Diffusion of innovations

Recently we happened to run into an article published in a Spanish leading newspaper titled “The enemies of innovation” (El País, “Los enemigos de la innovación”, 24/07/2016). Although the text echoes some of the inspiring conclusions present in the book written by Calestous Juma Innovation and its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016), it misses in our opinion central arguments of this publication, namely: how resistance shapes technologies, the tension between the need for innovation and the pressure to maintain social order, and policy strategies to manage public debate over the introduction of new technologies.

Calestous. Innovation enemies

A departing point in the studies carried out in the past four decades is the statement that “innovations do not sell themselves”, which puts under question the promethean and deterministic vision of technology that contemplates opposition to new devices as an external and accidental force. In this sense, an author worth mentioning is Everett M. Rogers, professor of communication studies, who explored the complexity of these phenomena by considering that innovations are in many cases alternatives that present an individual or an organization with new means of solving problems (Rogers, 1983, Preface, xviii). New resources generate concern, and as this author puts it “the probability of the new alternatives being superior to previous practice are not exactly known by the individual problem solvers. Thus, they are motivated to seek further information about the innovation in order to cope with the uncertainty that it creates” (Rogers, 1983, Preface, xviii-xix). An example described by Rogers will illustrate properly that the consequences of a new technology, despite good intentions, are not completely predictable, and therefore its value and meaning has to be reconsidered in order to incorporate subjective perceptions and social factors. The episode highlights the effects of the introduction of the steel axe by the missionaries in an Australian aborigine tribe:

The change agents intended that the new tool should raise levels of living and material comfort for the tribe. But the new technology also led to a breakdown of the family structure, the rise of prostitution, and ‘misuse’ of the innovation itself. Change agents can often anticipate and predict the innovations form, the directly observable physical appearance of the innovation, and perhaps its function, the contribution of the idea to the way of life of the systems members. But seldom are change agents able to predict another aspect of an innovations consequences, its meaning, the subjective perception of the innovation by the clients (Rogers, 1983, 32).

In order to analyse the complexity of this type of phenomena and to determine at what rate technology spreads, Rogers contemplates different categories. Firstly, one group is devoted to the key elements in diffusion research: a) innovation; b) communication channels; c) time; d) social system. Secondly, another group is devoted to the stages that make up the adoption process: a) knowledge; b) persuasion; c) decision; d) implementation; e) confirmation. A person is then exposed to the innovation, thereafter seeks information about it, and decides to accept or reject the new practice. If the person decides to adopt it, in the next stage, according to Rogers’ model, he/she proves the usefulness of the innovation and search meanwhile for more information. At the confirmation stage the person seeks reinforcement of the decision already made, and in this context there are still some possibilities of reversing the decision if he or she is exposed to conflicting messages about the innovation.

There are other valuable elements in the Rogers’ approach to the diffusion process, such as the identification of the sources of innovation; the rate of adoption; the adopter distributions over time (that tend to follow an S-shaped curve); the concept of overadoption (“the adoption of an innovation by an individual when experts feel he or she should reject”); the characteristics of the adopter; the influence of opinion leaders and values; the types of innovation-decisions (particularly interesting in this case is the authority innovation-decision, made by individuals in positions of influence or power)…

Everett Rogers’ studies provided consistent theoretical tools with a sound alternative view to the so called “pro-innovation bias”, that is, to the idea that “an innovation should be diffused and adopted by all members of a social system, that it should be diffused more rapidly, and that the innovation should be neither reinvented nor rejected” (Rogers, 1983, 92). Despite this important step, the influence of his perspective (the fifth edition of his book with additions was published in 2003) and the recognition of the influence of the cultural factors in the diffusion process (not contemplated as mere “enemies”), the complexity of the phenomena examined affected significantly the predictive capacity of his model.

