Monday, January 08, 2007

Screw in a Lightbulb

Seth Godin invites bloggers to blog about compact fluorescent lightbulbs (blog, squidoo lens, initial response).
"Why have only 6% of all US households installed even one CF lightbulb?"
Seth is puzzled. It can't be the economics, it can't be the environmental impact. And it's not the geopolitical impact either. "So, why are people apparently immune to the benefits. I mean, why won't we even try one of the bulbs?"

What is the problem? What is the real problem? Is there a problem at all?

Lots of reasons and excuses have been posted in reply to Seth's original post. Apparently, doing something unusual seems to involve more effort (ÜberEye), and effort isn't cool (The Mostly Honest Truth). CF bulbs may not be compatible with your current fittings (including dimmer switches), so you might need to get the toolbox out (PaleGreen). More excuses from 12 gurus.

Apparently something as simple as changing a lightbulb turns into a major shift in lifestyle - the Happy Burro sees the reluctance to use CF bulbs as a case of a more general problem of bad habits, alongside the fact that "One in eight people who survive a heart attack change their lifestyle to avoid another attack. So the resistance to CF bulbs becomes an example of what Glenn Parton calls The Machine in Our Heads.

Some of Seth's readers have pointed out the commercial role of Wal-Mart in promoting CF bulbs, and the happy alignment of economic and environmental interests in this particular case. BloodHoundBlog sees this as an example of the redemptive power of capitalism. (So it's a pity this kind of alignment doesn't happen more often.)

The adoption of technology typically follows an S-curve. Questions about technology adoption therefore need a timescale. Fairhaven, the River says that Seth's figures date from 1999, and produces figures that suggest we are already further up the S-curve. But not far enough, not quickly enough for marketing people who are often impatient to reach a mass market. (To be fair, Seth doesn't always take this position.)

Let's analyse this properly. The system we are looking at here is the system of technology adoption. This system has a characteristic shape - the S-curve - which is produced from the interaction between a number of forces, including the economic interests of producers and consumers, and including the growing maturity of the product and its production process, relative to available substitutes. And technology substitution follows a double-S-curve.

POSIWID invites us to think about the "purpose" of this S-curve. In fact, the S-curve deals with a lot of the issues raised in the CF bulb case - the risks of new products, difficulties of process and interoperability, ramping up production, ramping down production of earlier products. Marketing people may be impatient with the realities of technology change - but you cannot alter this system without understanding it thoroughly. Merely exhorting people to adopt a new product is not going to make any fundamental change.

Note: Most of the popular theories of technology diffusion, adoption and substitution derive from Rogers (1962) and from Utterback and Abernathy (1978), although they are commonly attributed to more recent authors.

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