Unfulfilled Promises and Personal Confessions: a Postpositivist Inquiry Into the Idealized and Experienced Meanings of Consumer Technology

Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison
ABSTRACT - Marketing promotions frequently portray consumer technologies in idealized terms that promise to easily resolve everyday problems, eliminate inconveniences, save time and enable consumers to achieve their full potential. This paper uses a postpositivist research approach to explore the symbolic meanings and personal dilemmas that arise when the promises of technology fail to materialize. A hermeneutic analysis is presented of a consumer's experience of being disappointed with consumer technology. Next, these personal meanings are situated in a broader context of cultural meanings that reflect an idealization of technology and its empowering properties. This idealization is then discussed with respect to its potential societal effects and its implications for consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Craig J. Thompson (1994) ,"Unfulfilled Promises and Personal Confessions: a Postpositivist Inquiry Into the Idealized and Experienced Meanings of Consumer Technology", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 104-108.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 104-108

UNFULFILLED PROMISES AND PERSONAL CONFESSIONS: A POSTPOSITIVIST INQUIRY INTO THE IDEALIZED AND EXPERIENCED MEANINGS OF CONSUMER TECHNOLOGY

Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

ABSTRACT -

Marketing promotions frequently portray consumer technologies in idealized terms that promise to easily resolve everyday problems, eliminate inconveniences, save time and enable consumers to achieve their full potential. This paper uses a postpositivist research approach to explore the symbolic meanings and personal dilemmas that arise when the promises of technology fail to materialize. A hermeneutic analysis is presented of a consumer's experience of being disappointed with consumer technology. Next, these personal meanings are situated in a broader context of cultural meanings that reflect an idealization of technology and its empowering properties. This idealization is then discussed with respect to its potential societal effects and its implications for consumer research.

INTRODUCTION

Technology is such a ubiquitous feature of modern life that we often fail to notice the extent to which our experiences are shaped by encounters with technological artifacts. Historical and sociological analyses have documented that technological developments often exert a pervasive influence on the course of societal development (Hill 1988; Romanyshyn 1989). For example, traditional gender based divisions between housework and employment in the "public" sphere have arisen through multiple transformations in technological systems that shifted the household from a site of production to a more "privatized" unit of consumption and that also reduced the physical demands of household maintenance (Cowan 1983).

In concert with the societal influences exerted by technology, marketers have long portrayed consumer technology as both a magic elixir for the tribulations of everyday life and a means to unleash the "true" inner potential of its user. Since the early 1900's, producers of consumer technologies have invested considerable promotional effort to establish the value of these products in the "consumer mind" (Ewen and Ewen 1982; Stern 1993). These promotional activities serve to intertwine modern conceptions of the good-life with the ideal of technological progress and its promise of empowering individuals to do more things, in less time, with more satisfying results, than ever before.

For purposes of this paper, the relevant point is that the promotion of consumer technologies reflects a longstanding cultural view that technology is a tool for enhancing productivity and creating a better way-of-life by controlling nature (Firat and Venkatesh 1993). Within the context of this cultural view, a relevant question is what meanings and personal dilemmas emerge for consumers when the promise of technology fails to materialize. The psychological and sociological consequences that arise from disparities between culturally prominent ideals and consumer realities have been frequently explored in regard to idealized standards of physical attractiveness (Pollay 1986; Richins 1991; Wolf 1991). The idealization of technology also conveys a series of standards about personal efficiency and achievement that may become problematic for consumers who are unable to realize them.

The present paper seeks to explore the symbolic meanings that emerge when a person experiences a disparity between the idealized and actual benefits of consumer technologies. This research approach is consistent with the postpositivist emphasis on developing richer understandings of how consumer experiences emerge in specific cultural contexts (Hirschman and Holbrook 1992). From a postpositivist perspective, personal meanings are not "subjective" in the sense of being idiosyncratic to the perspective of an individual. Instead, personal meanings emerge within a broader cultural context and, as such, they are "scripted" by culturally shared meanings (Foucault 1972).

This postpositivist orientation portrays the "subject," not as a sovereign center of self-chosen meanings, but rather as a participant in a web of cultural discourses and meanings (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982). In accord with this postpositivist view, the interpretive strategy will be to first articulate the personal meanings a consumer experiences when "technology" fails to provide its anticipated benefits. Next, these personal meanings will be situated within a broader socio-cultural context.

