Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 3: February 2004


The Way We’re Wired

In the Cites & Insights Glossary Special entry for “top technology trend,” I quoted a couple of paragraphs from a Cory Doctorow posting at the Boing Boing weblog. Doctorow argues that, for the next couple of decades, policy and social norms are more interesting than technological developments—and also argues against certain technology developments. Many people commented on Doctorow’s posting (it’s one of two Big Deal Weblogs that I occasionally read), including Joi Ito (who I know nothing about). Here’s part of what Joi Ito had to say, as quoted by Jenny Levine, the Shifted Librarian:

I remember when everyone shouted into their cell phones and thought that their batteries drained faster when they made long distance phones. I remember when people (who now have cell phones) swore to me that they’d never have a cell phone. I remember when cell phones looked more like military radios. I think it’s fine to gripe about technology, but I would warn those people who swear they’ll never use a technology. Technology evolves and so do social norms.

… New technologies disrupt our habits and our norms and what we feel comfortable with. I am an early adopter type who uses every technology possible and I try to wrap my life around it all. Some people try the technology and point out the tensions. Some people ignore the technology. Technology evolves along with the social norms. When it works well, we end up with a technology that contributes to society in some way and becomes a seamless part of our social norms. When it doesn’t work well it either damages society or does not integrate and is discarded. [Emphasis added.]

Jenny Levine emphasized the last two sentences in the first paragraph—and added: “Think you’ll never use IM for reference? Think ebooks will never go mainstream? Think you’ll never need a wireless network at home or at work? Do you have a cellphone?” Back to that in a bit, although it’s peripheral to this perspective.

A Minor Epiphany

My Aha! moment was the second (quoted) sentence in the second paragraph: The notion of wrapping your life around all the new technologies you adopt. I had never thought about early adopters that way and it helps me realize why I’m unlikely to become an early adopter (although, to a limited extent, I may have been one when I was younger).

Ito describes a range of appropriate responses to new technologies, although most of us respond to different technologies in different ways. Ito’s groups are, paraphrasing:

Ø    True early adopters, people always on the lookout for something new.

Ø    Inquisitive adopters/skeptics, those who try out new technologies and point out problems. Some skeptics point out the tensions, and maybe even the advantages, without necessarily trying the technologies. I don’t have to test-drive a Hummer2 to tell you it’s ecologically offensive or participate in IM reference to believe it’s likely to be a useful tool in many libraries.

Ø    Late adopters, those who ignore a technology until it’s become so mainstream that they don’t think of it as new.

There are other categories. Some people deliberately (or unconsciously) avoid new technologies, even when they are both mainstream and beneficial to these people—in essence serving as counterbalances to early adopters. Avoiders also shape their lives around technology, negatively, although I’m sure they would disagree.

These aren’t clearcut categories. Most people fall in between. I doubt that Joi Ito actually seizes upon every new device or even “every technology possible.” Few technology avoiders, including those who avoid technology for religious reasons, avoid every new technology. Many (most?) of us have some areas in which we’re inclined to buy into a technology relatively early, others in which we’re likely to wait a while, and others we just don’t care about. For that matter, relatively few people bother to point out problems and benefits with new technologies; they use them or don’t.

If I had had more money and time when I was young, I might have “wrapped my life around” some new technologies. Now, I can’t imagine it—for me, for now. I “wrap my life” around people (particularly my wife), places we go, books and magazines, work, writing, thoughts, TV, music, and the like. When a new technology makes that life better, I’ll get around to trying it—sometimes sooner, sometimes later. (As an avid reader and occasional thinker, I “try out” a lot of technologies vicariously, letting reviewers and journalists serve as primary filters.)

I’m not making fun of Joi Ito or other early adopters. But the fact that I can’t imagine wrapping my life around new technologies may explain why I have problems communicating with those who do. We’re wired so differently that it’s hard to talk across the interference. That doesn’t make them wrong or me right. It makes us different.

Cites & Insights won’t tout each new technology as it arises—that’s not the way I’m wired. When I run “Interesting & Peculiar Products,” I wonder how many of you find “Interesting” what I find “Peculiar,” and vice-versa. I wonder how often you’re right—at least for you, and maybe for most people.

The Questions

What about Levine’s questions? I commented with an offhand response. Here’s a slightly more thoughtful one.

Ø    If I worked in a library and in public services, I would almost certainly try out IM reference. It seems like a useful technology, as long as it’s not used to give remote users preference over those standing at the desk—and IM reference shouldn’t pose more of a danger in that regard than other remote reference devices such as the telephone.

Ø    I think some forms of digital text distribution will “go mainstream” and some won’t. I’m inclined to place dedicated ebook appliances (outside the K12 and higher education markets) in the latter category, at least for a long time to come.

Ø    I don’t know whether I’ll ever need a wireless network at home; I might or might not want one at some point—presumably after we go broadband. (At work? We’re working on that, as we should be.)

Ø    As for a cellphone, I don’t currently feel the need to have my own, although there is one in the household (almost always turned off).

Ø    And as Joi Ito notes and I sometimes forget in a fit of sloppy writing, “Never” is indeed a very long time.


If you choose to wrap your life around a set of technologies, that’s your choice. Problems arise when you attempt to universalize your own choices: When you want the world and the people in it to wrap themselves around your preferred technologies.

I was going to provide an example here—but my example was wrong and did an injustice to the (unnamed) person involved. I moved from grumpy to crotchety in a particular exchange, aided by my dislike for emoticons and tendency to ignore them.

I assumed the person had adopted a monolithic approach to acquiring information because of an old discussion about RSS bigotry and an offhanded comment about this publication not offering topical RSS feeds. As the person in question made clear, they probably use a wider range of sources and kinds of sources than I do. The fact that their range of sources doesn’t include this odd little self-publication may be the right choice on their part. Cites & Insights isn’t for everybody. I don’t think any zine, weblog, or (for that matter) serious edited publication is. Consider this an extended apology: When I’m wrong, I’m sometimes very wrong, and I was wrong this time. Nothing new there!

The problem noted above is a real one, however, even if this blogger doesn’t happen to be an example. There are people who’ve fallen in love with HDTV to the extent that they won’t watch TV if it’s not HD—even if their favorite shows are low-rez. There are music “lovers” who disdain classic performances (within genres they love) that aren’t stereo. There are people who believe that TV news keeps them adequately informed—and others who disdain newspapers because they’re not up-to-the-minute sources. There are far too many people who believe that Google does it all and that if it isn’t on the web, it doesn’t exist (although Pew and other studies suggest that this attitude is nowhere nearly as widespread among students as some doom-cryers would have us believe).

Make your choices to suit your preferences. But everyone else isn’t you. Don’t assume they’ll modify their preferences or behavior to suit your choices.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 3, Whole Issue 46, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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