How do cultural attitudes influence technology?

Dylan Kowalczyk
By Dylan KowalczykPaid Media Manager
5 minutes to read

There are a few things you should know about me before we begin.

I’m stereotypically British. So this grants me the ability to be unhelpfully reserved and unnecessarily polite in most scenarios.

I’ve also got the giddiness and palette of a nine-year old. I play games, watch cartoons, and am much happier eating chips and chicken nuggets as opposed to pappardelle with sea urchin and cauliflower.

But when it comes to technology, my Britishness and childish excitability don’t quite gel. Where I want to get excited about the newest bit of tech, I can’t quite ignore the nagging voice in my head that tells me I’ll look like a bit of prat if I wear it.

This left me wondering if our reserved natures make us reluctant to embrace emerging technology, whereas other cultures may be quicker to experiment because they’re not as apprehensive or self-conscious.

So let’s have a look at the differences between us and our cousins across the pond, America.

 

Google Glass

Google released its wearable smartphone, Glass, back in 2013. Users could browse the web, take photos, access maps, calendars, and other apps by voice command.

The reality though, is that wearers looked like a low budget Tony Stark, talking to themselves before voice commands were mainstream and seemingly being blind to the world around them.

The attitude towards this technological oddity can be seen through its lifespan. Early adopters in the US could buy sets in 2013, the general public in 2014, and by 2015 production ‘in its current form’ was halted.

This fruitfly-esque lifespan could be chalked down to the less than favourable reviews. But is the reason for Google Glass’ failure the same across every market?

To lend credence to this theory, I’ve been hunting down old coverage from 2014 to gauge sentiment. I’ve selected a few major US and UK publications to compare, and these article quotes speak for themselves.

TechCrunch (US):

  • “I’m confident that we will be seeing wider adoption before you know it”
  • “People have gone to the worst place possible — that it would be used by pervs and spies”
  • “For all the negative reaction, there remains a big curiosity about them”

NY Times (US):

  • “Glass is prompting questions of whether it will distract drivers, upend relationships and strip people of what little privacy they still have in public”
  • “Google Glass will test the right to privacy versus the First Amendment”

CNN (US):

  • “When we put on these surveillance devices, we all become spies”
  • “It is the sort of radical transformation that may actually end up completely destroying our individual privacy in the digital 21st century”
  • “Neither Orwell nor Hitchcock at their most terrifyingly dystopian could have dreamt up Google Glass”

The Guardian (UK):

  • “Overpriced and socially awkward”
  • “My family and friends refused to be seen with me”
  • “The biggest problem with Google Glass is the reaction of people around the wearer”

BBC (UK):

  • “I walked into the restroom and was like, ‘oh my gosh... I’m going to make people really uncomfortable’”
  • “Developing good manners will help us work through a lot of these problems”

The Independent (UK):

  • “Google Glass makes you feel self-conscious”
  • “Getting past the self-conscious stage was a challenge”
  • “Worth a try. Providing you don't mind feeling like a Glasshole"

This isn’t to say that both sides don’t share similar views. But generally speaking, it appears as though America’s biggest concern with the product was around privacy and security. Us Brits however seemed to focus more towards how they looked, often making us feel like ‘social pariahs’.

Google has never released sales figures or usage statistics on Google Glass, which suggests the sales weren’t worth shouting about. And it’s no wonder when wearers look like characters straight out of Minority Report. That, and the fact you pay £1,000 for the privilege.

Voice Assistants

Detective Lieutenant Michael Arthur Long received a near fatal gunshot to the face back in 1982. Fortunately, he was rescued by self-made billionaire Wilton Knight and given a new identity as Michael Knight. He then teamed up with a talking vehicle and fought crime for the majority of his senior career.

If you wonder where I’m going with this, Knight Rider is what I think of when anyone talks about voice assistants. When I ask Siri to enable Bluetooth on my drive home, I temporarily feel like Michael Knight… although this is quickly shattered when I have to type in my passcode.

