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What Does It Mean When Early Adopters Swell?
Dale Carrico   Jan 8, 2007   Amor Mundi  

Over at the BBC today, technology editor Darren Waters argues that “Technology” is being increasingly “embraced by [the] public.”

By “technology” it is clear from the prominence in the article of “gadgets,” “video games,” “in-car navigation systems,” and “flat-panel TVs” that Waters means consumer goods, marketed as upscale, however crappy they may be; by “embrace,” then, he means buy; and, hence, by “the public,” he means affluent North Atlantic consumers.  In other words, Waters’ piece threatens to be little more than yet another ill-disguised advertisement masquerading as news and analysis.

The article consists for the most part of quotations from Sean Wargo, “director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA),” which goes a long way toward explaining its limitations.  In the first three words quoted from Wargo I find a conceptual confusion that troubles me to no end in this sort of analysis (and which, to be fair, intrigued me enough to click the link and read this piece rather than others on offer): 

“Consumers get it.”

In this simple, commonplace turn of phrase, “buying” and “understanding” collapse into a single breathless concept, even if they only too rarely do so in practice.  But once we bracket off the embarrassing self-promotion and hype radiating from this sort of analysis, I can’t help but wonder whether there is any insight to be gleaned from Wargo’s analysis.  “Consumers,” he says, “understand technology and they are adopting it accordingly.”  The evidence he proposes to substantiate this claim fits broadly under two headings, and seems to me to point to opposing conclusions.

The most interesting argument he makes is that the “early adopter segment of the market has grown.”  In technological diffusion models “early adopters” are the venturesome folks who enthusiastically take up new technologies before others tend to do so (in this, they are distinguished from mainstream adopters, skeptical latecomers, and even, in a nicely-loaded “neutral” term, the tragically atavistic “laggards”).  In such diffusion models “early adopters” are typically imagined to be earlier than their peers because they make a point to be well-informed of the relevant risks and benefits of technologies before these peers, but of course it is also true that many in this demographic adopt early to signal that they are well-informed in this way, whether or not this is true, or simply to signal affluence (since early adoption tends to be more costly). 

Wargo claims that consumers who are in a position to afford early adoption are in fact “adopting technologies faster than ever…. New technologies we haven’t even seen yet are sure to be adopted faster than their previous generations.”  And despite all of my snide caveats I am willing to entertain the real possibility that this reflects, among other things, that these consumers are becoming more informed more quickly than has been the case in the past. When he claims, for example, that “logs, voice over ip (internet telephony) and social networks are part of the fabric of our industry,” it seems to me that this provides both direct evidence of widespread early adoption but also suggests a possible explanation of the phenomenon: the emergence of alternate information resources and mechanisms for assessing such information.  In what I take to be an amplification of this point, according to the article’s author, Wargo “also predicted that ‘disruptive distribution’ was also becoming more important, referring to the shift to new methods of getting content such as TV programming, video and gaming via the net.”

To support the suggestion that this shouldn’t be dismissed as little more than whomping up a frenzy for useless stuff the better to line the pockets of elites, it is interesting to note that Wargo connects his case to claims that informed early adopters “go against the mainstream thread of cable, satellite, retail of receiving content….  According to the survey 52% of people were interested in being able to download a movie and burn it on to a DVD.”  Needless to say, at least some of these informed early adopters are enthusiastic file-sharers and muckraking bloggers who may be threatening the conventionally credentialized and compromised commentariat (alliterative euphoria!), the elite hub-and-spoke broadcast media, the interested incumbents in centralized-industrial models of production struggling to maintain their position through the extension and policing of outdated intellectual property regimes, and so on.  Although the article does not offer up such a connection itself, I would propose that a swelling demographic of better-informed early-adopters is as likely to take up peer-to-peer practices as they are to crave the electric cars and solar panels for which demand inevitably soars incomparably higher than conventional wisdom is ever prepared to expect or, apparently, conventional industry is ever prepared to satisfy.  To the extent that part of the phenomenon highlighted in this article really does reflect the emergence of a deliberative diffusion of better information facilitated by peer-to-peer formations, then this swelling of early adopters is another facet of what I have been describing as an emerging technoprogressive mainstream—a technoscientifically-literate and progressive culture eager to support technoscientific research and development whenever it is regulated for safety and accountability, and so long as its risks, costs, and benefits are all fairly distributed to all of its stakeholders.

But, before I start handwaving ecstatically (much as I suspect I am meant to do after breathing in the heady high oxygen of consumer hype doled out in this piece), I think it is better to conclude by noting other trends Wargo highlights—and which he apparently takes as seamlessly of a piece with the ones I have been concentrating on so far.  “[T]he average US household spent $1,500 (£765) on consumer technology in 2006 and expects that figure to near $2,000 (£1100) this year.”  One wonders whether that increase will arise from investments in renewable energy (and hence will reflect knowledgeability in early adopters) or in pastel-hued devices supporting proprietary content people could be purchasing elsewhere more cheaply (and hence will reflect superficiality in the early adopters as much as anything else).  When Wargo enthuses that “[c]onsumers are allocating more of their disposable income on consumer electronics and will continue to do so,” one need only contemplate the rising crisis of American indebtedness to wonder just how informed the early adopters finally really are.  Wargo goes on to say “consumers’ love affair with gadgets will continue despite a global economic slowdown and a prediction that growth in the US market would halve in 2007 from last year’s figures.”  And when the early adopter emerges finally, and truly, as a figure in love I daresay we can all agree that the analysis is no longer that of the early adopter as better informed.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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