“No-one I know voted for Nixon” in tech

There’s a famous quote attributed to Pauline Kael, the movie critic, which is usually paraphrased as “How did Nixon win? I don’t know anyone who voted for him” but which actually goes like this:

“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

The point was, Nixon had just won the US presidential election, and yet Pauline Kael lived in a world where almost no-one had voted for him. How was this possible? Who were these mysterious people who voted for Nixon, and what made them tick?

I fear that the people who spend all day thinking and writing about technology often suffer from the same myopia about the behavior and mentality of the vast majority of everyday users of technology. We are nothing like them in many respects – we know far more about the technology than they do, we use a far greater variety of devices and services than they do, we read far more about it than they do, and we inhabit the same sort of bubble as Pauline Kael did, where we’re often shut off from how regular people think about technology. Sure, we use our spouses, our parents, our non-techy friends and siblings as proxies and convince ourselves we get it. But I fear we’re often fooling ourselves. And it’s dangerous, because we often get things really wrong as a result.

This was in evidence this past week with regard to the rumored Apple/Beats acquisition. There was a sneering condescension about the Beats product and its users on the part of the tech media, and a collective “I don’t get it” about the value of the Beats product and brand 1. And that’s because the tech press is largely not the target market for Beats products, and it’s insulated from the segment that is. But the same thing applies to tech bloggers’ obsession with stock Android and many other things regular users just don’t care about. Those things loom much larger in the minds of the expert class than they do in ordinary people’s minds, and it distorts judgments about what really matters in the market.

As a result of these distortions, coverage of major products and companies is often skewed to deem new products, tweaks to existing products or other news as much more important than they really are. Most people are much less prone to change, much less well informed, much more influenced by casual conversations and friends’ recommendations than we think. Just consider the fact that AOL still has almost 2.5 million dial-up subscribers, or that the churn rates at Verizon Wireless and AT&T mean that the average subscriber stays with them for about 8-10 years. Apathy is a huge factor in technology choices, coupled with feelings of safety and simplicity that drive behavior that might seem baffling to the experts.

This is a self-reinforcing problem – much of the tech media writes for the obsessives, those who care about the topic as much as we do. We’re not writing for the normals, because they simply don’t care, and definitely don’t read our stuff. With the exception of the personal tech columnists at major newspapers, the vast majority of us are writing for a very unrepresentative sample of the population as a whole. But that means all our engagement comes from commenters and forum posters who are unrepresentative too, reinforcing our removedness from the general population and further distorting our perceptions of reality.

I don’t know how we solve this problem, but we all have a responsibility to try, because it’s hurting us, and hurting our ability to do our jobs properly.

Notes:

  1. I’m not saying the Apple/Beats acquisition is a shoo-in either – I wrote about it here and I’m still on the fence about its merits. I’m talking about the Beats headphones specifically
  • Karel Jack

    Absolutely spot on.