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From Genesis to Revelations: The Technology Diaspora

  1. Introduction
  2. Genesis
  3. Revelation—Intentional
  4. Revelation—Unintentional
  5. Factors affecting the Technology Diaspora
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Authors
  9. Footnotes
  10. Figures

There are two ways of thinking about technology. The popular instrumental view positions technology as a means to an end. Alternatively, technology is also a mode of revelation: a revealing of hitherto latent potentialities in nature and society. It offers insights about the direction of society, business, and science, and those who are quick to act on a revelation often create the next generation of technology and forge pioneering business ventures. This article reveals a framework for understanding and anticipating the dispersion of information systems technology.

Organizations don’t only use information systems to implement strategies; in many instances information systems create new emergent strategies. Similarly, while information systems may be used to satisfy the needs and wants of organizational customers, just as (if not more) frequently they create new needs and wants, indeed, they can be said to create new customers. This creative, emergent nature of IS has been highlighted in the organizational arena,9 but neglected in the consumer IS market. For those who deal frequently with technology, frameworks that explain its dispersion and adoption are useful navigation aids for mapping future directions and understanding detours.

IS research on emergent phenomena has been almost exclusively confined to the hierarchical environment of the organization. Yet the hierarchy is only one of four domains of economic activity. Transaction cost economics original identification of firms and markets as two approaches to organizing economic activity1 was extended to embrace networks.10 More recently, as a result of the emergence of open source, a fourth sector has been identified, which is variously labeled bazaar, peer production, or community.11 The three other domains (for example, markets, networks, and communities) are not subject to the same intensity of control that exists within the bureaucratic confines of a hierarchy. The greater freedom means that they are potentially much richer environs for reinvention and studying the technology diaspora from genesis to revelations.

In order to better understand the trajectories that an IS might assume in and beyond the confines of the organization, we propose the model shown in Figure 1. The possible categories of how technology relates to the developer’s original intentions are: extension, conversion, subversion, diversion, emersion, and aspersion (see Figure 1).2 Our choice to focus on intentions is indeed deliberate, because actions in a social setting are guided by individual intention. Designers have intentions and those who repurpose a technology also have intentions, even if they are at variance with those of the original designer.

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From a genesis perspective, technology is created, in direct response to an expressed or perceived consumer need. It is intended to solve a specific problem, and the designers typically have a single purpose in mind. Some might, however, take a broader perspective and attempt to fit their design into a larger frame. As Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen declared,a Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger contexta chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Unfortunately, IS designers do not always understand the larger networked structure within which they operate. For example, the Web was developed to serve the needs of a group of Physicists at CERN, and escaped from these confines to become the world’s network for the electronic sharing of distributed information. A particular problem for IS designers is that systems have high flexibility because they can be programmed. The more a system can be reprogrammed, the more it can be repurposed and shifted from its original intended function. As captured by Figure 1, we specify a conceptual framework for thinking about what happens to an IS beyond its genesis. Thus, to paraphrase Saarinen, we would proclaim, Always design an information system by considering how it might change its larger contextreflect on the possibilities for conversion, subversion, diversion, emersion, and aspersion.

We now discuss each of these possibilities and explain the ideas illustrated by Figure 1 by drawing upon reinventions of the iPod, which is generally reckoned to be the first major consumer product of this century8 and has created an extensive ecosystem.

The iPod is an information system. It supports input, processing, and output, has an operating system, and a persistent memory. However, it might be more precise to describe it as an information appliance because it is first and foremost a consumer product.

Extension. Most consumers use an iPod as intended. It is a portable music player as envisaged and marketed by Apple. Millions have been sold, and it dominates the portable music player business in both market and mind share. Apple has extended the original design by adding larger disks, improving the interface, and creating flash memory versions (the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle). The complementary software, iTunes, has also been extended in functionality.

Conversion. Conversion occurs when an IS is repositioned to meet new ends. In 2004, Apple released the iPod photo, which allows the listener to see album and audiobook cover art in color. Apple had previously added a calendar, games, notes, and address book to the iPod. From a conversion perspective, more interesting is the addition of the optional camera connector that enables the iPod to be used to store tens of thousands of digital photos. As a result, Apple has converted the iPod from music player to general personal data store. For professional photographers, the iPod has become an electronic portfolio and mobile image bank for storing field shots, as some professionals can shoot about 1000 photos per day. In late 2005, Apple further extended the iPod to become a video player and made corresponding improvements to iTunes.

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Once a technology enters the market place, consumers and other social actors interact and re-envisage the technology. New phenomena emerge because of the intentional action of firms, competitors, and consumers. The technology is complemented, imitated, and re-targeted. Consumers subvert and third parties divert the designers’ intended use of the technology. Intentional revelations result from people changing the technology.

Subversion. Initially marketed as a music player, iPods were soon adopted by consumers as fashion items and portable libraries. The distinctive white ear buds convey a message not revealed by the iPod, which is often hidden in a pocket, purse, or backpack. Gucci’s marketing of an iPod case exemplifies its emergence as an element of fashion and talisman of modernity.

