Consumption Ecology: the Role of Time &Amp; Space in the Adoption, Integration and Consumption of Technology Products in Everyday Life

ABSTRACT - This pilot study explores the adoption and consumption of technology products as two complementary parts of a single, ongoing process. Semi-structured, phenomenological interviews are used to develop an ecology metaphor that explains the complexity of consumer-technology product relationships. The metaphor is comprised of four key componentsBselective impacts, spatial behaviors, dynamic variability, and stability/resilienceBand provides a base for theory development. Implications and future research directions are discussed.


Susan M. Lloyd (2001) ,"Consumption Ecology: the Role of Time &Amp; Space in the Adoption, Integration and Consumption of Technology Products in Everyday Life", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 79-86.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 79-86


Susan M. Lloyd, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


This pilot study explores the adoption and consumption of technology products as two complementary parts of a single, ongoing process. Semi-structured, phenomenological interviews are used to develop an ecology metaphor that explains the complexity of consumer-technology product relationships. The metaphor is comprised of four key componentsBselective impacts, spatial behaviors, dynamic variability, and stability/resilienceBand provides a base for theory development. Implications and future research directions are discussed.


Touch-tone telephone. Cordless telephone. Cellular phone. Videophone. Email. Pager. Answering machine. All of these products represent technologies that allow us to communicate with other persons. Virtually all of us own at least one of these productsBand some o us own most (or even all) of them.

Technological products increasingly pervade our lives and shape our interactions with others. In fact, as the example above suggests, technology provides us with myriad choices of how we perform various functions, such as communicating with others. Originally, personal visits and written notes were the only ways of communicating with others. In the mid-18th century, the telegraph provided a new means of communicating urgent information. In the 1880s, the telephone was invented, and eventually served as the first purely mechanical means of communication readily available to the masses. Gradually, the telephone moved into the home, becoming a personal communications device. And more recently, we have experienced an explosion of personal communications technologies, including cordless phones (for mobile communications), cellular phones (for transportable communications), pagers (for immediate notification of attempts to communicate), answering machines and email (for leaving messages), and videophones (for audio-visual communications).

Such a group of products forms a "technology cluster." More formally, a technology cluster is defined as a group of products that use different technologies to satisfy a core (or basic) consumer need. Thus, a technology cluster is broader than a product class, but more specific than a product family. For purposes of this paper, "technology" is defined as the processes, mechanisms, or other components of a device that allow it to function. Products may be arrayed on a technology continuum ranging from "low-tech" (i.e., non-electronic products that are perceived by consumers to operate via mechanical action) to "high-tech" (i.e., electronic products that are perceived by consumers to "think" for themselves by use of embedded knowledge, generally in the form of a programmed computer chip).

When a new product is introduced into a technology cluster, these products sometimes replace existing products, which are now obsolete. For example, touch-tone telephones replaced rotary dial telephones. In other cases, however, new products supplement existing products, such that the overarching function (e.g., "interpersonal communications") is sub-divided into more refined "micro functions." For example, the introduction of the cordless phone in the 1980s was associated with a new micro-function, "mobile communications," that in turn, filled an emerging consumer need. This suggests that the introduction of new products into a technology cluster can lead to greater complexity in both the adoption and consumption processes resulting in ongoing decisions about how new products will be used and how they will be integrated with existing products.

The complexity of adoption has been explored to some extent (e.g., Hirschman 1987; Oropesa 1993), as has consumption (e.g., Holt 1995; Holbrook, Chestnut, Oliva, and Greenleaf 1984), although most of the latter tends to focus on satisfaction (e.g., Oliver 1992) rather than on the actual process of consumption, per se. The purpose of this pilot study is to explore the post-adoption consumption process of products in a technology cluster. Such an approach will help highlight the evolutionary nature of consumer-technology product relationships. The study focuses on high-technology products because they tend to be complex and fairly expensive, thus making them more salient for consumers. Based on semi-structured, phenomenological interviews, a metaphor that explains the complexity of consumer-technology product relationships will be developed and supported. This metaphor can serve as a first step in developing a theory of post-adoption consumer-technology product relationships as they evolve over time.


