Lost and Found: The impact of a socio-technical addiction

Consumer behavior insights and lessons learned

A few weeks ago, the authors of this post ended up in a big mess of their own making. After going through the usual phases – denial, anger, scrambling for solutions – we decided to reflect and share what we learned.

It started at a faculty meeting on a Thursday evening, when we involuntarily exchanged our laptops. During the meeting all faculty moved around, participating in workgroups, taking their laptops, often closed. Contrary to student laptops, (wisely) covered with stickers, most BSL faculty use identical-looking clean Apple MacBooks. The meeting ended, everyone took a computer and retuned home.

After dinner, Sascha opened the laptop to check if everything was ready for his new course “SDG Explorer”, starting next morning at 9, just a few hours later. Big shock: it was not his laptop! A few late evening calls to whichever colleagues would kindly answer finally provided Alexandra’s phone number. She answered similarly upset, and after calling a few other kind people, we had a sort of solution to return our computers in the next day or two.

First Insight (all consumer behavior insights in italics) that we gained here was to face the emotional part of “Am I able to function one full day without my computer? Will I be unproductive? Will I only feel unproductive? Above all, how can I accept that somebody else is having MY computer without me having chosen it.”

Next morning, teaching the new course without a computer was indeed a challenge, as BSL’s decades-old “backup” laptop could not connect to any projector and the iPad kind of worked, but was an inferior solution. But somehow my new course went very well, students were interested and engaged – mainly because everyone went out of their way to help, from BSL staff helping with backup technology, providing moral support, finding whatever supplies could help, and suggesting a more suitable classroom, to students helping with class organization, actively participating in discussions and using their laptops to project required content.

Second Insight: the level of social and personal acceptance of the fact that we so strongly depend on technical tools in our professional environment. Could we try to teach one day without any electronic device? Would this be acceptable from the today’s socio-technical point of view? Or should we try to integrate an authentic learning experience in our courses that illustrates this dependence on technology and let us think about its sustainable use?

Friday’s classes ended well, by Saturday afternoon both computers found their owners, and it was time to reflect on lessons learned.

Third Insight: many of our dear technical devices are customized by their owners. If you don’t customize, you risk losing your global product in a global society, even if the content of your computer does underline your individual spirit. Nobody can see this content, it is inside your mass product! So, even if you are not willing to follow the “personal customization” stream, society is demanding it! 

Most importantly, it was only human kindness of absolutely everyone involved that saved the day, including the BSL students, faculty, staff and members of the Impact Hub Geneva, doubling as a logistics hub. It is easy to underestimate the team dimension of everything we do, of every success – this becomes obvious when there’s a problem. This is often evident during big natural disasters, which are becoming more frequent with climate change, but is just as important with small challenges of everyday life.

Fourth Insight: Humans will make the real difference and define the reality of the consuming environment. The product stays a technical tool and gets social through the personal adaption within a consuming context.

Our over-dependence on computers, or rather the high dependence combined with poor usability and limited reliability makes this problematic. Of course, computers are useful and important for work – but we also rely on running water, sanitation, electricity, phones, railways etc., and these systems are much more reliable and easier to use. Their complexity is hidden, managed by experts – the user experience is simple and predictable. On the other hand, just making your computer work is frustrating for most people, and any hardware or software problem, or loss of device creates a major problem for hours or days. Also, fast innovation cycles require constant upgrading and replacing hardware and software, investing non-negligible time, money and effort. What would it take to really be in charge of technology decisions and tools, as opposed to being forced to always catch up. We should ask ourselves what kind of place we should grant to technology in our society.

Finally, there’s the question of conformity. As scholars, we like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, which we hopefully often are, but obviously not in our consumption patterns. Is the Apple MacBook the only suitable computer for professors? Or do we instinctively need to belong? Does this apparent conformism influence academic thinking?

Two weeks later, we still have the same laptops, Sascha’s one is customized with several stickers (yes – it does look ugly), and Alexandra’s with a classic Apple one, saying “Don’t touch!”. We are not sure that we found an answer to the question of academic conformity, but we certainly do know what difference human kindness means in a social-technical consuming context.

Authors:

Sascha Nick, BSL Professor

Alexandra Broillet, BSL Professor

 

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