"I hate to admit it, but now I have one too. Yes, I bought a mobile phone. I've taken a cable TV subscription, too. It's not because I really need them; I could get by perfectly well without these things. But my friends all have them. They talk about them and I hate to feel left out," Matilda Blyth admits. "Often that's how it goes with new technology. The device has a function but it's not the main reason people buy it. They buy it for everything it expresses about who they are and whom they identify with. It is a way for people to communicate socially shared meanings. Technology acts as social glue, holding people together."
When you ask designers about this topic it becomes clear that they are generally not well informed, Blyth explains. "They have specific conceptions of consumers, believing that they buy a new product because it meets a certain need. But in reality people rarely have a well-worked-out picture of their future desires."
People often admit that they do not really need technological devices such as the computer, Blyth says. But they are keen enough to show the researchers what they can do with it and what it means to them. They show off their own Web sites, or a screen-saver that has been scanned from a holiday snapshot, says Blyth. "You can see how the computer has taken on socially significant meanings for the family. It has become integrated into the home, often occupying a prominent place in the living room. This broadcasts a message to visitors: look at what a high-tech family we are!"
A home computer is not simply a functional appliance, according to Blyth. "Its mere presence sends messages to others outside the family, whilst it also stimulates and enriches communication between members of the family. Often its presence means new issues come up in conversation within the family circle. Should mother or father start working at home more? Are there risks involved with children spending hours in a chat room with some stranger on the far side of the world? Should parents worry about their children downloading pornographic pictures?" New technology enables people to vocalize their own concerns, introducing subjects that are not directly related to the hardware itself. In this respect, technology plays a part in determining family values and illustrating how families perceive the world around them, she adds.
"I would like to tell designers not to pay too much attention to what people say they want but to look at what they actually do. I have been conducting a study on 20 British families over several years. I have spent time at home with them, gone shopping with them, had dinner with them and watched TV with them. All the time, I observed the way they behave toward technology," Blyth says. "If you look at technologies like this, you forget that they are useful, and you begin to see that they are good for looking at how people express themselves. Most of the families I followed admitted outright that they didn't really need the appliances they have. They seem to be used as devices to formulate identity and structure "correct" forms of consumption."
Blyth explains: "Sometimes a piece of hardware becomes so familiar that people stop seeing it as technology. I asked a few people to photograph all the technological appliances in their house. They often left out the telephone. "That's not technology," they said, because it had become so integrated into the everyday activities of the home. So it seems that people rank their domestic hardware in a certain order, according to how it fits into their lives."
It is easily assumed that television has a purely entertainment function in the home. But sociological research suggests that this is not the full story, according to Blyth. "TV programs provide consumers with a common area of conversation. The same applies to home computers. There is a widespread image of the teenagers barricading themselves in their rooms endlessly playing computer games. Should we be concerned about this? I don't think so." Blyth believes that computer games give children opportunities for contact with others at school. "They talk about their game tactics and swap software on the playground. This type of interaction generally leads on to broader conversations on all kinds of subjects."
Blyth feels these are facts that ought to interest designers. "It has become clear to me through my research that designers tend to think about consumers in limited ways. They are strongly inclined to see consumers as economic entities with clearly definable needs. Instead, in the words of the sociologist Bourdieu, designers ought to think of themselves as 'cultural intermediaries'playing an active role in attaching to products particular meanings and lifestyles with which consumers will identify," she says.
"Designers tend to pigeonhole the public rather too rigidly. The designer assumes, for example, that a teenager's time is spent either surfing the Web or slumped before the TV. But this is not how teenagers see themselves. They are not divided into purely active or purely passive individuals but are a mix of both. Teenagers also like mixing their activities together." Many would apparently be happy to watch four TV channels at once while also engaged in an interactive activity, says Blyth. "Current systems do not allow you to do thisyou have to come out of couch potato mode to read a text on the computer screen and respond to it."
"Designers tend to pigeonhole the public too rigidly"
The Internet is a good example of a technology that has social implications that have not yet been recognized by designers, according to Blyth. "What significance does the Internet have for children, for example? We know they find it more "creative" than television because it allows them to explore actively. 'It's a boring day spent at home just watching TV,' children say." Essentially television has scarcely changed over the yearsit remains a rectangular screen in a black box. The telephone, on the other hand, has acquired a colorful, playful exterior, Blyth adds.
"Fortunately there is a gradual trend toward the design of consumer electronics that contains a better understanding of the symbolic significance of goods," says Blyth. She cites the colorful iMac computer as a good example. "An iMac in your living room proclaims, 'I am creative, not one of those boring, conservative PC users.' It becomes a conversation piece as well as a computer."
Perhaps designers should pay more attention to these social aspects of technology? "There is no point in trying to sell a mobile phone solely on the grounds that it has more functions than its competitors," says Blyth. "It might instead be worth giving it a 'cooler' image than the othersgiving it an emotional, expressive quality that symbolizes something to the consumer. Designers should start to think about what a new product means and expresses for users at the very beginning of the design process and what they can do to facilitate this."
Matilda Blyth <email@example.com> has spent 10 years researching the social and cultural aspects of technological change. She is currently Web editor for Sky TV's technology channel and is completing her doctoral research at Brunel University in the United Kingdom. Her research involved ethnographic work with British Telecom's research laboratories, analyzing the production and consumption of interactive technologies for the home.
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