Traditionally, the marketing literature separates the processes of product purchase (including new product adoption) and product use (or consumption) into tw distinct research streams. More recent research is beginning to cross-cut these two domains, implicitly and explicitly. For example, using a longitudinal approach Mick and Fournier (1998) explore the paradoxes inherent in high-tech consumer products and the coping strategies used during adoption and consumption. While these authors examine consumer interactions with individual high-tech products, the current research will explore consumer interactions with products in a technology cluster.

At an aggregate level, two models (or typologies) of the relationship between consumers and individual products already exist. Both modelsBthe product life cycle and Roger’s (1995) adopter categorizationBare generally depicted as continuous, normally distributed curves and focus on a single product. Together, they suggest that the stages through which the product progresses from the time it is first introduced to the market until the time it is "retired" (and therefore, no longer available for purchase) temporally correspond to consumer groups organized on the basis of innovativenessBthe "degree to which individuals [are] relatively earlier in adopting new ideas than other members of a social system" (Rogers 1995). Thus, when a product is in the "introductory" stage of the life cycle, people classified as "innovators" will be the first consumers to purchase the product.

Three specific points can be made about the product life cycle (PLC). First, while it is readily acknowledged that the PLC does not always follow a normal distribution (see Figure 1, A-D), the key determinant of these alternate shapes is the characteristics of the product, rather than the characteristics of the consumer (Berkowitz, Kerin, Hartley, and Rudelius, 1997). For example, a "high-learning product" has a life cycle with a long introductory period because these products (e.g., personal computers) are complex and require a lengthy period of customer education prior to purchase (Berkowitz et al, 1997).

Second, PLC curves represent product sales. However, these sales may be to a first-time buyer or to a repeat buyer. Moreover, underlying these sales are various motivations and consumption processes. The point is this: although the PLC implicitly integrates consumers and products, it does not explicitly explore the consumption activities that instigate or follow the purchase transaction.



Third, while some of the alternative PLC curves (notably that for fashion products) indicate that purchases may be cyclical, it is important to remember that these curves are aggregate in nature and focus on a single product. Thus, they demonstrate overall market trends related to 35mm cameras, for example, suggesting what allBor mostBconsumers are doing at a given time, but reflect neither the puchase motivations nor the consumption patterns of individual consumers.

In a similar manner, the adoptor categorization curve also presents aggregate information at the sacrifice of understanding and acknowledging the purchase motivations and consumption behaviors of individual consumers. This curve implies rigidity; i.e., once a product is adopted by a consumer, it remains adopted and can not be "dis-adopted" or adapted. Moreover, the curve implies that a successful new product is eventually adopted by all consumersBit is "just a matter of time." Finally, the curve, because it is focused on a single product, leaves little room for understanding if and how the adoption of new products is integrated with the consumption of existing products in a technology cluster, or alternatively, whether it represents a "one-time" purchase that is later dis-adopted or resisted. The point is this: while the product life cycle and the adopter categorization models provide useful, overall frameworks, they do not adequately address the ongoing post-adoption decisions that characterize consumer-product relationships.



To understand the dynamic relationship between consumers and technology products from the time of adoption through consumption, integration, and re-purchase, a semi-structured phenomenological inquiry was conducted. This approach is particularly suitable because "phenomenological research is the study of lived experience [it] aims at gaining a deeper understanding of the nature or meaning of our everyday experiences. [It] asks, 'What is this or that kind of experience like?’" (Van Manen, 1990). Depth interviews regarding technology purchases and consumption experiences were conducted with three respondents.

Interviewee Selection and Profiles

Three consumers were interviewed for this pilot study. Two interviews approximately 60-90 minutes in length were conducted with each during the period November 1998 to January 1999. In keeping with the pilot nature of the study, a convenience sample was used. In addition, an effort was made to select a set of interviewees who were fairly diverse in terms of age, occupation, gender, and household composition. These variables were selected because they reflect inherent differences in technology comfort, familiarity, and usage. Brief profiles of the respondents are provided in Table 1.

