Unintended Consequences of Innovation

Excerpts from Rogers, Everett M. (1995), Diffusion of Innovations, Free Press, New York: NY.

Pure Drinking Water in Egyptian Villages: Overcoming the Pro-Innovation Bias (pp. 101- 104)

When villagers in Third World countries are asked in surveys, "What is the most important problem in your life?" they consistently respond, "Water." Typically, village families walk several miles to obtain a reliable source of water, and three to four hours per day are spent by water-gatherers in carrying the water to their home. The water problem is particularly severe for Egyptian villagers living in the Nile River Delta. Here, water is available conveniently in the small canals that criss-cross this densely populated farming area. But the stagnant canal water represents a serious health threat because the canals are used by villagers for washing clothes and dishes and for urinated and defecating, as well as for drinking water. A green scum of algae often covers the stagnant canals, especially in the hot summer months. The aerial application of pesticides on the surrounding rice fields deposits dangerous hydrocarbon chemicals in the canal water.

The canals are also a breeding ground for the snails that are hosts for the tiny parasites that cause schistosomiasis, a terrible disease endemic in the Nile Delta. Village children infested with schistosomiasis act like "walking zombies," sapped of their energy by the parasites in their liver, lungs, brain, and other vital organs. Many children die of schistosomiasis (also called snail fever or Bilharzia in Egypt). The canal water is also loaded with bacteria that cause infectious diarrhea among village babies, who can die within hours due to dehydration. Diarrheal disease in Egypt causes a high rate of infant mortality.

Given these unhealthy conditions associated with drinking canal water, it might seem surprising that the canals are the main source of drinking water for the villagers in the Egyptian Delta. A diffusion scholar, David Belasco (1989), sought to find out why. On one occasion, he observed a village woman gathering water for her family's consumption from a stagnant canal in which someone was urinated nearby. A dead donkey, its body bloated by the hot sun, floated in the canal. Why would anyone drink such obviously polluted water?

The main reason is that alternative water sources do not exist. In an effort to improve the public health conditions of villages, the government ministry of health, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, constructed a system of pumps and pipes that delivers pure, chlorinated water to public spigots in many villages in the Nile Delta. Several villages studied by Belasco were served by this piped water system. Yet more than half of these villages preferred the unhealthy canal water, and almost no one drank only the pure water. So the level of adoption of pure drinking water was extremely low, even though most villagers knew from a government health campaign on television and radio that canal water was contaminated with "microbes" that caused disease and death. Still they drank the canal water.

Belasco surveyed female water-gatherers in three villages in the Nile River Delta, and supplemented his survey interviews with his observations and ethnographic analysis of water-related behavior (this investigation is unique among diffusion studies in using both quantitative and qualitative data). Belasco found that the technological innovation of piped, chlorinated water was actually not so effective or advantageous as it might at first seem to be. The piped water system was not such an appropriate technology for Egyptian villagers as health experts and sanitation engineers claimed. Thus Belasco overcame the pro-innovation bias that characterizes past diffusion studies. The piped water system was inadequate because Egyptian politicians had promised pure water to all villagers in the populous Nile Delta. This popular goal severely overextended the water system that could be constructed with available resources. Further, much pure water was wasted. Each spigot was originally equipped with a spring-loaded shut-off valve, so that the flow of water would stop when the valve was not held open. However constant use of this valve led the spring to break. No one was responsible for its repair. In fact, many of the springs were intentionally broken by the villagers, who preferred constantly running water. So the pure water ran out of the spigot day and night, creating a filthy mudhole around the spigot, and also lowering the water pressure throughout the piped water system. Obviously, the technology for providing pure water supplies in villages of the Nile Delta was poorly planned, without an adequate consideration of human behavior and village culture. As in many technological systems, the context of user behavior was not fully taken into account by the hydraulic engineers who planned the pure-water system. The result was a technological innovation that did not match villagers' needs.

