How Can Understanding of New Technologies Can Be Both Diverse and Coherent?

A photo of a network of interconnected dots, depicting a network

Remember the early days of videotape, when the Betamax and VHS formats battled it out for dominance? Millions of dollars in sales rested on the public’s perception of what counted as videotape, whether they pictured one format or another in their minds. Only one understanding of the technology—only one frame—could dominate. Not so, though, in 2023.

Thanks to smartphones, the internet, and traditional news media, when a new technology like blockchain emerges, people try to understand it through communication, both by talking with others close by, and by engaging with more remote voices in industry, government, or media. As discussions continue, understandings of the technology emerge. These are called frames, because like a picture frame, they draw attention to parts of the technology, but deflect attention away from other parts. For instance, one group of people might understand blockchain as a “foundational technology,” while another pundit might see uses for the technology apart from Bitcoin, like a babysitting circle or even a crime ring.

It is probably unsurprising that different people—and different groups of people—see new technologies differently. Enactment fields, which are fields with direct contact with the new technology, tend to create walls to limit frames. Think, for instance, a corporation that directly uses blockchain. But mediated fields, which gain access to information about the technology by talk with others, tend to build bridges between frames. Think, for instance, news media that might interview members of a corporation that uses blockchain.

The problem is that while diverse frames can drive product innovation and engagement, diversity usually seems to be at odds with coherence. In other words, the more ways people frame a new technology, the less consensus exists about what it is, and that can actually make it harder to understand.

In their article “Discursive Fields and the Diversity-Coherence Paradox: An Ecological Perspective on the Blockchain Community Discourse,” published September 2022 in MIS Quarterly, Culverhouse’s Dr. Chuan (Annie) Tian, along with collaborators Shaila M. Miranda of the University of Oklahoma Price College of Business and Dawei (David) Wang of the Department of Business and Information Technology at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, tackled this paradox.

The authors studied the ways that various people and groups of people worked to understand blockchain, and learned:

  • If mediated fields connect frames, the authors can redefine coherence as relatedness—things are perceived as coherent if they are related to each other. This makes it possible to show that diversity and coherence evolve alongside one another.
  • And it could be that instead of discourse about new innovation evolving through competition, it evolves through mutualism—through different frames shaping each other.
  • In fact, the authors argue that such a mutualistic view is actually ethical because it enfranchises everyone, while still being competitive because it highlights alternative frames, driving further innovation.
  • The researchers suggest that prospective adopters of new technologies monitor both enactment and mediated fields—enactment fields for competitive intelligence, and mediated fields for emerging innovations.
  • Finally, they urge developers to keep tabs on social media influencers, and that policymakers monitor frames to avoid disadvantaging a particular group when creating policy about new technologies.

The paper won the MIS Quarterly Innovative Research Approach Award 2022. “Another major contribution of the study is the methodology—specifically, the adoption of a computationally intensive grounded theory approach, as detailed by Berente et al., 2019,” Tian said. “This approach seamlessly combines potent machine learning-assisted qualitative analyses with computational discovery.”

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