The original presentation of the iPod as a music player has been intentionally subverted by consumers and turned into a fashion item. Indeed, it might well have been Apple’s smart marketing that established the opportunity for the iPod to become a fashion item, but it was consumers who made the decision.

Diversion. Some technologies are intentionally diverted to serve other purposes. Some third parties alter the intended use of a technology through political, social, technological, or legal interventions. A variety of devices has been created to extend the usefulness of the iPod. For example, a USD40 unit can be plugged into the top of an iPod to convert it into voice recorder with a capacity in the thousands of hours, far more than with currently available dedicated voice recorders.

Radiologists use iPods to store medical images. A pair of their colleagues developed OsiriX,b Mac OS X based open source software for the display and manipulation of complex medical images. OsiriX automatically searches for and recognizes medical images on an iPod when it is connected to a Macintosh system. Consequently, radiologists have started to carry their patients’ images with them on their iPod. They can copy images to and from an iPod so that they always have the images they need.

The radiology example illustrates the contrast between the emergent and instrumental view of IS. In an instrumental world, the radiologists would have gone to the IS department with their problem, defined their requirements, and waited for a system to be developed and implemented. Consumer information systems, irrespective of their original intention, promote emergent thinking. The radiologists did the work of the IS unit. Personal computers demonstrated more than two decades ago, in the form of end-user computing, the power of information consumers to take on production roles. What has been missing for these past two decades is a broad conceptual foundation (for example, Figure 1) for thinking about this phenomenon.

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Unintentional revelation describes situations where there are unintended and unforeseen effects as viewed from the perspective of the original designer that produce significant changes to consumer behavior and society. Unintentional revelation is about more than merely extending the technology to enhance a task (intentional revelation) because it changes roles and structures. Clearly, the reinventors have intentions and execute plans to fulfill these goals. Emersion occurs when a technology is widely embraced and results in primary changes to consumers and societies. The outcomes are generally viewed as positive. Regrettably, some emergent phenomena produce secondary negative effects on people and society. Aspersion,c our term for these effects, is actively resisted by formal and informal social structures, though it often takes some time for the perniciousness of these unanticipated effects to be recognized and then tackled. Thus, we are still weathering occasional infestations of viruses and worms.

Emersion. Emersion identifies the extent to which a technology produces significant changes in a society and becomes a common element of social life. A sign of the extent to which the iPod has been embraced is its popularity as a prize or enticement. For example, the quit smoking campaign of the Western Australia government prominently features an iPod. Its TV advertisements show a cigarette packet morphing into an iPod, an alternative and less harmful source of pleasure. Visitors to the campaign’s Web site have an opportunity to win an iPod. In another instance, one customer so embraced the iPod that he created a 60-second animated advertisement, and within a few days it had been viewed more than 37,000 times.6 The iPod has become a widely recognized brand and product, which many people seem keen to acquire.

The iPod has generated a boom in amateur radio and spawned a new term. Podcasting enables anyone to create a radio show that others can download for private listening on their music player whenever they wish. Podcasting levels the field and gives a voice to anyone who can afford a computer, recorder, and Internet connection. Most governments regulate the radio spectrum, and personal broadcast licenses are difficult or impossible to obtain, or restricted to a very low range. Podcasting overcomes these barriers and permits individuals to deliver content worldwide, though it does not guarantee that anyone bothers to download and listen.

Podcasting gives people control over their time and space, and people use their iPods to block out others’ time and space.4 They want the freedom to define their physical and acoustic dimensions. Greater freedom typically has social, cultural, economic, and political impacts.

Aspersion. Aspersion occurs when a technology produces undesirable social outcomes. People who play their iPods too loudly can damage their hearing. Apple had to pull iPods from the French market until it had altered them to reduce the maximum sound volume to comply with French regulations.

Portable music players are a security threat because they can store large quantities of data and are common in many business settings in the guise of an innocuous music player. A computer consultant browsing in a Dallas electronics store witnessed a teenager plug his iPod into the FireWire connection of an Apple computer on display. Within less than a minute, the young man had copied Office for Mac OS X, about 200MB and USD500, onto his iPod.5 Apple intentionally built anti-piracy protection into the iPod so that music files cannot be copied from one computer to another via an iPod, but there is nothing to prevent piracy of other software.

Every stage (for example, extension, emersion) of the model is a starting point for another complete tree. Each innovation spawns another diaspora, and the entire history of technological advancement can be viewed as a gargantuan network of genesis and revelation trees.

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Factors affecting the Technology Diaspora

Observation clearly illustrates that some technologies undergo greater dispersion than others. We identify three factors—openness, programmability and self-organization—that we believe contribute significantly to explaining the extent of this diversion.

