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Cargo cults and CD-ROMs

April 12, 2008

metal fish on clapperboard beach-house

In Diffusion of Innovations (core reading for H807 and a social science classic) Everett Rogers identifies compatibility as a key factor in the rate of spread of new technologies. Rogers means that to be successful, an innovation must not seem so alien to existing practice that people can’t imagine themselves using it. There needs to be a hint of continuity in among the newness.

Sometimes though, this need for compatibility has strange, backward-looking consequences which very nearly seem to cancel out the benefits of the innovation. Consider the fax machine, which became ubiquitous in offices in the 1980s and 90s. You start off with a digital document on a computer, but – instead of sending it directly down a telephone line – you make an analogue copy by printing it, then convert it back to digital by scanning it into the fax, send that down a telephone line, then at the other end convert it back again to an analogue form which is less useful than the digital document it started out as! The sole point of this wasteful round-about seems to have been to generate the familiar pieces of paper that office workers were used to.

From an ethnographic point of view, such behaviour looks almost like the cargo cults of Pacific islanders who fetishized the technologies of the first Europeans they encountered and made radios out of coconut shells and straw. Such misunderstood objects are described by sociologists as boundary objects: objects which mark the boundary between cultures, between conceptual worlds, only dimly understood because of their place at the periphery of what is known.

I’d argue that the CD-ROM, which as Martin Weller points out was once hyped as “the new papyrus” (Weller M, 2002), is another example of a boundary object, a digital instance of non-digital thinking. Think about it: you invest a lot of time and money making multimedia, interactive content which (if placed online) could be easily updated and distributed virtually free to anyone online; then you seal it into a piece of plastic so it can never be updated and becomes difficult and costly to distribute! Such crackpottery can surely only be explained in terms of an inability to escape from the model of the printed book which has been our main means of distributing knowledge these last 600 years.

That, plus a weird obsession with plastic.

Weller M, 2002. Delivering Learning on the Net. RoutledgeFalmer

From → H806

  1. Yoke Sau Cheng permalink

    I believe there’s still a place for CDs. In regions and among the less well-off where broadband is still a dream, CDs do remarkably well. A lot of our training material is designed to run online as well as on CDs as many of our target learners are in developing countries. Of course you’re right about the high cost of distribution.

  2. johnmill permalink

    Hi Yoke – youre right of course: CDs do have a role as electronic books where connectivity is limited, and it clearly makes sense, when distribution is a problem, to make content that can be distributed via more than one channel.

    But I think I’d argue that the most narrowband, slow and text-bound connectivity is usually richer in learning potential than the most interactive CD-ROM on an unconnected computer.

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