It should be noted that the interviewees are fairly similar in terms of educational background and orientationBall of them have advanced degrees in business. This is important because educational attainment and social status are two of the most important characteristics of early adopters of new products and technologies (Midgley 1987, Im, Bayus, and Mason 1998).



Interview Method and Materials

The semi-structured interview protocol was organized around four sets of household products, representing communications technologies, kitchen technologies, entertainment technologies, and computing technologies. Each set contained 5-6 products that can be used for the same basic function. These setsBor technology clustersBwere developed prior to conducting the interviews. Although this type of structure conflicts with the general tenets of phenomenological inquiry, this modification was made for two reasons: (1) the time constraints inherent in a pilot study and (2) the newness of the "technology cluster" construct. However, in the spirit of phenomenology, the interviewer did not explicitly label the technology clusters when presenting them to interviewees; in addition, she solicited ideas from them regarding how each group might be labeled and whether products should be removed from it or added to it.

At the start of the interview, respondents were asked to select two of the four groups of products: that which represents the most technology products they (or their household) has ever owned and that which represents the fewest. Starting with the "most technologies" group, the interviewee was asked to place individual cards (each imprinted with a picture of one of the products from the group) on a board set up in Table 2, indicating their own purchase and use.

Interviewees were given three other stacks of cards (with the same products) and asked to organize the products in terms of purchase history (earliest purchase to most recent purchase), current frequency of use (most often to least often/never), and technology perceptions (low-tech to high-tech). Using these product arrangements as a framework, the respondents were asked a series of interrelated questions about the circumstances leading to purchase, initial consumption, changes in consumption, how products were integrated with one another following the purchase of new products within the group, etc. This approach allowed a cohesive and comprehensive picture of each interviewee’s experience/relationship with technology products toemerge. In addition, as relevant, interviewees discussed the role of these products in terms of broader household dynamics; i.e., how other members of the household use the products, and in so doing, how they interact with the respondent.

Analytical Approach

Interviews were transcribed and read in their entirety. An analytic memo was developed outlining four key concepts: (1) circumstances for selecting and using technology products, (2) trade-offs made in technology purchase and consumption, (3) factors influencing consumers’ technology saturation point, and (4) linkage of behaviors to perceptions and definitions of household technologies. Using these as very general categories, line-by-line coding was done for all transcripts, yielding a comprehensive coding outline. (The coded interviews and coding outline were reviewed and critiqued by four persons trained in qualitative research, but not actively engaged in the current study.) Following a re-reading of all transcripts in their entirety, the coding outline was re-organized into a coding matrix, with "major categories" listed in the columns and "sub-categories," in the rows. The major categories represent "stages" (or decision points) in the technology adoption-consumption process. The sub-categories represent consumer issues, perceptions, and experiences related to technology products that are present at one or more "stages" of the adoption-consumption process. An excerpt from the coding matrix is shown as Table 3.

Using the coding matrix as a guide, analytic memos were written for each interview transcript. Each memo highlighted and reflexively explored a relevant sub-set of key items from the coding matrix. These memos were pre-cursors to the development of a single emergent theme. This theme focused on the complexity of consumption as an ongoing intertwining between consumers and products that may be modeled as an evolutionary process characterized by stability and change. Elements from the individual analytical memos that helped form this emergent theme include, for example, the role of products in establishing boundaries for personal privacy, consumer-product "negotiations" and "re-negotiations," the multiple roles of time in consumer-product relationships, and the inter-generational aspects of consumer’s tendencies to adopt (or resist) new technologies.





The Role and Meaning of Metaphor

As discussed above, analysis and interpretation of the data suggests that the relationship between consumers and technology products is both complex and dynamic. The relationship clearly extends beyond the actual purchase transaction and, through consumption, shifts, expands, shrinks, and re-forms as both the consumer (and his or her needs) and the product change. While we all experience these changes in some form, they can be difficult to describe. And that is why I chose to frame the analysis in terms of a metaphor.

