Adoption Paths: The Social Forces that Shape the Uptake of Technology
15 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2012
Date Written: August 15, 2010
The fast uptake of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has become an article of faith in American life. Whether it is the personal computer, mobile phone, or video cassette recorder, the time between “latest thing” and “yesterday’s news” seems to be ever shrinking for ICT gadgets and services. In fact, as the 20th century unfolded, the pace of adoption of new goods and services of all types accelerated – perhaps to such an extent that fast adoption might seem inevitable. A comment by Google founder Sergey Brin captures this sensibility. When asked if he thought lack of computer access for low-income kids was a problem, he minimized the worry, saying that the internet will eventually be like electricity: “cheap and easy” (Olsen, 2008).
Yet the adoption path of a new technology is not inevitable, and it typically rests on three pillars: 1) Infrastructure, particularly when the good or service in question has a network component to it. 2) Sustained innovation, which results in lower cost to consumers and improvements in usability. 3) Social support that draws people to adoption, that is, the “demonstration effect” that comes when people see others in their social networks using something new, which in turns helps people understand the value of trying something new.
This paper explores the last of the three pillars, taking a look at how the social dimension in the adoption process has been an accelerant for products that are taken for granted today. The role of the social milieu in adoption is not a new idea, and classic studies on technology diffusion explicitly highlight how the social system helps spur technology adoption (Rogers, 1995). People learn about a new product from people around them; their social networks, in other words, play a key role in helping people discover the utility and usability of an innovation.
The social dimension of adoption is critically important at the tail end of broadband’s adoption curve. That is due to the nature of current non-broadband adopters, who are on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. Research has shown that such people are, in terms of their social networks, tech-isolated relative to the mainstream. Those who do not use broadband are likely to have fewer broadband users in their social network than broadband users. They thus miss out on a potential stimulant to adoption. To make the argument, the paper presents the following: 1) A comparison of adoption rates of different information goods and services (with the addition of electricity to the list), as well as brief historical narratives on several of these items. 2) Examination of broadband adoption patterns, with a discussion of current non- adopters. 3) A discussion of the role social networks has played in the adoption of several goods and services. 4) A discussion of research that shows that late-adopting populations have social networks with technology adoption deficits. The paper will conclude with lessons and implications for policymakers.
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