Belasco's respondents preferred canal water because the chlorinated water from the spigot tasted "chemical" or "medicinal" to them. Many believed that it weakened their sex drive. A popular rumor circulated that the government's unpopular family planning program had added chemicals to the piped water in order to decrease the rate of population growth in Egypt.

Most village water-gatherers stored the canal in a zir, an earthen vase whose evaporation cools the water. The dirt and other solids in the canal water settle to the bottom of the zir, so that the resulting clear water appears to be pure. The bacteria and petrochemicals are still actually present, as are the microscopic schistosomiasis parasites. But villagers perceive that the zir purifies their drinking water. Alum, rose petals, and certain seeds are added to the canal water in the zir, helping to create the perception that the water is purified. Most zirs do not have lids, so the dust and flies in the air further contaminate the water.

Social reasons also explain why canal water was preferred by most female water-gatherers. The women congregated on the canal banks in order to wash their clothes and dishes and to gather water, providing a social setting for the exchange of news and gossip. In comparison, standing in line at a water spigot was not a pleasant experience. The long lines of female water-gatherers congregated at each spigot in the very early morning, and these queues lengthened as the day wore on. Only a tiny stream of water emerged from the spigot. Pushing frequently occurred and fighting often broke out, sometimes spreading to the male relatives of the water-gatherers. Worse, during the hot summer, when demand for the piped water was greatest, the government-installed water system was totally inadequate. The water supply was shut off completely for several hours each day, and often for days at a time. These highly unreliable conditions forced even those individuals who preferred piped water to drink canal water. Some women poured their inadequate supply of pure water into their zir of polluted canal water, contaminating the resulting mixture and negating the health effects of the piped water.

Belasco's respondents, all of whom were devout Moslems, washed their hands and feet prior to praying five times each day at the village mosque. Islamic belief calls for washing with pure water. Incredibly, Belasco found that villagers often cleaned their hands and feet with pure tap water from a spigot, but then drank the polluted canal water. Village religious leaders, who are highly respected opinion leaders, could have played an important role in promoting pure drinking water in Egypt, but this strategy was not pursued by government change agents.

A very few villagers were adopters of pure water. These adopters had high socio-economic status. Often they had relatives who worked in Saudi Arabia and sent their savings home. Such adopters often owned their own metered water tap, for which they paid a monthly fee on the basis of how much water they used. These village elites also could afford electricity and a pump to raise the water pressure in the government-provided piped water system. But even these well-educated, high income villagers were forced to drink canal water when the piped water system was shut off for days or weeks at a time.

Clearly, the Egyptian villagers who reject the chlorinated, piped water and who drink polluted canal water do not appear to be so irrational as they might at first appear to be. One of the important contributions of diffusion researchers like David Belasco's study in Egypt is to illuminate the complex nature of individuals' perceptions of an innovation. Understanding such perceptions can provide useful lessons to technological experts. After all, it is individuals' perceptions of an innovation that count.

Steel Axes for Stone-Age Aborigines (pp. 421-422)

The consequences of the adoption of steel axes by a tribe of Australian aborigines vividly illustrates the need for consideration of the undesirable, indirect, and unanticipated consequences of an innovation. The Yir Yoront traveled in small nomadic groups over a vast territory in search of game and other food. The central tool in their culture was the stone ax, which the Yir Yoront found indispensable in producing food, constructing shelter, and heating their homes. A complete revolution was precipitated by the replacement of the stone ax by the steel ax.

Anthropologist Lauriston Sharp (1952) conducted his investigation of the Yir Yoront by the method of participant observation. He studied Yir Yoront culture by taking par in its everyday activities. Because of their isolation, the tribe was relatively unaffected by Western civilization until the establishment of a nearby missionary post. The missionaries distributed many steel axes among the Yir Yoront as gifts and as payment for work performed.

Previously, the stone ax had been a symbol of masculinity and of respect for elders. Only men owned stone axes, although women and children were the principal users of these tools. Axes were borrowed from fathers, husbands, or uncles according to a system of social relationships prescribed by custom. The Yir Yoront obtained their stone ax heads in exchange for spears through bartering with other tribes, a process that took place as part of elaborate rituals at seasonal fiestas.