According to Richardson (1990), "Metaphor is the backbone of social science writing, and like a true spine, it bears weight, permits movement, links parts together into a functional, coherent wholeBand is not immediately visible." In keeping with this description, a metaphor was created from the interview data that would not only help explain consumer-technology product relationships, but could also serve as a useful first step in theory development. Such a theory could build upon the work of Mick and Fournier (1998) who explore consumer-product relationships for individual technologies, using a framework of paradox and coping.

Initially, a dance metaphor was considered, but discarded due to too many dissimilarities. In an effort to overcome these issues, an ecology metaphor was developed. [A dance, while dynamic, fluid, and ongoing, is performed between two "like" entities (i.e., two people), whereas consumer-technology product relationships represent two "unlike" entities. In addition, many dances tend to be formally scripted (or choreographed); have clearly defined beginning and end points; and usually require that one entity lead, while the other follows. These characteristics are not clearly analogous to consumer-technology product relationships.]


Introduction to Ecology and its Link to Consumption

Ecology provides an apt metaphor for consumer-technology product relationships. Fundamentally, ecology is defined as "the scientific study of the relationship between organisms and their environment" (Smith and Smith, 1998). In fact, as originally coined by Haekel in 1866, ecology is based on the same Greek root as the word economics; thus, it may be considered "’the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature" (Kormondy 1996). The primary unit of study in ecology is the ecosystem, defined by Tansley in 1935 as "’the whole system, including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors we call the environment" (Kormondy 1996).

Ecosystems and consumer-technology product relationships have several characteristics in common. First, both ecosystems and consumer-technology product relationships involve an interdependence between two entities, one animate (i.e., organisms or consumers) and one inanimate (i.e., the environment or products). [In his article on the extended self, Belk (1988) discusses the important role of consumer-object-consumer interactions during the consumption process-a type of interdependence-in the development of the personal meaning of things.] This interdependence occurs over both time and space, the two most critical dimensions in ecology and ecosystems (Capra 1996). Second, both ecosystems and consumer-technology product relationships are interactive (not static) and characterized by non-linear feedback loops and self-regulation (Capra 1996). For consumer products, such relationships have been found by Bell and Tasaki (1992) who demonstrate that the level of attachment associated with 10 common household products follows a flattened bell-shaped curve (or "consumption life cycle") from pre-acquisition through disposal. This suggests that over time, product use encourages reflexive feedback that impacts, in turn, how the consumer will perceive and use the product in the future. Third, both ecosystems and consumer-technology product relationships become more complex when external actions are taken into account. In ecosystems, these external (or "third-party") actions are typically initiated by humans and are distinct from naturally occurring activities. Such third-party actions can cause unexpected (and sometimes, irreversible) change in the ecosystem, facilitating the emergence of ecosystem management (Dickinson and Murphy 1997) and more recently, ecological economics (Van den Bergh and Van der Straaten 1997) to help limit/control potential disruptions caused by development.

Throughout the long history of Man, people have altered the environment on which we all continue to depend. Generally, this alteration was undertaken in order to make the environment a better place to live inBmore productive of food, shelter, water, mineral resources, or other useful products. Such alteration is now commonly termed 'development.’ (Hollings, 1978).

Similarly, companies that manufacture and sell technology products function as a "third-party" in consumer-technology product relationships. Companies are essentially research and development engines: they monitor, fill, and influence consumer needs; and then develop and modify the requisite new products. Such activities can disrupt the routines and relationships consumers have with existing products.

Properties of Ecosystem ChangeBA Framework for Consumer-Technology Product Relationships

Whether internally or externally driven, ecosystems (and the consumer-technology product relationship) ultimately are characterized by change. According to Hollings (1978), ecosystem change is based on four properties that relate to the critical ecological dimensions of time and space: (1) selective impact within ecosystems, (2) spatial behavior, (3) dynamic variability, and (4) stability" and resilience. Using these properties as a framework, I will develop a tentative theory of consumer-technology product relationships.

