I have just returned from Canada, which seems to share Britain’s new-found obsession with veganism. There, chains such as Burger King and KFC are offering plant-based alternatives to meat-based meals. Five years ago could anyone have predicted this? True, vegetarianism has been growing for many years, but did anyone foresee its most extreme variant rapidly ‘crossing the chasm’ to go from an oddball niche to a standard lifestyle choice?
The ‘chasm’ is that mysterious and often impermeable barrier all technologies and behaviours must traverse if they are to make the critical leap from being a weird minority interest to an unquestioningly accepted option. Some things (mobile phones, Facebook, washing machines, smoking bans, credit cards, Coke) eventually cross that gap and rapidly become commonplace. Other things (MySpace, the Segway, moist toilet paper, Quakerism, Dr Pepper) remain trapped in a niche for ever.
The idea of the chasm is essential to understanding why social and technological change frequently stalls or dies, while at other times it occurs with a bizarre rapidity. Quite simply there are two separate modes by which new technologies, beliefs or behaviours are adopted. At first adoption largely occurs through conscious individual action; this is slow. Once something crosses the chasm, however, it reaches a critical mass at which point adoption occurs through social imitation. This second process is much faster than the first.
Everything new is weird, and brings with it the risk of social embarrassment. In 1989, when I used a mobile phone on Oxford Street, people shouted abuse at me; a few years later, I was ridiculed at a party for buying groceries online. In upgrading our bathroom, I have encountered heavy spousal resistance when specifying a Japanese-style toilet which washes your bum with a pleasing stream of warm water.