5 December 2012

Shaping new technology through social norms

By Dr Amer Khan

Samuel Langley was a renowned scientist and inventor in the US during the 1880s. He also tried his hand at inventing a piloted heavier-than-air aircraft. In 1898, he managed to get funding from his employer, the renowned Smithsonian Institute, and the US government. He, along with his team of eminent aviation experts, famously developed the prototype named “Aerodrome”. The prototype failed, and Langley abandoned the project, although his attempts at unmanned flight with model planes were successful. However, at about the same time a bunch of bicycle mechanics, also hit by the aeronautical bug, tried their hand at building a prototype aeroplane. The bicycle mechanics were the Wright brothers, and the rest is history! Langley, following the conventional approach of the aviation enthusiasts of the time, was more focussed on developing powerful engines. Langley’s prototype was about power, but could not safely take-off and land, and had trouble staying aloft in bad winds. The Wright brothers, being bicycle mechanics, were more concerned with stability and control, although they also borrowed from glider designs of other aviation experts. It appears that socioeconomic context facilitated the Wright brothers and constrained the other unsuccessful contenders. The Wright brothers were able to frame the aviation problem of the day in a new perspective so that their attention was directed to a dimension of a problem ignored by experts. In this way, the Wright brothers apparently avoided the problem of “group think”. Due to their socio-technical background, the Wright brothers also engaged in what is termed asbricolage – creatively constructing novel arrangements by borrowing from existing artefacts or technologies not combined before.

When the Wright brothers were busy coming up with their aeronautical innovation in Dayton, Ohio, a man in New York was trying to introduce another innovation of equally far reaching consequences. During the 1870s, gas burners lit offices and homes across the US with their yellowish, sputtering glow. Gas light scarred walls, emitted bad odours, and presented a fire hazard. Thomas Edison was trying to change all that by introducing electric light as an alternative source of lighting. But despite the technical superiority of electric light, it took Edison almost fifteen years to successfully make electric light a widespread form of lighting in the US. What were the sources of resistance to an unmistakably superior technological innovation? First, gas lighting was a deeply embedded part of the social and physical infrastructure of New York. Gas burners lit New York’s streets. An army of skilled people, from gas pipe technicians to the “pipelighters” who lit the gas lamps in New York’s streets, earned their living through the gas industry, not to mention the thriving industry of gas lamp makers and other related equipment that formed a crucial part of the economic landscape of the US. Second, the gas companies were economically threatened and they fought back, using their well entrenched economic and political clout to stop Edison from introducing electric lighting systems in New York. So how did Edison fight off these challenges? One interesting aspect of his retaliatory strategy was that he carefully included elements of existing technologies in his design so as to conform to the aesthetic and regulatory expectations of the various stakeholders that he confronted. Perhaps, to satisfy government regulators, his systems of electricity distribution followed designs that were developed for gas distribution, even when those designs did not make that much technological sense at that time. His electric bulbs were designed to mimic the gas burners so that consumers could take comfort in the aesthetic and functional familiarity of the light source in their environment. The Edison bulbs were made to emit light equivalent to a 12 watt gas burner, when the bulbs could easily emit three times more light. To cut the story short, and as we can all see (for example, by looking all around us!), that Edison did succeed in his efforts. But for that he used tactics that went beyond showing the technical efficacy of his innovation. He lobbied with governments, leveraged his network and as shown above, framed his innovation in socially acceptable ways.

Technological innovation faces complex social systems of organizations, rules and social norms. Edison introduced skeumorphs – design elements that did not serve objective functional purpose but helped society make sense of the innovations. He had to fight vested economic interests to implement a technology which was clearly superior to the embedded alternatives. But social contexts also facilitate fresh perspectives that throw up unexpected opportunities for bricolage and innovation, as seen in the case of the Wright brothers. The next time you are itching to innovate, run away for a few days from your socio-cultural milieu to spark “out of the box” thinking; and from that distance also try to contemplate the norms that may still need to be followed.

Dr Amer Khan is a lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He brings “the sociological imagination” to the study of organization, innovation and higher education. He can be reached at akhan@swinburne.edu.my