1. Selective Interconnections & Impacts within Ecosystems (time and space dimensions)

Viewed as a whole, ecosystems form an intricately interconnected web. This can occur on a variety of levels; at the most aggregate level, the Gaia hypothesis contends that all ecological systems on earth are interlinked and self-regulating (Dickinson and Murphy 1997). However, not all interconnections are equally strong or equally important. Moreover, each species does not have the same number of links with other species or with elements of the physical environment. Thus, when viewed closely, "the parts of an ecological system are connected to each other in a selective way everything is not strongly connected to everything else" (Holling, 1978), a fact that becomes apparent only over time. An example of this is fish in the North Sea. Certain species live in the upper layers of water and others, in the lower layers. When fish in the upper layer declined through over-fishing, those in the lower layer unexpectedly increased. Since the territories of the two fish were completely separate, scientists reasoned that a change in one population would not affect the other population. However, the decline of the fish that traditionally inhabited the upper layer created an opportunity for fish that can inhabit both layers to enter the North Sea habitat. The new species, in turn, brought more food and other resources to fish in the lower layer. These few changes were the only ones that occurred in the ecosystem. This single specific link represents a limited, localized impact that selectively affected only part of the total ecosystem (Holling 1978).

Turning to the familyBa type of consumer ecosystemBprior research (see Rogers 1995, p. 269-279 for a summary) suggests that adult children whose socioeconomic status, occupation, and years of formal education are similar to or higher than their parents would tend to classify themselves as being similar to, or perhaps more innovative than, their parents vis-a-vis Roger’s adopter categorization curve. However, the interviews from this study indicate that the relationship is much more complex, such that children are selectively influenced by their parent’s attitudes and tendencies toward high-technology productsBfactors which appear to be more important than simple demographic or economic variables. These attitudes are most clearly reflected in the purchase stage of the relationship where they play a selective role in adoption decisions and subsequent behaviors.

My parents like to have a lot of appliancesBthe latest 'whatever I’m like my mom in that I am able to sit down and figure [technological] things out, although that’s not my forte she’s more experimentative than I am (Jane, age 39).

My parents were kind of early adopters of television hi-fi systems the VCR and cable TV. It’s a kind of recurrent pattern that they would get new, uh, gizmos, kind of early and then not really keep up with wanting the latest and greatest thing. They would just sort of get one and use it forever until it wore out. To the extent their approach to it was influential [is] the idea that not every new things that comes along you necessarily need I think if anything I am maybe less likely to be an early adopter than they were in the sense of getting a TV or stereo system earlier than most of their peers (Dick, age 49).

I remember my parents we had a beta, not the laser disc, but the old disc where you shoved it into the machine and pulled it back out. It was the new wave. And it didn’t last that long. So now, they’re stuck with these things and nobody knows how to fix these huge discs It was like 20 years ago. And then [after the disc], beta was 'it’. And then they came out with the VHS. So now in the garage, my parents have a videodisc player and a beta. And I guess because of all that and because of other purchases they’ve made Growng up with all this stuff, I wait until something has been around When somebody tells me this is the "new wave," I wait a little bit (Sally, age 32).

Of the three, Jane feels she is most like her parents, while Sally adamantly chooses to be the least like her parents. Thus, like the population of fish in the "lower" North Sea who are selectively impacted by time-based changes in the fish population of the "upper" North Sea, the interviewees were selectively impacted by their parents’ attitudes and behaviors regarding new technology products. While the respondents have been clearly influenced by their parents, the impact is limited, rather than all-encompassing. Of particular interest is that while all three interviewees are well-educated, holding at least one Master’s degree, they all admit being less innovative than their parents. This is a curious finding since most research on early adopters indicate that younger and more educated consumers have a greater tendency to be innovative than do older and less educated ones (Gatignon and Robertson, 1985).

2. Spatial Behavior (space dimension)

Typically, ecological impacts are gradually diluted over space and follow a bell-shaped curve. The end-points of the curve represent boundaries. For example, animals are linked with specific habitats. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains four species of chipmunk are each associated with a specific territory denoted by vegetation zone/elevation. Within each zone, the population of a specific species of chipmunk can be expected to be most dense near the center, and least dense near the "edges" (i.e., where one form of vegetation begins to give way to another (Smith and Smith 1998). Such boundaries are also present when the ecosystem is disturbed. For example, soil pollution tends to be highest at the point where the pollutants were released, and the effects diminish the farther one move (in any direction) from this place.

