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First Click: When new tech is just too embarrassing to use

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November 2nd, 2016

Early adopters, aka "nerds," are drawn to the latest cutting-edge gadgets, software, and services like a young Nilay Patel is to studded bracelets. But early adoption is rife with negative consequences, one of which is public embarrassment.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when I saw the newest ad for the Google Pixel phone, this time from Verizon. Check it out below:

Two things stood out for me. First the guy says "OK Google" a little too smugly, as if he had just spent the previous few minutes off-camera trying to convince his iPhone-using friends how great the Google Assistant is. Then the woman dons a Daydream View VR headset unapologetically on a train full of strangers. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do the same. I would. But that’s because this is a group of four friends together in public. How many of you would speak to your digital assistant or play a game in VR if you were alone on the very same train? I wouldn’t. I’m no Adi Robertson:

I’m more like Kwame and Mat:

In June the big minds at Creative Strategies published a study focused on the usage of virtual digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and what’s now known as Google Assistant. It found that of those people that use voice assistants, most would only do so when alone. Specifically, 39 percent use them at home while 51 percent use them in the car; compared to just 6 percent of users who’ll use a digital assistant in public. Notably, 20 percent of those who said they never used a voice assistant attributed their reluctance to feeling "uncomfortable talking to their technology, especially in public."

I’ve lived through a couple of trends like this already. I remember being embarrassed by my work-issued cellphone in the '90s, given to me because I was the "weekend support guy." When the call inevitably came late one Saturday night, I quickly skulked out of the Haight Street bar to take the call. I then slumped over in an alley in order to avoid drawing attention to myself on the phone. I had a similar repulsion to using laptops in East Village cafes during the early noughts. Now, what used to be embarrassing is so common that it’s become a nuisance. Remember the time you first saw some crazed person walking down the street talking to themselves only to realize they were wearing a Bluetooth headset? Insanity has since been down-ranked to our second assumption. Even comically large, over-the-ear headphones have become a statement of fashion.

I can’t exactly pinpoint when this embarrassment-to-source-of-pride inflection point occurs but it’s somewhere along the right-hand side of this curve from that Rogers guy:

Diffusion of Innovation | Everett M. Rogers

Or the "Entering the plateau" phase on my all-time favorite chart from Gartner:

Gartner Hype Cycle

Us early adopters take pride in helping define societal norms for technology usage. Sure, we get burned by the occasional Google Glass, Segway, or Lytro camera, but ultimately we pave the way for the luddites to follow. Casey Neistat is single-handedly working to make electric skateboards seem cool. And I have no doubt that saying things like "OK Google" or "Hey Siri" or "Alexa something something" in public will someday soon be the norm. Farther out, it’ll probably even become second nature to talk into our AR headsets just as it’s become okay — revered even — to suck nicotine steam from overheated USB sticks. That’s just how the tech lifecycle plays out.

Perhaps I too can muster up the courage of a teenage boy in time for Google’s VR headset to ship on the 10th.

Can you?