About a year ago I gave my sister- and brother-in-law my old first generation iPod Shuffle. They had recently purchased a rural property some hours from Toronto. I thought the tiny white MP3 player, combined with a device that pipes the sound through their aging Novaâe(TM)s tape deck would help them while away the northern drive. It would certainly be a convenience over a stack of tired cassettes and fading radio stations. At least, that was the plan.

I showed them how to copy CDs to their home computer, how to use iTunes, how to transfer tracks to the Shuffle. Twice. All for nought. To this day they have yet to use the Shuffle. They’re still listening to scratchy half-broken tapes of “Bellyache Morton and the Gutbuster Trio”, “A 16th Century Terpsicory Sampler” and “Slippy Tyler Sings the Best of Arlo Guthrie”, or acoustic fare like that. It drives me crazy.

Around the same time I showed a friend how to use the social bookmarking site delicious.com to store and retrieve Web favourites from any computer, any browser anywhere in the world. He has seven bookmarks in delicious so far. I also showed him how to use the remarkable power of RSS feeds to save him time researching. He has yet to make use of the tool. This too, drives me up a wall.

Iâe(TM)m sure you have your own stories about fruitless and failed attempts to get coworkers and family members to just try, let alone adopt and embrace new technologies or social media tools. Why is it so hard?

In both these cases the new alternative – the Shuffle and delicous.com have absolutely no downside. The Shuffle is superior to cassette tapes in terms of convenience, fidelity, capacity, size, speed and flexibility. Storing your browser bookmarks in âeoethe cloudâe is, in every way, more convenient than having them in a single folder, on a single browser on a single computer. Using RSS feeds instead of visiting site after site, day after day in hopes of some fresh news nuggets just makes practical sense.

And, in both these cases there was no fundamental shift of time or behavior. My brother- and sister-in-law were already listening to music in their car. My friend was already bookmarking and reading sites. So, in both cases the technological shifts simply made what they were already doing easier or better. They didn’t have to make new time, in fact the changes could save them time. So, why?

The only thing that had to be set aside was habit. And habit, I think, is the make or break component of the adoption of the new. I mean that in two ways.

First, the vast majority of the population does not adopt new tech products or services with the enthusiasm of a Tory pouncing on a Liberal stumble. In fact, only about 15 per cent of us jump in early. Weâe(TM)re the fanboys who line up for an iPhone, the first ones at the car lot the day the new Saturns come out and the folks who know all about the next shoe from Nike. Weâe(TM)ll put up with bugs, queues, software updates and high prices because weâe(TM)re passionate about being on the leading/bleeding edge of whatever we geek out about. And, our old habits donâe(TM)t die hard, weâe(TM)re more likely to give them a clean shot to the head and push them in an early grave. Our habit is to change habits the way gas stations swap prices.

Non-early adopters (marketers call them early and late majority and laggards) arenâe(TM)t like that. To them, their tech habits are like old spaniels and grandma-knit sweaters. They get better, more comforting, with age. And, theyâe(TM)d sooner gargle badger spit than shoot the dog or burn the sweater. It doesnâe(TM)t matter that a new dog would have superior odor and bladder control or that a fresh cardigan would actually have intact elbows. Their comfort comes from the familiar, not the features. And, like all of us, they “satisfice”, they stick to old ways of doing things even though intellectually they know what they’re doing is about as efficient as Billy in Family Circus making his way to the grocery store.

Early adopters of web tools don’t do that because they enjoy the nerdish act of the elegant hack, the deft use of tools that brings information under control with a minimum of effort.

Second, habit comes into play in how technologies are adopted when, dragged to the doorstep of a new service or tool, non-early adopters grudgingly try them out. If latecomers donâe(TM)t get to the point that the new technology becomes a habit, they will, like my friend and relatives, drop it with a haste inversely proportional to their reluctance to adopt it in the first place.

Often getting a newcomer to make a technology a habit means showing them how to use simple tools (say Google Reader or the delicious bookmarklet) that make incorporating the technology into their workflow almost effortless. Even then, it can be an uphill battle.

Using a new technology is like using a rear view mirror while driving forward. At first it seems an intrusion and points your attention in exactly the wrong direction from where you want to go. After a year of driving, you donâe(TM)t even know youâe(TM)re doing it. It just becomes an integrated part of moving down the highway. And, you couldn’t imagine using a car without it.

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to try to get my friends and family to try new tech. Perversely, I guess, itâe(TM)s become a habit.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...