Openness. Dissemination of knowledge of a new technology requires that others can learn about that technology. Thus, the openness of the information system surrounding the technology will be a key factor in determining how others can learn about and apply the technology. It is common for industrial and consumer products to be supported by a knowledge ecosystem. Vendors support their products with instruction manuals and online support services, and there is also a range of third parties that augment the vendors’ offerings. A search of the Library of Congress catalog for books with iPod in their title returns around 20 books, including “Hacking iPod and iTunes.”

The open source movement also illustrates the power of openness. Releasing a program’s code results in a high level of openness. Consider Linux, the original 10,000 lines of code of which were released in 1991. By 1998, there were 1.5 million lines of code.d This is a growth rate of 204% pa. By comparison, Windows grew from 3 million lines of code in 1991 to 40 million in 2003, a growth rate of 122% pa.e Linux has become an operating system for desktops, servers, PDAs, mobile phones, routers, and entertainment systems (for example, TiVo).

Corporations are learning to engage customers in an open exchange of ideas during product creation and development. For example, Lego has a quartet of leading edge customers involved in the extension of its robotic invention system (Mindstorms) prior to even creating a working prototype.7 These customers are co-creators of the product, which makes sense for a product where the degree of customer reinvention is probably a key determinant of success. By including a “right to hack” in the Mindstorms’ software license, Lego has freed Mindstormers to build robots that Lego never imagined. Open products can broaden markets beyond the inventor’s mindspan.

Open standards also encourage technology dispersion, as we have seen with the Internet protocol, TCP/IP. Firms who encourage the open dissemination of information about their product promote its initial adoption and subsequent reinvention.

Programmability. It is far easier to repurpose a technology when it is programmable. If the adopter has access to an application programming interface (API) or some other means of altering or extending functionality, then dispersion is feasible. Of course, computer languages (for example, Java, HTML, XML, SQL) provide the greatest degree of programmability. HTML spread from CERN to the world, and we can see many examples of conversion, subversion, diversion, emersion, or aspersion based on HTML.

Self-Organizing Mechanisms. Emergence requires mechanisms that support self-organizing. Podcasting does not happen unless there is a way for Podcasters to distribute their files, for potential listeners to find directories of Podcasts, and so forth. Similarly, the spread of open source is very dependent on technology that allows autonomous, volunteer, distributed programmers to work collectively and distribute freely their efforts. The Internet and associated technologies (for example, groups, Web sites, blogs) nurture self-organization. Groups with a common interest can coalesce spontaneously to participate in the dispersion of technology and new ideas. Communication networks foster self-organizing human activity. New administrative forms reflect changes in the economy.3 Self-organization is one of the structures greatly facilitated by the network economy.

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An increasingly complex world means that the consequences of change are difficult to anticipate. We need new conceptual tools for thinking about and forecasting the various types of outcomes of a change, and this one potential practical application of the IS diaspora model. Emergent phenomenon could be systematically tracked and their intentional and unintentional consequences identified more quickly and thus handled more expeditiously, perhaps before a critical event precipitates. There is a need for good models for second, third, and nth stage forecasting of any new technology, and this is a potentially fruitful area for academic research. Technological forecasting needs to be augmented by consequence forecasting. Frameworks are often a precursor to theoretical advancement, and this article has established a platform for further work on consequence forecasting.

IS has its genesis in the precursors of homo sapiens, those ancestors who learned how to use simple technologies (for example, hammerstones) and transmit this knowledge to others and across generations. Yet, we are still amazed by the revelations that occur with each new IS. IS is at the heart of our identity, how we interact, and the environment we create. If we are to truly understand IS, we must know it from genesis to revelations.

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F1 Figure 1. The Information Systems Diaspora [Adapted from [2]]

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    1. Arrow, K.J. The Limits of Organization. Norton, New York, NY, 1974.

    2. Berthon, P., Hulbert, J. and Pitt, L.F. Consumers and technology: Why marketers sometimes get it wrong. California Management Review 48, 1, 1–19

    3. Chandler, A.D.J. Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise. M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1962.

    4. Kadden, J. Commuter's journal; My iPod, my world Oh! we're there? New York Times, New York, 2004, 1.

    5. Kahney, L. Have iPod, will secretly bootleg. Wired, 2002.

    6. Kahney, L. Home-brew iPod add opens eyes. Wired, 2004.

    7. Keoner, B.I. Geeks in Toyland. Wired 14. 2.

    8. Levy, S. iPod nation. Newsweek, 2004.

    9. Markus, M.L. and Robey, D. Information technology and organizational change: causal structure in theory and research. Management Science 34, 5, 583–598.

    10. Uzzi, B. The sources and consequences of embeddedness for the economic performance of organizations: The network effect. American Sociological Review, 61, 674–698

    11. Watson, R.T., Boudreau, M.-C, Greiner, M., Wynn, D., York, P. and Gui, R. Governance and global communities. Journal of International Management 11, 2, 125–142.

    a. Time, July 2, 1956


    c. Aspersion stems from the Latin 'aspergere', meaning to spread or scatter, typically in a negative sense.

    d. Based on data at

    e. Based on data at


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