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Waggle dancing, or Hardware/software

Yet more notes from Diffusion of Innovations. Originally published 11/2/2007 on my Open University blog, during H807.

Image: honey bees in hive

I’ve just finished reading Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers. It’s the book which first proposed the 5-fold classification of innovation adopters into “innovators”, “early adopters”, “early majority”, “late majority” and “laggards”, and has become a classic social science text. I thought I’d blog my notes on the book as I’ve a feeling they might come in useful during this course…

Rogers defines an innovation as

an idea, practice or object that is percieved as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. (Rogers, EM, 2003)

Rogers’ book is a depth study of how innovations spread from individual to individual through a community, and between communities. Many innovations of course are new technologies – to such an extent that the two words can be considered virtual synonyms. Rogers describes a technology as

a design for instrumental action that reduces the uncertainty in the cause-effect relationships in achieving a desired outcome. A technology usually has two components: (1) a hardware aspect, consisting of a tool that embodies the technology as a material or physical object, and (2) a software aspect, consisting of the information base for the tool. (Rogers, EM, 2003)

We have a tendency to focus on the hardware components of new technologies because they’re easier to see. But the original Greek word techne means simply an art or skill, and it’s often the software component of a new technology that has the biggest impact on our lives. In fact many innovations have no physical dimension at all and consist entirely of information or ideas – for example the Reformation, or Darwinism.

My favourite example of the diffusion of a software innovation through a community is the way news of a good source of nectar is spread through a colony of honey bees. A single foraging worker bee who discovers a really good nectar source – an orchard of fruit trees in bloom, say, or a field of oil seed rape – will return to the colony and perform a kind of square dance or jig called a waggle dance at the hive entrance. The moves in the dance tell the surrounding bees everything they need to know about the new nectar source: distance, direction (probably measured as a bearing from the sun) and possibly even how rich it is. The lone forager will continue with the dance until every other worker in the colony has seen it, and if it’s a better nectar source than any others within range, in a few minutes every forager in the hive – perhaps 30,000 of them – will be making a bee line for the nectar bonanza.

Innovation in human communities used to be a really slow process. The new agricultural technologies of the Neolithic Revolution took several thousand years to diffuse through human societies. But the rate of diffusion keeps getting faster, and in the internet age a software innovation can spread through human communities almost as fast as news of a new nectar source can spread through a colony of bees.

Rogers, EM, 2003. “Diffusion of Innovations”, 5th edition, Free Press, New York

One Comment
  1. Thanks for that awesome posting. It saved MUCH time 🙂

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