My brother, Grantland, who is a teacher and studied animal behavior in college, told me a story about a study that looked at the ability of animals to learn new things as they get older.
First, a baby gorilla was shown three upended bowls, one of which had a piece of food underneath. Each bowl had a symbol on the top, and two of the bowls had the same symbol. The one with the unique symbol had the food.
The baby gorilla worked this pattern out quickly and found the food routinely. When the adult gorilla was given the same test, it took him ages to work out the system, but he finally cracked it. Then, the researchers changed the symbols on him. The gorilla looked at the new array of pictures in front of him and, instead of trying to work it out, knocked the bowls on the floor and proceeded to tear the room apart in frustration.
I feel a bit like that gorilla when confronted with a new technology or even the concept of a new technology. When a fetishist was recently demonstrating his new iPhone to my group (a boringly common occurrence these days, as the screen really isn't that big when you're trying to impress a table of 10), I had fantasies about taking a tiny hammer and smashing it into a million pieces in front of his appalled and tear-filled eyes.
I'm not incapable of learning something new, even if it's not at the speed of a teenager, nor are most reasonable people. But unless it is clear that a new platform or functionality will improve their experience, many will resist rather than embrace change. When it sunk in that, yes, an iPod would be vastly easier than lugging around a wallet of CDs, each of which contained exactly three songs that I like, I was sold.
But the anecdote is instructive beyond the obvious "old dog, new tricks" lesson. Too often, individuals can feel excluded from innovation in technology, which can lead to feelings of resentment that are more intractable than simple indifference to a new gadget.
Many times communicators will depend too much on a device's status as a "next great thing" and will fail to explain, in concrete terms, why the switch will truly better someone's life.
Buying a new technology today brings with it the standard CD-ROM of software for installation and possibly a hard-copy manual that is no better written than they were in the days of Betamax. This is why people turn to message boards and other social media to help them troubleshoot problems. Smart companies may create or enable these platforms for sharing information, but they are still lagging behind the grassroots impetus.
Also, the gorilla became upset only when the rules, so painstakingly understood, changed unexpectedly. Even an upgrade to iTunes, fabulous though it may be, might be alienating for time-crunched people not yet convinced of the value of their new device.
Communicators are not doing enough yet to help prospective consumers integrate new technologies into their lives, and that truly is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.