THE PERSONAL MEANINGS OF AN UNREALIZED TECHNOCRATIC IDEAL

The text for this postpositivist consideration was derived from a phenomenological interview with "John", a thirty-four year old, male graduate student and a subsequent "member-check" dialogue used to assess the adequacy of the interpretation and to clarify and elaborate the issues it identified. The interview was conducted in accord with the conventions of existential-phenomenological research (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989) and interviews were audiotaped, with the participant's permission. The interview began by asking if there was any technological product that stood out as being important in John's daily routine. From that point, the course of the interview was largely set by the participant with the interviewer's ensuing questions aimed at evoking more thorough descriptions and/or seeking clarifications of expressed meanings.

The interview was interpreted through a circular process whereby partial understandings of the text were continually reassessed and modified in light of the developing understanding of the whole. The interpretive focus was on highlighting patterns and interrelated meanings which constituted the narrative structure of the text. Two primary evaluative criteria for hermeneutic research are that it provides a coherent and insightful understanding about the text being interpreted and is demonstratable in terms of the text itself (Hirschman and Holbrook 1992; Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989).

John chose to discuss his recent purchase and usage experiences with a computer printer. During the interview, frequent references were also made to experiences with his personal computer. In a post-interview discussion, John noted that he was unable to meaningfully discuss his experiences of the computer printer without reference to his personal computer. For John, the computer printer and personal printer formed a gestalt-like product constellation in which meanings of the one product where grounded by meanings of the other (see Solomon 1988).

John, who was on educational leave from his duties as an officer in the United States military, had purchased a personal computer upon entering graduate school. For two years, he relied on printers available at the University. After beginning work on his graduate thesis, he purchased a computer printer for home use. John's opening description focused on its technical attributes and capabilities:

J: Well it's made by Toshiba. It is a letter quality printer but it has the capability to go to a dot matrix format, I guess so you can go to a faster speed. It is relatively fast for a letter quality printer and it is fairly adaptable to whatever type of [computer] terminal you are using. Oh, one that I didn't mention is the quality of the printing output which is important.

As the interview unfolded, it became clear that John's computer printer experience involved a range of meanings that extended beyond the scope of this initial technical focus:

J: I knew I could buy the Toshiba [printer] from a catalogue and trust the quality of the product we got. I could have done that with Brother and one or two other brands and not been too concerned about the quality I was going to get in.

I: What was it about those brands that you trusted?

J: I had personal experience in using Brother printers. With the Toshiba, I was able to actually physically see the product in a local store. If I had not been able to see the product and the craftsmanship that went into it then I wouldn't have put quite so much trust in the name. I'm sure I would have been more cautious. I probably wouldn't have bought it.

I: Can you describe the craftsmanship that went into the Toshiba?

J: The way the features were designed. I don't know really how to explain it. Uh...I think it was appearance. Things that may not matter a whole lot in terms of usage or the final product but are at least a surface indicator of the quality that went into the product, the guts of the machine. You hope that if it appears to be a high quality product on the surface that internally the parts will be of equal quality.

Rather than relying on abstract technical criteria, John's assessment of quality was driven by a perceptually-based (and rather aesthetic) intuitive appraisal of its craftsmanship. The "guts of the machine" were understood as a somewhat mysterious realm whose nature must be inferred from surface appearances that "may not matter a whole lot in terms of usage." The references to "trust in the name" and his "hope" that surface appearances reflected the quality of its internal parts also suggest that John's preference for the Toshiba was based more on an interpersonal consideration than an evaluation of technical capabilities. That is, John hoped that the Toshiba corporation would not violate his trust by building a product whose external appearance of quality was deceptive.

This sensitivity to interpersonal concerns permeated John's experiences with computer technology, beginning with the task of shopping for a viable alternative:

J: When I go to computer stores, I can't help but feel that what they try to sell you is based on some inane capability of the computer. I think there really is a mismatch between what we [John and his wife] were looking for and what retailers look for. There was no real good understanding of what we wanted.

