The Risks of Adopting New Technology: The Social Cost of Using Forks, Umbrellas, and Google Glass

by B. Kim Barnes

This article was first published on LinkedIn on October 10, 2018

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Photo © by B. Kim Barnes

One of my favorite discoveries recently is the podcast, “The Secret History of the Future”—a collaboration by Slate.com and The Economist that explores the technologies of the past in order to shed light on the state of innovation today.

In a recent story, they looked at why it has taken so long for certain innovations—ones that are quite obviously superior to older technologies—to be generally accepted. They begin with the current rather slow adoption of Japanese toilets and then take a deep dive into the history of forks and umbrellas.

The fork, though it had been in use on and off for centuries, was considered by the early Middle Ages to be a scandalously decadent and rather precious practice. This was at the time when the best people used their hands—and occasionally knives—to convey their food to their mouths. When a Greek princess married the Doge’s son in 11th-century Venice and used a golden fork at the wedding banquet, local clergy commented, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers.” This sinfully indulgent practice (one that perhaps made others look rather unsophisticated) was considered the likely cause of her early death. Forks did, however, gradually overcome this barrier and were in common use by the 17th century.

In 18th-century Britain, the use of umbrellas (an invention that was certainly several thousand years old) was considered taboo—an effete, “Frenchified” practice that no manly man would adopt. The first British user, Jonas Hanway, (a gentleman of mixed reputation—among other issues, he opposed the introduction of tea to England) was ridiculed, scorned, and harassed—especially by the drivers of hansom cabs (horse-drawn conveyances for hire). Their business, of course, was threatened by anything that would make people more likely to walk rather than hail a cab on a rainy day. Nevertheless, Hanway persisted, evidently demonstrating the value of this device, and this led to the gradual adoption of umbrellas as a necessary accessory for busy gentlemen. (Who does not associate the rolled-up umbrella with a certain type of elite Londoner ?)

More recently, wearers of Google’s Glass encountered a similar reaction when wearing the item in public. Social media mavens and late-night television hosts thoroughly enjoyed making fun of these early adopters. Google Glass disappeared from the market.

In all of these cases, the social costs of embarrassment and harassment outweighed the utility of the innovations, at least for a time.

When we think about taking a risk, we may not consider or acknowledge these social costs. In our Intelligent Risk-Taking program, we identify seven arenas in which individuals take risks; financial, business, career, interpersonal, intellectual, physical, and image. Often, participants in the program, while thorough and thoughtful in assessing the risks they may face in promoting or supporting a change or innovation, overlook planning for any risks they face to their image and reputation. They are certainly aware of them, but since this is a less tangible and more personal matter, it’s more difficult to identify adjustments that can mitigate this type of risk. Among the adjustments for image risk, we might consider persistence à la Hanway, engaging others’ support early in order to spread the risk, using self-deprecating humor, and publicizing rather than hiding the awkward nature of doing or championing something truly new and different. Risk-taking and innovation require you to think about the role that emotion and social influence play in the process of technology adoption.

Google Glass—or something like it—will probably be back and eventually become cool and then just normal. But in planning for adoption of any new technology, organizations should not overlook or diminish the power of social pressure to create image risk and delay acceptance of high-utility innovations.

Now, where’s my umbrella?

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