The Techno-Socio Fit

The videophone proposed that telephone customs shaped over generations be discarded. The telephone allows you to multitask (organize, clean, type, or doodle), and you needn’t worry about your appearance.

The CueCat was a PC bar code reader. You were supposed to look in print ads for the CueCat logo (a red :C) next to a slanted bar code. When you scanned the bar code, your browser took you to the web page for that ad. This was much more convenient than typing the URL—or so it was hoped.

In the fall of 2000, Digital Convergence mailed out one million of its CueCats, just a tenth of what they hoped to eventually give away. They expected to charge advertisers for providing leads. Results were swift but unexceptional. In less than a year, the company was effectively out of business.

Before the rapid success of the Internet came the slow-motion crash of videotex. Like hitting your head against a wall again and again, many of the biggest companies in the U.S. spent much of the 1970s and ’80s repeatedly failing to interest the American public in various kinds of online information services. Only with the nonproprietary Web could content create a critical mass.

These three examples asked customers to do things differently, and the customers said ‘No’.

Technology Fails When at Odds with Public Sentiments

Some products run counter to social trends—like selling cheeseburgers in a health club.

One observer noted about nuclear power: “Never in modern history has a major technology, with the full backing of industry and the government, come to such an abrupt halt.” Environmental and safety concerns hobbled it.

Though global warming may eventually warm it up, our relationship with nuclear power has been chilly for the past 25 years. Project Plowshare, the use of nuclear bombs for earthmoving projects, also foundered on public opinion.

Food irradiation, which preserves food not with chemicals but by sterilizing radiation, has been studied for 60 years. Whether it is safe or not, it sounds scary, and that has been enough to keep it from widespread use.

An EZ-D DVD is a new kind of rental DVD. Once taken out of its package, the disc begins to oxidize and is only readable for 48 hours. No need to return the DVD after watching the movie—you simply discard it. But the idea of yet more useless discs going into landfills along with all those AOL giveaways has given the technology an environmental black eye.

Too many companies curse customers for failing to see the brilliance of their products, but customers always make choices that are logical to them. And that’s a constant that we must live with.

Bob Seidensticker is an engineer who writes and speaks on the topic of technology change. A graduate of MIT, Bob has more than 25 years of experience in the computer industry. He is author of Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change and holds 13 software patents.