The Calculus of Change: An Ethnography of Unlearning

Marijke Rijsberman - Design Anthropologist, Cisco Systems

Technological innovation obsolesces not only earlier technologies, but also the knowledge, skills, and expertise of the users of those earlier technologies. This state of affairs receives little attention, generally being written off as the cost of participation in a vibrant economy and presumably offset by the benefits inherent in the innovation itself. However, not all changes are equal in the benefits they bestow, as indeed they are not equal in the costs they impose. This paper seeks to develop an understanding of what happens in the process of individual adaptation, looking both at the acquisition of new skills and especially the unlearning that lies behind it, based on findings from interviews and usability testing. Differentiating between types of unlearning, the paper offers a calculus of the individual costs imposed by upgrades, versions, redesigns, service packs, and other harbingers of change. It also seeks to inform a technology design practice that is cognizant of high-cost unlearning and minimizes unnecessary impacts.