In some cases, however, the strength and intensity of ecological impacts may not follow a simple dilution pattern, resulting in boundaries that are less clear-cut (Holling 1978). Consider the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Southern California. The impact of this quake was felt much more strongly in Santa Monica than in Beverly Hills, although the two cities are about equidistant from the epicenter (about 15 miles). This differential impact is explained by the topography of the region whereby the tremors emanating from this hidden fault flowed more readily through the mountains separating Northridge and Santa Monica than through the flatter lands lying between Northridge and LA.

In consumer-technology product relationships, spatial behavior can be observed by how three technology productsBthe boombox (a large, portable radio/cassette/CD system withBusuallyBsuperior sound quality), the CD player, and the cordless phone are used and integrated into daily life. In particular, we will examine (1) how these three products impact privacy considerations as an aspect of personal space, and (2) how these spatial configurations are either orderly and conventional or more erratic and unconventional.

Some of [the boomboxes’] use has been replaced by a portable CD player. 'Cause that’s something else that’s like an individual thing, except that it’s even better because it has the headphones that don’t make any noise for anybody else to deal with. (Dick)

If I didn’t want to be where the noise was downstairs, I just wanted to relax, I’d go upstairs. And I’d sit and I’d play a soft song or something. So I wanted something upstairs other than just my clock radio. So I went looking and I found a good [CD player] on sale. It was my Christmas present to myself. So that’s its purposeBwhen I want to get away. And my daughter doesn’t use [it]. It’s mine. It’s in my bedroom. If she wants, she can take the boombox to her bedroom. (Sally)

In both vignettes, music technologies alow a personal space to be createdBthey are used to create and reinforce boundaries that follow an orderly pattern. This is most apparent for Sally: the CD player denotes her territory and the boombox, her daughter’s territory. In both examples, the technology products clearly fill an individual, rather than a group (or social) role. Dick frames his discussion of privacy in terms of how the boombox helps him to avoid annoying others in the household. Sally, meanwhile, discusses her use of the CD player as creating a haven, a personal space that others in the household are wary to violate. Unlike Dick, she is not concerned with annoying others, but is more concerned with others annoying her.

Jane’s experience, meanwhile, illustrates a different dimension on how technology products create (or in this case, violate) personal space:

I’m a little more aware now, too, that my conversations [on the cordless phone] can be picked up by other people. In the beginning, I don’t think I ever really realized that. When I picked up my neighbor’s [conversation], actually, I was walking to her house. Her husband called me because he couldn’t get through on her line and suddenly, her conversation was superimposed on our conversation. It was very strange. But it did make me realize the security [risks] (Jane).

In this vignette, Jane is concerned about privacy in terms of potential security violations. She is worried that the space she assumed was personal (i.e., that between her voice and the person’s ear on the other end of the phone connection) may be accessible to other unintended ears as a result of anomalies in the physical and transmission environments. Thus, in this instance, the spatial relationship between Jane and her cell phone yields irregular and uncertain boundaries, as contrasted with the more conventional and clear-cut boundaries illustrated by the music technology vignettes.

3. Dynamic Variability (time and space dimensions)

Traditionally, ecologists believed that stability was a desiredBand "natural"Bcharacteristic of ecosystems. It is now clear, however, that the spatio-temporal dimensions of ecosystems are much more complex (Pahl-Wostl 1998). In fact, scientists believe that ultimately, the survival of ecosystems is based on change, rather than on stability. Ecosystems are fluid, reacting and adapting to disturbances that may be caused by natural phenomenon (e.g., hurricanes and other storms) or by the presence and activities of Man (e.g., pollution, de-forestation). Thus, "variability, not constancy, is a feature of ecological systems that contributes to their persistence and to their self-monitoring and self-correcting capacities environmental quality is not achieved by eliminating [naturally occurring] change" (Holling, 1978). For example, it is now widely acknowledged that forest fires play a productive role in the renewal of certain natural spaces, serving to fertilize the area and to propagate tree species whose seed is released only at extremely high temperatures. And as a result of the destruction, some animal species temporarily leave the area, while others move in. This type of dynamic change is part of the evolutionary process, leading to an orderly succession of flora and fauna that may occur over decades or centuries.