When the missionaries distributed the steel axes to the Yir Yoront, they hoped that a rapid improvement in living conditions would result. There was no important resistance to using the steel axes, because the tribe was accustomed to securing their tools through trade. Steel axes were more efficient for most tasks, and the stone axes rapidly disappeared among the Yir Yoront.

But the steel ax contributed little to social progress; to the disappointment of the missionaries, the Yir Yoront used their new-found leisure time for sleep, "an act they had thoroughly mastered." The missionaries distributed the steel axes equally to men, women, and children. Young men were more likely to adopt the new tools than were the elders, who did not trust the missionaries. The result was a disruption of status relations among the Yir Yoront and a revolutionary confusion of age and sex roles. Elders, once highly respected, now became dependent upon women and younger men, and were often forced to borrow steel axes from these social inferiors.

The trading rituals of the tribe also became disorganized. Friendship ties among traders broke down, and interest declined in the annual fiestas, where the barter of stone axes for spears had formerly taken place. The religious system and social organization of the Yir Yoront became disorganized as a result of the tribe's inability to adjust to the innovation. The men began prostituting their daughters and wives in exchange for the use of someone else's steel ax.

Many of the consequences of the innovation among the Yir Yoront were undesirable, indirect, and unanticipated; these three types of consequence often go together, just as desirable, direct, and anticipated consequences are often associated.

The Snowmobile Revolution in the Arctic (pp. 406-8)

In the United States the snowmobile is a means of winter recreation. Since the invention of the "Ski-Doo," a one-person snow vehicle, in 1958, the adoption of snowmobiles spread dramatically, and within a dozen years over a million were in use in North America. Some outcry against the ski-doo (which quickly became a generic name for snowmobiles) was voiced, owing to the noise pollution they caused in previously peaceful outdoor areas of the United States and Canada.

But among the Skolt Lapps, a reindeer-herding people of Northern Finland who live above the Arctic Circle, the rapid introduction of snowmobiles caused far-reaching consequences that were termed "disastrous" (Pelto, 1973). One method of investigating the consequences of technological innovation is for a social scientist (an anthropologist in the present case) to intensively study a small community. Dr. Pertti Pelto of the University of Connecticut had lived among the Skolt Lapps in the Sevettigärvi region of Northern Finland for several years, beginning in 1958, prior to the introduction of snowmobiles in 1962-1963. Pelto returned to this community repeatedly over the next decade to assess the impact of the snowmobile revolution through participant observation, personal interviews with the Lapps, and via collaboration with a research assistant/key informant (who was the first Skolt Lapp to buy a snowmobile). Pelto chose to concentrate on a single technological innovation because its consequences were so striking and hence relatively easier to identify. Many of the impacts of the ski-doo were unfavorable. Pelto argues that the snowmobile represents a class of technological innovations that shifts energy sources from local and autonomous origins (reindeer sleds in this case) to a dependence on external sources (snowmobiles and gasolines).

Prior to the introduction of snowmobiles, the Skolt Lapps herded semi-domesticated reindeer for their livelihood. Reindeer meat was the main food. Reindeer sleds were the principal means of transportation, and reindeer hides were used for making clothing and shoes. Surplus meat was sold at trading stores for cash to buy flour, sugar, tea, and other staples. The Lapps saw themselves mainly as reindeer-herders, and prestige was accorded to men who had a good string of draught reindeer. Lapp society was an egalitarian system in which each family had approximately equal number of animals. Skolt children received a "first-tooth reindeer," a "name-day reindeer," and gifts on various other occasions, including wedding gifts of reindeer, so that a new household began with a small herd of the beloved animals. The Lapps felt a special relationship with their reindeer, and treated them with much care. The reindeer was the central object in Lapp culture.

