This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 8: Confidence, subscribe and buy here
In the old paradigm, technology was primarily considered for the purposes of saving labor. Consider the microwave: its purpose is to do something you already do (cook food), but faster. Early computers were the same; they were computational powerhouses, designed to execute simple tasks quickly in order to save time and speed up the existing routines of those fortunate enough to have them at their disposal.
The first modern technology paradigm occurred in the late 70s and 80s. Throughout this period if you cast your eyes about the home of an average citizen the technology you would most likely see would be labor-saving: blenders, microwaves, electric can openers and more. If you’ve ever seen Wall Street then you know what I’m talking about: houses full of kitchen gadgets that help you make sushi and robots that serve you drinks. This first paradigm embraced the notion that technology existed to help us to do existing things more easily.
In the second paradigm of modern technology, information was catapulted to the center stage. The mainstream popularization of the World Wide Web and email shifted the focus from doing existing things more easily to creating, sharing and consuming information. The idea of Intellectual Property started to permeate into the minds of the masses; people started to grasp the innate value of their own ideas and the power and reach that the Information Superhighway offered them. In the information paradigm, people became interested in “traffic” and “hits.” Influence and success could suddenly be measured not in terms of your bottom line performance, but simply in how well known you were. This paradigm catalyzed the “dot-com bubble”, where the perceived value of businesses was calculated on the strength of its information and network, not whether it was actually making money or not.
Now we’re in the third modern paradigm of modern technology and things are getting really interesting. Today’s developments aren’t about helping you to do existing thing more easily or creating, sharing and consuming information; they’re designed to change your existing behavior.
The iPhone was probably one of the first pieces of mainstream technology to do this, though its effects were subtle. By revolutionizing what was considered possible within the constraints of a phone’s hardware and software, Apple launched consumption of technology on the move into the stratosphere. To quote Steve Jobs:
“people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Apple showed people how they could use technology differently on a daily basis to communicate, be entertained, be more productive and it resulted in mass behavioral change. You only have to look at the trend of desktop usage versus mobile usage over this time to realize what a profound effect this technology had on the way people chose to consume information and media. Behaviors changed as a result of the iPhone’s popularity.
Fast-forward seven years and the intent to seed behavioral change has become much more overt; Technology is unashamedly trying to get you to do things differently – to be better. The first and most obvious of these innovations is the tablet (and more recently the phablet). The form factor and utility of tablets was, for many years, clunky and unwieldy. Microsoft had, in conjunction with a number of hardware partners, made A number of laptop manufacturers had attempted to achieve scale with their tablet offerings but in truth, these devices were clunky, slow and unintuitive. It wasn’t really until the iPad came along that the form factor and other design elements of the tablet-enabled this device to capture the imagination of the mainstream public; When it did, boy did it seed behavioral change.
Financial analysts often talk about changing markets, but it can be easy to forget that what they’re really saying is that people are behaving differently. Tablets were “market-changers”, which meant that they fundamentally changed the way that people consume mainstream commodity products like movies, newspapers, and games.
The key differentiator of the iPad and the other tablets that followed it was that its designers weren’t trying to enable you to do the same things on a mobile device; They specifically wanted you to do different things on your tablet and to change your habits and behaviors as a result.
Social media is another example of technology that is designed to trigger behavioral change. A headline news story in the last few weeks has been the Psychology Experiment conducted on Facebook that showed people were more likely to share positive stories when their feeds were full of positive posts and negative stories when their feeds were full of negativity. The ethical issues of that particular experiment aside, Facebook is very overt about how it wants your behaviors to change: it wants you to be less individualistic, less cloistered and to go about your daily life as part of a larger network. This network is constantly communicating, sharing information, offering encouragement and support. The other aspect of this network is that it breaks down the perceived barriers between corporations and individuals; Companies and brands have their own online identities and can generate “buzz” by interacting with social media participants in ways that feel very personal, though in reality they are being conducted on a huge scale. Recommendations and “likes” are seeded into this culture; We are no longer suspicious of marketing and advertising, we embrace it.
The last category of technology in the third paradigm is wearables. This niche is just beginning to catch mainstream attention, with the most famous example being Google Glass. With the introduction of technology that you never “put away” Google is breaking down yet another barrier between physical and virtual worlds. Social stigmas that previously existed – using your phone while at a concert, checking email at the dinner table – are gradually being whittled away as the “always on” concept expands to include our personal connection to online information.
It’s clear what a profound impact Google Glass is having on behaviors. The fact that the term “glassholes” exists is a testament to the discomfort some are experiencing when faced with this behavior. So profound is the change that Google took the unprecedented step of issuing an etiquette guide to help users adapt to the new technology in a way that took into consideration the sensitivity of non-Glass users.
Outside of the hype of Google Glass, the wearable technology that is truly reaching the mainstream is fitness trackers. Bands like the Nike FuelBand, the Jawbone UP, and the Fitbit can be seen on wrists across the developed world, and these seemingly innocuous devices are changing our behaviors in equally significant ways.
When I got my FitBit flex I was inwardly skeptical about the extent to which I would find it useful. The functionality of the Flex, and even the accompanying app is quite limited and I thought of it as basically “a pedometer you can wear on your wrist.”
Six weeks later and I’m astonished at how integrated into my routines the Flex has become. “Walk 10,000 steps” is now an ingrained daily goal for me; I seek the satisfying bzzzzt on my wrist and flashing lights that tell me I’ve hit my goal and I’m sorely tempted to spend twenty minutes running up and down my staircase when I check the app on evenings where I’m close to but haven’t yet achieved, 10,000 steps.
I’m not alone; I recently read an article written by someone who the Fitbit has effectively goaded into walking 60,000 steps per day. This is an extreme example – one that I’m guessing is punctuated by a tendency towards compulsive behavior – but shows the powerful potential of a simple device to evoke strong behavioral change.
I’ve started to use the “silent alarm” function on my FitBit to wake me in the morning without disturbing my wife, and also to alert me 5 minutes before a key meeting I have every Monday morning. It’s this secondary functionality of the Fitbit that allows me to see the allure of the Pebble and the attractiveness of what the iWatch may do for us when it comes to market.
It’s clear to me that a wearable like the iWatch – assuming the form factor and general design is great – will push us into a new category of behavior changes where our bands alert us discreetly to upcoming appointments and overdue tasks; where text messages can be received at a glance and where geofenced push notifications become extremely powerful.
Throughout these three technological paradigms technology has served us and enabled us to achieve things that would not otherwise have been possible. What’s interesting about this latest paradigm is not what we can do to technology to improve performance, but what technology can do to us.