The consumer-technology product relationship is characterized by a similar evolution. For each technology and for each consumer, the evolutionary process proceeds at a different rate. However, both entitiesBthe consumer and the technology productsBundergo change, sometimes sequentially and sometimes simultaneously. As consumer needs shift, and as products improve and change, new relationships and new opportunities emerge. Change is most evident when a "disturbance" occursBe.g., when consumers adopt new technology products and need to integrate them into their lives or when dramatic events (births or weddings) impact established routines. Such changes often instigate a search for otimum way(s) to use the product, and can be particularly challenging for gifts that the consumer did not specifically request or anticipate.

You know, it’s like I felt that everyone has a microwave, so we needed to have one. So I took it even though [my parents] were getting rid of it probably because of the same reason I had concerns about it [B that it would take up too much counter space]. [I used it initially] mostly to warm up hot water for tea. Or hot chocolate, or something. In the beginning, I didn’t use it very much. And then I eventually used it warm up baby food a little bit. And that was about it. We use it more [now]Ba lot more. Because there are more people in my family. We have a lot of dinners that need to be warmed up. Or I get dinner ready and not everybody is there, so we wait for everyone to come and then we need to throw the potatoes in the microwave and heat them up. So we definitely use it a lot more, because we’re bigger and busier. (Jane)

In this vignette, Jane tells an evolutionary story of how the microwave came to play a central role in her family’s life. Much of the transition from non-use to partial-use to full-use was spurred by lifestage changes, specifically, the birth of her first child and the subsequent growth of her family, which encouraged her to cook at home more often, rather than eat out. The microwave becomes especially handy when family schedules become uncoordinated.

I have a computer that’s less than a year old. A PC. So [receiving a laptop for my birthday] was a complete surprise and I thought, 'this could work.’ It was mostly a toy [at that point]. I played with it It was only after the initial 'little kid in a candy store’ reaction and having it for awhile and actually using it that I could see 'well, it could have this use, too.’ And so, gradually, I’m thinking of other uses that would allow it to fit into my life. But right now I guess I’m not used to having a laptop. I see everybody in the library, and they have theirs plugged in. But I go and make my copies and then I go home and I type something up [on my desktop computer]. (Sally)

In this story, Sally, like Jane, is searching for a way to use an unexpected gift. However, the evolution is at an early stage and it is not entirely clear how the product may be integrated into her life. While she envisions how the technology might be used, she has not been successful in implementing any of her ideas. She readily admits that she reverts back to her "old" way of collecting data for papers, for example, suggesting that for Sally the laptop may become extinct and not, in fact, become integrated into her life at all.

4. "Stability" and Resilience (time and space dimensions)

Despite the fact that true stability does not exist in ecosystems, scientists acknowledge that ecological change does seem to move toward a natural end point or climax where the ecosystem is "capable of self-perpetuation under prevailing environmental circumstances" (Smith and Smith 1998). Such "stability" is embedded within a specific context and does not represent equilibrium since change continues to occur selectively and at a low level. For example, in "old growth" forests, new trees take root as older ones die.

When an ecosystem is impacted by a disturbance (such as those described in section 3 above), one of two things will occur: the ecosystem will move back toward its original climax point or it will shift to a new climax point. Ecosystems tend to be surprisingly resilient (i.e., able to 'bounce back" to their original climax point) (Kormondy 1996). However, the "stability" of a ecosystem is bounded by thresholds which, once breached, are difficult to re-enter, leading to dramatic andBto humansBunexpected changes in the ecosystem that effectively result in a establishment of a new climax point (Holling 1978). For example, in the Great Lakes, the numbers of some of the fish caught for commercial purposes suddenly declined sharply after many years of slight fluctuations in size. When over-fishing was curtailed, the fish population did not revert back to its original size. Apparently, a critical threshold had been breached, leading to an irreversible impact on the fish population and a new "stability" level (Holling, 1978).