In 1961 a Bombardier Ski-Doo from Canada was displayed in Rovaniemi, the capital city of Finnish Lapland. A schoolteacher purchased this snowmobile for recreational travel, but soon found that it was useful for hauling wood and storebought supplies. The Lapps began using snowmobiles for reindeer herding. Within the following year, two ski-doos were purchased for herding reindeer in an area where the land was forested and rocky. The herders had to drive their machines by standing on the footboards or kneeling on the seat, instead of riding in the usual straddle position (like on a motorcycle), in order to spot reindeer at a greater distance and to steer around rocks, trees, and other obstacles. But the erect riding style was dangerous as the driver was thrown forward when the snowmobile hit an obstruction. Additionally, the snowmobiles broke down often in the rough terrain of Lapland.

Despite these problems, the rate of adoption of snowmobiles was very rapid among the Lapps. Three snowmobiles were adopted in the second year of diffusion, five more the next year, then eight more, and sixteen in 1966 and 1967. By 1971, almost every one of the seventy-two households in Sevettigärvi (the village studied by Professor Pelto) had at least one snowmobile. An improved model, the Motoski, was introduced from Sweden. It had a more powerful motor and was better suited to driving in rough terrain.

The main advantage of the snowmobile was much faster travel. The round trip from Sevettigärvi to buy staple supplies in Norwegian stores was reduced from three days by reindeer sled, to five hours by snowmobile. Within a few years of their initial introduction, snowmobiles completely replaced skis and reindeer sleds as a means of herding reindeer. Unfortunately, the noise and the smell of the machines drove the reindeer into a near-wild state. The friendly relationships between the Lapps and their animals was disrupted by the high-speed machines. Frightened running by the reindeer decreased the number of reindeer calves born each year. The average number of reindeer per household in Sevettigärvi dropped from fifty-two in presnowmobile days, to only twelve in 1971, a decade later. This average is misleading because about two-thirds of the Lapp households completely dropped out of reindeer-raising as a result of the snowmobile. Most could not find other work and were unemployed. On the other hand, one family in Sevettigärvi, who were relatively early in purchasing a snowmobile, built up a large herd, and by 1971 owned one-third of all reindeer in the community.

Not only did the frightened reindeer have fewer calves, but the precipitous drop in the number of reindeer also occurred because many of the animals had to be slaughtered for their meat, so the Lapps could purchase the snowmobiles, gasoline for their operations, and spare parts and repairs. A new machine cost about $1000, and gas and repairs typically cost about $425 per year. Despite this relatively high cost (for the Skolt Lapps, who lived on a subsistence income), snowmobiles were considered a household necessity, and the motorized herding of reindeer was considered much more prestigious than herding by skis or with reindeer sleds. The snowmobile revolution pushed the Skolt Lapps into a tailspin of cash dependency, debt, and unemployment.

Why didn't the Lapps, given their love for the reindeer and the disastrous effects of snowmobiles, resist this technological innovation? Pelto (1973) suggests the reason is that at no point in the introduction and diffusion of snowmobiles could the Skolt Lapps have predicted the possible future outcomes of the technology, and decided on whether the innovation should proceed unchecked. An assessment of the technology's impacts could have been made in the 1960s, but it was not, because the Lapps were not technically able to anticipate the far-reaching consequences of the snowmobile. Further, Lapp society is very individualistic, and given the technology's advantages for the first adopters (who were wealthier and younger than the average), initial adoption was impossible to prevent. Thereafter, the diffusion process quickly ran its course.

As a result, the reindeer-centered culture of the Skolt Lapps was severely disrupted. Most families today are unemployed and depend upon the Finnish government for subsistence payments. The snowmobile revolution in the arctic led to disastrous consequences for the reindeer, and for the Lapps who depended on the animals for their livelihood.

Since the anthropological study of the snowmobile revolution by Pertti Pelto, further technological developments have occurred in Lapland. During the summer months, the Lapps began using motorcycles to herd their reindeer. Certain affluent Lapps even began using helicopters. An increasing number of reindeer slaughtered for meat were found to have stomach ulcers.

Certainly technological innovation has not been kind to the Skolt Lapps.