John described the local retailers' knowledge of computers and computer printers in the following way:

J: They pull out the brochure with all the feature data like how many words per second and say this looks like a nice printer and with the Toshiba, they showed me how easily the paper loaded in. I didn't feel that there was a lot of in-depth knowledge about the printer. They weren't specifically attuned to the printer. That's what I generally found. A lot of general knowledge about the printer and PC's but not much specific knowledge about how to use it. I would have bought from a dealer if I thought there would have been some sort of service relationship with that person. I would have been willing a pay a premium to that person if, when I had software or hardware problem, I could go back and ask questions.

Within the text of the interview, in-depth knowledge referred to a practical understanding of how to resolve unforeseen problems and technical impediments to operation. In not being "attuned" to the computer printers, local computer retailers were understood as only having a precursory and general knowledge of technical features. During the interview, John described becoming so frustrated with the local retailers, due to their apparent lack of in-depth knowledge, that he saw no basis on which to build a "service relationship." In the absence of this relationship, John made his purchase by catalogue and, thereby, in isolation from an immediately available source of help and social support.

A primary rationale used in promoting consumer technologies is that they increase personal efficiency by liberating consumers from practical inconveniences (Cowan 1983; Ewen and Ewen 1982). For John, the lure of convenience also provided an explicit motivation for purchasing a computer printer:

J: There were a number of reasons for us finally buying a printer. For one thing, my wife is a nurse and she has to make up forms to organize her shift but, since she didn't have access to a printer, she had to rely on me to get things printed up at school. And then too, I found that after I finished my coursework, I wasn't coming into the office everyday and I certainly wasn't staying there ten hours a day anymore. So it was certainly was more convenient for me to work at home.

This promise of increased convenience and control, however, did not readily materialize:

J: Just to get the thing [the printer] on line it took us a couple of days. We ran into all kinds of problems. The assembly wasn't all that difficult. It was the programming that was the problem. Programming it to the computer, It was frustrating. I had to get "Mike" [a friend described as being a computer expert] to help......At that time it was very frustrating. You feel like, you know, what your dad went through before Christmas trying to put something together.

For John, these programming problems magnified the absence of a "service relationship" with a local retailer. With respect to the manufacturer's primary source of assistance-the instruction manual- John described it as unclear, unhelpful and probably written by "someone who knew English out of a Japanese-English dictionary and nobody ever cleared it up." To become a meaningful and useful tool, the printer needed to be situated within a helpful interpersonal relationship. In this regard, the programming problems served a positive function by providing a pretext for establishing a helpful relationship with "Mike" in which operational questions could be answered and the feeling of being alone with uncooperative technology alleviated.

In seeking to characterize his frustration with the printer, John offered an archetypic image of technological befuddlement: the hapless father struggling to assemble gifts on Christmas eve. A useful hermeneutic strategy is to attempt to understand such a metaphoric image within the context of the experience being described. For the typified father, the Christmas eve activity of assembling gifts is an end rather than a means: the father is not playing with the toys but is engaged in a serious functional task. When completion of the task is frustrated by "technical difficulties," the archetypic father too becomes frustrated.

For John, learning to use technology was experienced as a frustrating struggle. This experience also evoked feelings of personal disappointment and a begrudging resignation over the eventual prospect of "spending time" on the computer printer:

J: To be quite honest with you, my actual experience with using the printer has not been as I much as I had hoped it would be at this point but I anticipate being able to use it down the line. I know that I don't know everything there is to that printer and, in that way, I feel disappointed but I don't think I attribute that to the printer so much as I haven't put the time into learning it. You know, I've spent plenty of time with everything else working with a computer and I ought to expect that on the printer.

By discounting the playful aspects of computer technology, John's primary criterion of product satisfaction became highly utilitarian:

J: I guess I have a very functional orientation toward the computer. I think a computer is a facilitator of work. It's a different level of a tool. I'm not going to buy a $2000 PC just to play games on.

I: How do you feel about the idea of playing with the printer?

J: I look forward to getting the fonts out of it that I want. I see a computer as a means not as an end. There are a lot of people out there where a computer is just an end. Being a tool is just a by-product of the fact that it is fun and they can spend all day at the computer. I'm not that type of person, I like to get what I want out of the printer and then go.

