Adapting to the Side Effects of New Technologies

Rehak’s Law: Like medicine, every new technology has side effects that are unintended. Rehak’s Corollary: The more popular the technology, the greater the side effects. For instance:

  • Cell phones and texting distract drivers and contribute to traffic accidents.
  • The Internet makes porn readily available to kids.
  • Electronic commerce opens a door to identity theft.
  • Email invites spam
  • Video games make violence feel commonplace

Diffusion Theory Describes How Innovations Spread Through Society

“Diffusion” is term used by marketers to describe the process by which the market accepts new technologies, products and ideas. Everett Rogers popularized the theory in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. The book explains how, why, and at what rate new technologies, products and ideas spread through cultures. Rogers describes five categories of adopters.

  • Innovators – venturesome
  • Early adopters – leaders
  • Early majority – deliberate
  • Late majority – skeptical
  • Laggards – fearful

The ability of most marketers to find and appeal to innovators and early adopters determines their success. The distribution of these groups within any population looks something like this.

 Diffusion curve

How Society Adapts to Side Effects of New Technologies

Roger’s theory focuses on the adoption of new technologies, products and ideas. One could draw a similar curve, however, that describes adaptation to new technologies, products and ideas as people deal with their inevitable side effects. Here, too, I have observed five stages.

  • Recognition
  • Communication
  • Insulation
  • Regulation
  • Obsolescence

Superimposed over the adoption curve, the adaptation curve looks something like this.

Adaptation curve

Innovators and early adopters are among the first to recognize side effects.

They communicate with each other to raise awareness of side effects as they become apparent. At this early stage, self-defense is the only defense against dangers.

As more people adopt new technologies, aftermarkets develop for products and services that insulate people from negative side effects. For instance, computer networking spawned products that:

  • Inoculated computers against viruses
  • Blocked hackers with firewalls
  • Encrypted data to protect against identity theft

At this stage, the spread of side effects plateaus but continues. If the problems are severe enough and affect enough people, government steps in to pass regulations that impose fines or jail time on abusers.

However, abuse – or the side effect – never really stops until a technology becomes obsolete and people migrate to newer technologies (the dotted line in the graph above). At that point, criminals lose interest and follow the market. By the time you reach the end of one technology’s life cycle, something new is coming out. The cycle, like life, repeats itself.