Alternative approaches stressed the relevance of one or more aspects present in Rogers’ framework. In the sphere of computer-based information systems, the technology acceptance model (TAM) emphasises the rational oriented decisions made by individuals. In this perspective, the two basic determinants in the acceptance of a technology are the perceived usefulness and the perceived ease of use. But what results particularly problematic in this proposal is the concept of usefulness. By this idea we can refer either to actions intended to obtain immediate practical benefits or to social usefulness, which embraces those decisions made both to satisfy needs for acceptance by others and to meet the expectations placed on somebody by society. We can even add a third category, a cultural one, which accounts for the situations when a person accepts or refuses the use of technologies attending to moral considerations, for example, to protect the wish for solitude. Then the appeal to cost-benefit strategies is not, according to Brett Lunceford (Lunceford, 2009, 29-48), a precise theoretical position to explain the adoption of technologies. In this context, the concept of “resistance” does not have the connotation of an irrational action totally unrespectful with the inherent properties of an artefact.

An alternative view of the diffusion of innovations, in consonance with the actor-network premises, contemplates the participation of a diversity of entities in the redefinition and reinvention of a new technology, without establishing a clear distinction between human and nonhuman contributions. This perspective refuses any essentialist approach to technology (implicit in the “pro-innovation bias”), in which artefacts seem to have an internal force that makes them spread and multiply autonomously over the surface of the planet. The only limitations to this promethean force are local ignorance and eccentric cultural values. As Bruno Latour expresses it in Science in Action,

Society or ‘social factors’ would appear [in the essentialist perspective] only at the end of the trajectory, when something went wrong. This has been called the principle of asymmetry: there is appeal to social factors only when the true path of reason has been ‘distorted’ but not when it goes straight (Latour, 1987, 136).

In contrast, in the actor-network view one of the central concepts is that of “innovation translation”, which comprises the transformations an innovation experiments before it is admitted. So what happens sometimes is that in order to admit a technological innovation some aspects of an artefact are accepted and others are left out. An invention in this case is an entity constructed by the contribution of a variety of heterogeneous resources. As an example, Latour reinterprets in this way the standard history of the Rudolf Diesel engine. In his version things do not follow a linear story path with smooth transitions; a more accurate picture reveals instead twists and turns that reflect the “translation” process and the intervention of multiple factors, human, organizational, inanimate objects, sketches, images…

We saw -says Latour- that Diesel’s engine was a sketch in his patent, then a blueprint, then one prototype, then a few prototypes, then nothing, then again a single new prototype, then no longer a prototype but a type that was reproducible in several copies, then thousand of engines of different sub-types. So there was indeed a proliferation (Latour, 1987, 136).

Pequeño Calculador

Mechanism of “The little accountant”, used as an educational device at the end of the 19th Century (“F. SOENNECKEN’S VERLAG-BONN-BERLIN-LEIPZIG”). Private collection.

Furthermore, studies in this area have to assume as a primary approach to the subject that there are differences in the diffusion of technological innovations that correspond to the sector under examination (healthcare, administration, heavy industry, armed forces, large scale science, education…). With regard to education, there are distinctive features that explain how innovations are admitted in teaching practices, particularly in those affecting the material resources used in the classroom. For instance, one of these previous elements are the peculiarities of the social system involved in the process of assessing which part of the new information available deserves attention. In many cases innovations respond to decisions taken by administrative authorities, and sometimes with the resistance of teachers who have to alter their effective and well established routines in order to accommodate the new practices. It is then convenient in this context to explore how the “translation” process takes place. In Spanish secondary school, for example, the phonograph patented by Edison, the tin-foil model, was introduced in the students’ curricula by considering it a demonstrative apparatus appropriate for illustrating properties and phenomena related to acoustics matters. Beside these factors, values, such as progress, the promotion of practical teaching, antiverbalism… are also basic elements present in the rhetoric of politicians and opinion leaders, who insist in these images to reach the desirable consensus and to make the admission of innovations less problematic.

References and further reading

Lunceford Brett (2009), “Reconsidering Technology Adoption and Resistance: Observations of a Semi-Luddite”, Explorations in Media Ecology, 8, 29-48; Benoit Godin (2015), Innovation contested. The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries, New York and London, Routledge; Bruno Latour (1987), Science in Action. How to follow scientists and engineers through society, Cambridge, Harvard University Press; Everett M. Rogers (1983, 3rd ed.), Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press of Glencoe; Barbara Wejnert (2002), “Integrating Models of Diffusion of Innovations: A Conceptual Framework”, Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 297-326.