Embrace Your Inner Laggard

I’m not as smart as my television. It has hidden panels with mysterious ports. Its remote control has fields of buttons that I dare not traverse, lest I render it completely inoperable and have to summon some nineteen-year-old in a two-toned Volkswagen to sneer at me in my own living room.

So sometimes I just watch a movie, because I know how DVDs work. For the same reason that I rarely buy music, I’ll forsake movies once they’ve all become bits of code summoned from across the Internet—because I am entirely muddle-headed about digital ephemera. Too often something I download on one device gets ignored by my other devices like the redheaded stepchild at a family reunion. Then it gets its feelings hurt and disappears altogether.

I’ve lost entire swaths of the Hank the Cowdog oeuvre this way. I have friends who know how to wire their homes to make their digitalia accessible and cooperative. If they want Hank the Cowdog, they can call up a tale in surround-sound, command pictures of a north Texas landscape to scroll across their TV screen, and simultaneously send enlightening information about various species of dogs to their kids’ digital tablets.

Most of our Hank the Cowdog has gone missing, but my kids listen to old Bill Cosby comedy routines when we’re driving, because I downloaded it to my phone without informing my computer. Sooner or later, though, I’ll have to reunite my phone with my computer so I can download some patch that slowly strangles its functionality to make me buy the new one they’re pushing. I expect Bill Cosby will join Hank in the ether.

My children hate my fatalistic math. Get an iPad so you can play Minecraft? Let’s see…$400 up front, plus hours of Dad’s time procuring it and convincing it to work. To this add labor and expense as it slides into technology’s nursing-home stage—things inexplicably breaking, trips to specialists, nights of fury and handwringing and asking God why. Son, you can have an iPad, or a semester of college. Which do you prefer?

I am not frugal; I am infuriated. It’s a slow-burning rage, a smile-while-I-write-an-essay-about-it apoplexy. I am enraged because the simple things I want my technology to do have been hijacked by a coven of innovations I never asked for. I am enraged because I am a laggard.

That term “laggard” is part of the sociological lexicon, applied by Everett Rogers during research into how innovations diffuse through a population. He and others began with beneficent intentions. They wanted to understand why valuable technologies spread—or fail to spread—among groups that need them. They studied hybrid seed use by farmers, for example, and water-purification methods in developing countries.

They found that the timing of wide scale adoption follows a Bell curve, its tails anchored by “innovators” on the front end, “laggards” at the back. Innovators have a cosmopolitan orientation, researchers say. They like newness, and uncertainty. They tend to be smarter and more optimistic.

Those troublesome laggards, meanwhile, are “localites,” even to the point of isolation. Their point of reference is the past. They are suspicious not only of innovation, but of the “change agents” who peddle it.

This typology’s inventors endeavored to induce more people to adopt technologies that prolong and improve lives. Laggards, when you’re trying to convince people to vaccinate against polio, are dangerous. Hence the pejorative terminology.

Eventually, however, marketers discovered other uses for Rogers’s work. Like how to induce people to stream NFL games to their phones so they never miss a minute’s action because of distractions like weddings or funerals. Now, alongside medicine and clean water, science offers video games and soft drinks so addictive that one-third of American children are overweight. Technology enables students in failing schools to learn math from the indispensable Kahn Academy; it also facilitates sexting amongst ten-year-olds.

“Because the effects of hybrid corn were so obviously beneficial,” lamented Rogers, “it was assumed the consequences of other innovations would also be positive.” But there’s trouble afoot in paradise.

The innovativeness of those early hybrid-seed adopting farmers, for example, also predisposed them to adopt innovations like cumbersome federal loans for mass-farming equipment, and pesticide-laden monoculture farming. Even those hybrid seeds may have been a devil’s bargain, as farmers who accept “free” neutered seeds find themselves dependent on a single agribusiness for the genesis of each new crop.

Not every innovation benefits humanity. The enthusiasm of the innovator needs its counterweight in the laggard’s skepticism. We all have a little of each within us. But we live in a culture that indulges our inner innovator, and suppresses our inner laggard.

I say it’s high time we reverse this. Unleash your inner laggard. Say no to that next productivity app. Boycott that 3D movie. Avert your eyes when Miley Cyrus presents her rump like a baboon.

To hell with diffusion of innovations; we need to start diffusing some regression. Not to polio and untreated sewage, but to reading. To healthful foods. To games that people play with each other, across a table, and which demand no knowledge of joysticks or twerking or whatever other abomination is poised to diffuse through a society insufficiently quelled by curmudgeons.

If anyone cares to join my cause, please sign up for my newsletter, which I’ll put in the mail just as soon as I can figure out how to get my printer to work.

  • agh

    Excellent. I know somebody whose car computer told her she had four flat tires and refused to start because it would be dangerous to attempt to drive with four flat tires. She had no flat tires. They were full and round and perfect. But she was trapped in her garage because she couldn’t override the computer. Nobody could understand what the book said. Nobody at the station or dealership could override it. The car had to be towed 50 miles at incredible cost for weeks and weeks of attempts to override it. Knowing this would happen to me if I bought such a car, I now seek out manual transmissions and, failing that, things with pedals.

  • Jan Vallone

    Every Sunday, I turn off my computer and other devices for the day. I call it Screen-free Sunday. It’s wonderful. Your essay reminds me why I do this.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Oh, what a relief to find someone else (you!) who isn’t dashing to the mall for the latest version of iphone. (Is it 5 now? or 6? Who cares?) When I bought my most recent phone, I said to my carrier “No smartphone for me; I want the dumbest one you’ve got.” And I love it: it flips open and I make phone calls. Period. (Well, the calculator in it is sometimes handy, I’ll admit.)

    Sign me up for your Laggardly Newsletter pronto!

    • Barbie Klaus

      There’s a difference between flocking to the mall because of its technological lodestones of the moment and availing oneself of useful implements that can open up one’s world wherever one goes. iPads and iPhones can certainly participate in the frivolities available to us but they can just as certainly provide utility, ready access to information, and economy of effort in daily life. Don’t condemn the implement when it’s the user who makes nothing or everything of a technology.

      • Claire Mooney

        As a timely gesture in support for your comment, Barbie, let me note, and combine, two reports in today’s New York Times: the sale of iPhones in the 4th quarter of 2013 (51 million) currently exceeds the number of current cigarette smokers in the country (44 million). A feat achieved in less than 7 years! Now if that can’t be called progress, then I don’t know what can! Go iP****s!

  • Kevin Peterson

    I’m embracing my inner laggard…and calling up the old curmudgeon. My wife will read your article and think I must have written it….Thanks for giving print to the little voice that screams at each iteration of “new apps we recommend for you…”

  • Cordeiro

    My Inner Cracken demands the ability to shuffle my iPhone playlist.

  • Brad Winters

    You’re in good company, my friend. Though I guess I should have expressed that by a postcard.


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