Technology and Culture

In the late 1970s, nobody wore headphones outside. A Japanese company wanted to change that.

In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman, and suddenly, the act of listening to music was no longer restricted to your home or a noisy boombox outside. You could privately listen to whatever you wanted everywhere you went.

The problem Sony faced was that wearing headphones in public at that time would have been considered odd, which meant Sony's new product needed to change people's behavior, and therefore our culture, in order to succeed.

Any new technology needs to have a clear value proposition, but this is especially true for one that asks people to go against the grain of social expectations. Consider how products like the Segway and Google Glass failed to find a mainstream market. They lacked a clear use case and therefore faced an uphill battle getting people to act differently in public.

Fortunately for Sony, its chairman Akio Morita understood that there is a dance between disruptive technology and culture. If you want to change the culture, the story of your new product needs to be clear.

When engineers brought Morita a prototype of the Walkman with a recording function built in, he told them to remove it, even though the economics of producing the device with that feature would have easily worked.

Morita was concerned that the ability to record would confuse people. He wanted the device's purpose to be clear, to maximize the probability that people would be willing to change their behavior. So, the Walkman shipped without the recording function. It's use case was simple: Listen to your music anywhere.

Today, wearing headphones in public is ubiquitous.

Our ability to create effective work relies on our understanding of how we're interacting with culture. And since technology has such an enormous cultural impact, we see the importance of this principle play out over and over again throughout the industry's history.

Author Steven Johnson, writing for The Wall Street Journal, illustrates this by drawing on his experience (paywall – archived snapshot) coming of age when the Mac was first released:

In a funny way, the Mac played the same role for me that "Catcher in the Rye" or "Easy Rider" played for earlier generations: Experiencing it expanded my consciousness in ways that took me years to fully understand. Almost all my engagements with the technology world since thenβ€”the books I've written and the websites I've createdβ€”have been animated by the basic principle that digital machines work better when they are crafted and interpreted by people whose sensibility is shaped by the world of culture as much as that of technology.

Of course, this is true not just for technology, but for everything that we make.

When our work is informed by how the world truly works – not just how we wish it would – we maximize its impact.

Hat tip to David Perell for the Walkman story.

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