"Natural" climax points, as well as the shifting climax points and resilience that occur as a result of disturbance can also characterize consumer-technology product relationships. Sometimes, as the following vignette illustrates, a "natural" climax pointBand maximum effectivenessBis reached when new technology products are supplemented by old technology products:

Maybe ten years ago we got a cordless phone And we did away with all the regular phones. Then over time, I realized that when the electricity went out that I had no communication when the cordless phones weren’t working. So, after about, probably about seven years or whatever, I went out and bought one with a cord, just specifically [for this emergency] Secondarily, I thought it would be nice to have in case we [my husband and I] have conversations that I don’t want overheard. (Jane)

An example of shifting climax points may be seen in Jane’s earlier vignette (section 3) about the microwave oven. In this vignette, Jane’s usage of the microwave moved from its original climax pointBwhere it was used for heating water and baby foodBto a new climax pointBwhere it was used for a variety of heating, re-heating, and cooking tasks. This shift in climax points occurred when a "disturbance," namely, the growth of her three children and their subsequent involvement in multiple activitiesBmoved the use of the microwave beyond the earlier threshold (heating of water and baby food).

Finally, Dick’s story about outdoor grill provides an example of resilience.

The gas grill to me is an idiotic product, because the whole point of having a grill in the first place is to have that wonderful charcoal flavor when you grill something It’s not as good as what it supposedly replacesBalthough it is more convenient, I guess, and less messy. To me, the charcoal grill is the perfect example of appropriate technology it’s fun to use because it’s so simple and so basic. When I grill sometimes, I think about the fact that thousands of years ago people were essentially doing the same thingBcooking over fireBand enjoying the same taste experiences that I’m enjoying from this food. Sot it has kind of a romantic low-tech quality. (Dick)

Faced with a disturbanceBi.e., the introduction of gas grills to the marketplaceBDick considers the new technology, but moves back toward his original climax point that was established with charcoal grills. It is important to distinguish Dick’s resistance of gas grills from his attitude toward technology in general. He does not actively resist all new technology productsBin fact, when asked if he would adopt a grill product that is more high-tech than the gas grill, he readily agreed as long as the distinctive charcoal flavor is preserved.


In this pilot project, an ecological metaphor was developed to help explain consumers’ relationships with technology products. The metaphor is comprised of four componentsBselective impacts, spatial behaviors, dynamic variability, and stability/resilienceBand provides a first step fordeveloping a full-blown theory of consumer-technology product relationships. In developing such a theory, three broad questions, stimulated by the pilot project, might be addressed.

First, is more technology necessarily better? An implicit assumption of the pilot study was that in society today there is a prevailing attitude (verging on "peer pressure") that owning, being aware of and/or knowing how to use new technologies is inherently "good." In the research presented above, however, this assumption is not necessarily always upheld. For example, the three respondents readily admit that they are less innovative and thus, more reticent about adopting new technology products than are their parents. Moreover, some respondents, such as Dick, actively resist new technologies he feels are inferior. To what extent do these attitudes and behaviors generalizable?

Second, what happens to one’s "sense of self" as the consumer-technology product relationship evolves? Clearly, the technology products a person owns and usesBlike most productsBreflect his/her personal selfBthat is, the overall sense of who he/she is and the type of person he/she wishes to become (Belk 1988). In fact, this may be at the heart of the consumers’ search for integrating gifts into their lives. What is not so clear, however, is how the sense of self evolves as the consumer adopts and integrates new technologies into his or her life. Dick provides a few insights through his discussion of the grill technologies and all three interviewees hint at the important role technology products play in privacy considerations.

Third, consumer-technology product relationships appear to be re-negotiated over time. But what, precisely, does this mean? Clearly, the pilot research shows that consumer-product relationships are not staticBthey change over time in predictable as well as less obvious ways. These shifts suggest that negotiation and re-negotiation occur between the consumer and the product as both evolve. These negotiations may include (but are not limited to) re-evaluating the need for a technology product, reconsidering how the product may be integrated with existing products to fit into one’s life, recognizing the limitations of the product (by comparing new versions of the product to old versions or to earlier technologies), and recognizing one’s "new maturity" as a technological consumer.


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Susan M. Lloyd, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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