The Techno-Socio Fit

In the mid-1970s, interstate highway mileage signs were updated to show the distances in kilometers. The U.S. was finally going to join the rest of the world in adopting the metric system. It was about time—the U.S. had been an early advocate of decimalization and was the first country to adopt a decimal-based currency.

The Metric system is compelling, it is already taught in school, and it costs little to implement. And yet Americans still have not discarded their comfortable but clumsy English units in daily life. Among the nations of the world, the U.S. shares this status with only Liberia and Burma.

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What does this have to do with technology? Nothing! The metric system in the U.S., Esperanto as a universal language, simplified spelling for English—many projects had nothing to do with technology, and yet they still failed. The point? Too often we focus only on the technology side of a product and ignore how hard social acceptance can be.

Let’s look at three ways that high-tech products can be at odds with society:

Technology Fails When it Delivers Too Little

Sometimes, a product in this category costs too much money, effort, or aggravation. Sometimes, there’s too little benefit. Either way, the balance is wrong—the benefits don’t overcome the costs plus the inertia of habit.

The Iridium satellite phone network is an example. It uses satellites in low orbits to provide worldwide telephone communication. You could be in the Sahara, in Antarctica, or on a ship in the ocean—it didn’t matter. Iridium lets you call anywhere, from anywhere!

Well, not quite—you needed a clear view of the sky. Buildings, cars, and even trees prevented the handsets from connecting with the satellite network. And, at a time when cellular services were getting cheap and handsets getting tiny, Iridium was an expensive service with bulky handsets. The customers who could pay for it had better alternatives.

The Concorde supersonic passenger plane flew at over twice the speed of sound. Impressive, but passengers care about the time for the entire trip, including time in transit to the airport, the time at the airport checking in and waiting for the flight, and the ground travel time to the final destination. The Concorde addressed none of these, and it never commanded more than a tiny slice of the airline business.

3D movies were a hit in the mid-1950s. Movie technology had advanced as first sound and then color were added, and 3D was the obvious next step. But viewers didn’t like the glasses and 3D didn’t add much to the experience. These movies became notorious for scenes contrived simply to flaunt the technology. IMAX films have added a little to its respectability, but 3D is still a gimmick.

Technology Fails When it Disrupts Common Practice

This category of failure asks consumers to change the way they normally do things.

The videophone ran afoul of this requirement. The first commercial videophone was the Picture phone in 1964. A flop. AT&T relaunched it in the 1970s. Another flop. How about a consumer version in 1992? Flopped again.