Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 308
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

A Curse and a Blessing

Researcher explores reactions to advanced technology.

Advanced technology intrudes into the lives of customers, employees, and business owners, and we all have feelings about it. Consider, for example, recent changes in watching television, listening to music, or using the phone. Do you need notes to keep track of all your e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and passwords? Do you encounter employees or customers whose eyes glaze over in confusion when you try to explain how a new technology will help them complete a task or enable them to do something completely new? The degree of change that advanced technology has made into our lives is hard to overstate, and we all have feelings about it . . . feelings that influence our thinking and acting.

Thinking and acting about high technology . . . most business owners would agree that the topic is important, and they would offer a tentative answer: people are either for it or against it. Either they embrace high technology, or they resist it. Those who embrace it are good customers and good employees. Those who resist it are human fossils who impede the progress of our businesses and our society. But is it this simple? Robert Kozinets, from York University in Toronto, recently conducted a study to find out.

Kozinets wanted the subtle details. He wanted to create a model of technology reactions that would give a more complete picture of people interacting with technology. He began by examining past writing on the subject, and then he conducted in-depth, lengthy interviews with six adults who were thoroughly immersed in advanced technology. The outcome of his analysis was a model of technology reactions he named a semiotic square.

Kozinets� square has four points of focus. Each reflects a clear position people adopt toward technology that helps explain how technology fits into their lives. The first he named work machine.

People adopting a work machine attitude toward technology associate advanced technology with efficient work, precision, and the creation of wealth. Mastering advanced technology is necessary for one to be successful. Dot com zillionaires are their heroes.

The second focus Kozinets named techtopian, borrowing from earlier descriptions of Utopian communities. A techtopian attitude associates advances in technology with advances in society and insists that technology solves social problems. For the techtopian, the progress of society is measured by its adoption of advanced technology, the wired community is the happy community, and the answer to poverty in Africa is to give each child a lap top.

The third focus he named Green Luddite, borrowing the name from the Luddites of England who opposed the industrial revolution and expressed themselves by sabotaging logging and mining equipment and attacking factories. The original Luddites abandoned their quest 200 years ago. Green Luddites of today regard advanced technology as unnatural. They believe it destroys nature and authentic ways of life and needs to be resisted. Green Luddites wouldn�t be caught dead with a computer in the house.

Finally, Kozinets recognizes the game generation, young people who have grown up in the digital age of video games. They are numerous, and their attitude toward advanced technology is that it is fun and allows them to express themselves and create social networks. Facebook, Youtube, blogs . . . Kozinets named this attitude techspressive.

Kozinets found that people derive a sense of personal and social identity by settling on one of these four reactions to technology, but he also found a great deal of tension that accompanies the process. He discovered within each of his subjects significant contradictions that fought against them as they tried to settle upon one focus, and he found that no one could do it. Instead, all of his subjects straddled two or more focus points, often compartmentalizing one focus for one part of their lives, i.e. office or work, and another for a different part of their lives, i.e. home or play. It was inevitable, he said, because each focus promised too much. Each, by itself, was bound to disappoint, so people are always trying to settle on one focus and failing at it.

Consider an analogy.

Weather is dynamic, always changing. When you step outside and look into the sky, you�re actually looking at a battle between cold air and warm air. At the equator, air is warm. It rises. At the poles, air is cold. It falls. When cold air meets warm air, the cold air dives below it and heads toward the equator, forcing the warm air to the poles. It�s a constant battle, always trying to equalize the air temperature and never being able to do it. Attitudes toward technology are like that. Always contradictions, always tension within the individual, always a good reason to embrace technology, always a good reason to oppose it. That�s why we have feelings about it that influence our actions.

A Green Luddite doesn�t hesitate to dial 911 in an emergency. A work machine person will find coding to be a giant bore. The progress of a society can best be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members, not by its bandwidth. And the fun of video games and social networking often becomes addictive, crowding out other life activities like eating, sleeping, working, and talking to real people.

Nearly every customer and employee we meet struggles with advanced technology. Thanks to Kozinets� work, we now have a better insight into this struggle. If we listen closely, we will recognize the points of conflict and be able to make helpful comments.

Reference: Kozinets, Robert (2008) Technology/Ideology: How Ideological Fields Influence Consumers� Technology Narratives. Journal of Consumer Research, 34 (April), 865-882.

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