The paradox of his functional orientation is that it had not facilitated his understanding of how to fully utilize the capabilities of the printer and, thereby, receive its utilitarian benefits. In this context, John experienced disappointment and a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the purchase itself:

J: If I didn't have the dissertation coming down the line, it would be a disappointing purchase because of the amount of money I spent for that type of printer versus the utility I have gotten out of the machine. But knowing I've got the dissertation coming down the line, at least in the long term, it's not disappointing. It's disappointing to me at this point because I haven't had the opportunity to use it nor do I feel that I know all of its capabilities.

I: It seems like you are experiencing some uncertainty?

J: I think so. Always until you get to know the product well, there is some uncertainty. Just like with the VCR, you spend a lot of money to buy features and if you don't know all the features you aren't sure if it's disappointing because the features aren't worth the time and effort you put into it.

Summary and Cultural Considerations

Four major bi-polar themes emerge from John's understanding of home computer technology: 1) being isolated/being helped; 2) being accomplished/being frustrated; 3) knowing how to use technology to its full capability/not knowing how to use technology to its full capabilities; 4) working with technology/playing with technology.

When considering the broader implications of John's experiences of a computer printer, the obvious caveat is than any conclusions based on a single case study must be offered in a spirit of "discovery" rather confirmation. Further, it is necessary to distinguish between the aspects of his experiences that were clearly idiosyncratic to his unique circumstances and those that have more potential to reflect culturally shared meanings. In regard to idiosyncratic factors, much of John's disappointment with computer printer arose from his relative lack of expertise with computer systems. As such, the meanings expressed by John cannot be taken as "general meanings" about computer technology. The issue of concern to the present paper, however, is what do consumers experience when anticipated "technological" benefits of increased efficiency and enhanced capabilities do not materialize. In regard to this issue, John's specific case can be used to gain insight into this more general experience of technology as an unfulfilled promise.

Within Western culture, a constellation of "technocratic" meanings have been closely associated with the development of an industrialized, technological society but that transcend any specific form of technology (see Habermas 1972; Heidegger 1977; Romanyshyn 1989). These technocratic meanings include the idolization of efficiency, the desire for complete control over the environment (and the self), and an incessant quest for increased technical capabilities (power). These meanings seem to be reflected in John's understanding of the computer printer as a functional tool that could increase his productivity and make his life more convenient.

As noted by Heidegger (1977), technocratic thinking directs human actions toward an ideal that has pervaded Western culture since the enlightenment: the perfectly functioning machine or system. While the ideal of an optimally functioning technical system is readily imagined, it is far more difficult to attain in the rough terrain of everyday life. Personal efficiency can be derailed by a number of factors: fatigue, boredom, preoccupation with other concerns, a need for unconstrained play and relaxation, technological breakdowns, or as in John's case, not understanding the technology being used. If a person remains understands these "inefficiencies" from a technocratic viewpoint, the inability to realize the hyper-productive potential of our technological equipment could be experienced as a troubling personal inadequacy.

This technocratic orientation can also result in a sense of dehumanization and/or feelings of personal inadequacy (Ellul 1964). That is, individuals may come to understand themselves as a stockpile of productive capacity to be maximized through the use of technological equipment. The ideal of an optimally productive system then becomes the relevant standard by which actions are judged. Conversely, the uncontrolled, unroutinized, emotional and playful aspects of human life come to be seen as inefficiencies that should be reduced or eliminated. These consequences seem relevant to John's experience of being disappointed with the computer printer. For John, time spent "playing" with the computer printer-even to learn its operation-represented a disliked inefficiency; as such, he drew little satisfaction from actually having solved the dilemma nor from the fact that his inability to operate the computer printer served as the impetus for a meaningful and helpful interpersonal encounter; rather, his focus remained squarely fixed on the unproductive use of time.

John assumed the ultimate responsibility for the disappointing performance of his technological product. In so doing, John "confessed" to his lack of understanding and his failure to devote more time to learning about the printer's capabilities. As noted by Foucault (1980), the act of confessing is an important ritual by which a person expresses his/her allegiance to cultural values that are taken to be true and beyond question. In these terms, the cultural prominence of the technocratic perspective may serve to insulate it from self-reflective criticisms. For example, John could have blamed the computer printer for being overly complex or he could have dismissed his original expectations as being unrealistic. These alternative narratives, however, would have, in the first case, directed attention away from his own individual actions and, in the second, rejected the technocratic ideal itself. When technology is understood from a technocratic viewpoint, consumers may be predisposed to believe that they have failed technology rather than questioning the cultural idealization of technology.

