market (including for export!) by having a good IP system. But ought it also "encourage" us to buy stuff. And, if so, might it not also be more concerned with encouraging people overseas to consume national innovations?

But let me link all of this to economics. Our government (like many around the world) is trying to resolve the financial crisis by throwing money at people, ie encouraging consumption. I guess if this by itself improves the economy (which I personally doubt) then encouraging adoption of technologies (hence encouraging consumption) is good.

2/19/2009 4:39 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

While I'm afraid to designate myself a couch potato (does a daily nap on the couch make for one?), I'm typically skeptical about the "need" for new technologies of all sorts. I got a computer because I was largely compelled to if I wanted to participate in the academic life of my school (prior to that I worked as a carpenter and had no need for one). I've since grown rather dependent on it and now rather appreciate its virtues (especially for some kinds of research and editing of papers).

On the other hand, I see no compelling reason to get a microwave oven, purchase a flat-screen tv, get a BlackBerry, acquire video games, buy a Kindle 2, etc., etc. We've never purchased a new car and the two vehicles we rely on are over 30 years old (a VW bug and van). While it remains true that some wants or desires eventually become "needs," there remains an important disctinction between needs and wants and many of the new technologies, for me at any rate, fall into the latter category and thus I feel no compulsion to acquire them. I utterly lack Arthur's ability to assess "whether the new technology will somehow add value to my life," and would be constitutionally adverse in any case to letting the market help me make this determination (it may do so anyway in a default mode, I'm not sure). There are myriad social pressures (of the sort that make for conspicuous consumption; cf. too George Simmel's essay on 'fashion' and critical theorists like Fromm on the topic of social conformity, as well as the current obsession with 'lifestyle') on adult consumption patterns and it seems to be virtually impossible for most people to resist them. So if we're going to focus on the "user as adopter" I hope that includes systematic examination of these social pressures relying on the methods and insights, say, of social psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

I am not a technophobe...although I could have been a Luddite!

If we're going to talk about "barriers to diffusion" then presumably we're going to address issues of disadvantage, inequality, and distributive justice.

I admit, finally, to being a bit troubled (perhaps I've misunderstood it) by the comment that "it may be possible to categorize types of user resistance in order to try to resolve them." Perhaps such forms of resistance are on occasion perfectly rational or reasonable and not in need of resolution. I sure as hell hope so!

2/19/2009 5:46 PM  
Blogger Gaia Bernstein said...

Lyria and Patrick,

I think both of you have one type of technological diffusion in mind: the diffusion of technological gadgets, which you associate with consumerism. But, diffusion is also about the diffusion of medical technologies. Although I admit that with many medical technologies the issues may be somewhat different due to the existence of a middle-men (the physician). Some medical technologies, such as reproductive technologies also involve the user's adoption decision.

2/20/2009 12:57 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


You're largely right, but the case of medical technologies likewise raises, and perhaps in a more pronounced manner, criterial and distributive justice questions with regard to adoption. User's adoption decision in these cases does not make those questions any less urgent or relevant. A nice example of some of these questions addressed in a fairly systematic manner is found in Buchanan, Alan, et al., From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (2000).

2/20/2009 1:27 PM  

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