But it’s not the poor execution of commands that stop me from using it around the house and in public. it’s more the fear of me being caught in discussion with a piece of metal.

Reading through studies and media coverage, what stands out most is that regional accents pose a challenge for many voice assistants, with Geordies and Scousers getting a particularly raw deal.

However there’s no real divide on any particular feature of voice assistants. As with Google Glass, both cultures see these devices to be a privacy concern and it’s unclear who actually listens to your recordings. It also appears that nobody properly knows what to do with a voice assistant. Both the UK and the US have an avid fascination with searching “Top [Insert Number] questions to ask [Insert Voice Assistant]”.

But there were some interesting statistics pulled together around late 2017 when interest in voice assistants had hit a major peak. Both the Pew Research Centre and the IPA found somewhat contrasting data around why users don’t purchase voice assistants across the UK and US.

Pew Research found that almost half of Americans were using voice assistants and 55% of that group say it’s due to being able to use a device hands-free. When it comes to surveying those that don’t use voice search, almost all of them stated that they either weren’t interested or were worried about privacy concerns.

In contrast, a UK study done by the IPA found that 29% of consumers choose not to use voice search due to the embarrassment of talking out loud to a device.

The perfect read however to summarise the differing cultures came from British journalist Rich McCormick writing for The Verge. He describes not only the Brit’s pain of speaking to strangers, but the difficulty in being understood by American strangers while wielding a British accent. And how that problem is replicated with Siri. You can read that here.

 

Segway

In some form or another Dean Kamen, the inventor of Segway, has influenced somewhat of an urban transportation revolution over the past couple of decades. He’s previously claimed that any mode of transport that you stand on and is powered by electricity and a computer is a descendant of Segway. So that would include the latest crazes such as hoverboards and e-scooters.

John Doerr, billionaire investor stated that the Segway would be more important than the internet. Even Steve Jobs stated it would be “as big a deal as the PC”.

The most important comment that emphasises the fragility of a products image, also came from Jobs in which he said that “Segway's image could be ruined by a single rider falling off and hurting themselves”. Unfortunately, that comment pretty much hit the nail on the head. There have been countless high-profile accidents that have had a terrible impact on Segway’s public perception.

George Bush was the first high profile victim to fall on holiday in 2003, Piers Morgan broke three ribs in 2007, the owner of Segway Corporation died steering off a cliff in 2010, and Usain Bolt was taken out by a cameraman in 2015 at the World Athletic Championships.

For a product that was reported to have cost over $100M in research and projected to reach $1B in sales faster than any company before, it’s a shame that they only sold 24,000 units in the first four years.

And we at least know what happened to four of those. But the next time someone passes you by on a hoverboard, remember that there will always be a customer somewhere that doesn’t mind risking it all. You just have to find out who those people are.

What’s the lesson here? Know your audience

Since their release, each of these technologies have quietly found their niche. But imagine how successful and sophisticated these products could be if they targeted the right audience from the get-go. Imagine if Segway zeroed in on tourists instead of boldly hoping it would change the lives of absolutely everyone? Or if Google Glass was only released to engineers and doctors? Or voice assistants can help the blind?

Each of these products has taken the approach of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s clearly not worked. As they invited everybody to get on board, they also opened themselves up to ridicule and reputation damage from the wrong audience. This doesn’t change the fact that there is still a true customer out there, but it does taint the brand before it reaches people who will find it of actual value.

When you build enough hype around your product and attract attention from many different audiences, marketing is key in outlining who the right audience is. Without enforcing this messaging, you run the risk of 99% of the population claiming your product is cringey or embarrassing.

So the moral of the story here is know your audience. If you’re going to release a product that’s completely new, make sure you do your research to find just who it’s for. Don’t get caught up in your own hype, otherwise you could be opening yourself up to a wave of criticism which will overpower the good your product can do.

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Articles by Dylan Kowalczyk

Dylan has been with Enjoy Digital for two years and is a Paid Media Manager and enjoys working with a range of clients in different industries and different budgets.