This predisposition may be reinforced by the continual use of technocratic themes to promote consumer goods. In the idealized world of the commercial, the person who has mastered technology has mastered the world. In one sense, this idealization of technology is not all that different from that given to other forms of consumer products. From cigarettes to blue jeans, an implicit promotional promise is that these products can somehow improve their user. In the case of technological products-and products that attempt to shroud themselves in a "technical" cloak-these claims have additional claim to plausibility that derives from our cultural faith in the liberating power of technology.

CONCLUSION

Whereas the twenty-first century had once been foreseen as a utopian "age of leisure," the more common modern-day experience is one of having to do more activities, at a faster pace, than ever before (Schor 1992). The products created to "save" time have ironically become implicated in a cultural time "shortage;" in a dialectical fashion, the accelerated speed of our technological equipment seems to have accelerated the pace of our lives. This contemporary state of affairs lends an almost prophetic ring to Heidegger's concern that technocratic thinking could ensnare human experience within its own demands for speed and efficiency. In seeking to realize the ideals of control and efficiency, individuals become susceptible to the paradox of being controlled by the very technological products that are purported to enhance personal control and freedom.

From a Heideggerian perspective, the problems and potentially dehumanizing qualities of technology do not ensue from the inherent features of technological equipment but rather reside with the technocratic thinking that guides its usage. For example, the development of computer and communication technologies such as fax machines, cellular phones, computer communication networks afford vast opportunities for social interaction and creative enterprise. At the same time, these same technologies can exert a demand to accomplish and/or produce more in a reduced time frame, can blur the boundary between home and work, and can isolate the individual by creating a more self-contained and autonomous work environment.

Another dilemma potentially posed by the technocratic perspective derives from its dualistic and dominating orientation (Habermas 1972; Romanyshyn 1989). The technocratic model of selfhood is the autonomous "individual" who exists apart from nature and controls it. The analyses and critiques offered by ecological activists have demonstrated that this technocratic model has encouraged a long history of sacrificing the environment in the cause of dualistically based interests and priorities (King 1990). It is becoming increasingly evident that this technocratic conception is not a viable description of our relationship to our ecological surroundings. From acid raid to ozone depletion, human life and health is inexorably tied to the ecological health of the planet. Rather than understanding ourselves as technocratic managers of environmental resources, ecological activists have been advocating a cultural view in which we see ourselves as fundamentally embedded in an encompassing ecological system and where sustainability assumes priority over efficiency. Such a change in cultural perspective, however, would also entail a dramatic change in how technology is understood.

The accelerating pace of technological innovations and the continued cultural prevalence of technocratic themes creates a need for more a systematically developed understanding of the effects this "cultural condition" exerts on social relationships, individual self-concepts, the perceived pace of everyday life, and consumer perceptions of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Such an understanding would be valuable from a managerial standpoint in terms of helping to better specify the meanings that inspire the acceptance, rejection, or resistance to technological innovations.

From a more macro-standpoint, the socio-cultural consequences of technocratic thinking also warrant further exploration. For example, it may be that our cultural "faith" in technology may also give rise to a sense of false security in regard to our ability to manage and correct the very problems created by technological advancement. Whether in regard to one's body or the environmental protection, the significance of protecting these biological systems may be moderated by a sense that a "technological cure" can eventually be found to undo whatever damage they incur. [A variant of this theme can be seen, for example, in the record grossing film Jurassic Park. While offering an explicit moral that human beings cannot fully control nature, its basic premise was that the power of scientific technology could overcome any natural obstacle, even extinction.] The faith in technological cures could perhaps play a shaping role in current public policy debates that are directly or indirectly tied to "consumer behaviors"-such as the "management" of old-growth and rain forests, commercial development of wetland areas, the determination of acceptable levels of environmental pollution and the pace at which natural resources are "harvested."

As McCracken has noted (1988), consumer products, and the meanings ascribed to them through advertising, are a primary vehicle through which cultural values, beliefs and meanings are transferred to the experiences of the individual. This cultural function would also seem to impose a responsibility upon consumer researchers to more fully address the relationships between technocratic ideals, the experienced meanings of consumer technologies, consumers' self-concepts and our cultural orientations toward "nature."

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