Stine Grodal (Boston University) and Anders Dahl Krabbe (University of Southern Denmark): Gems, Skin or Chrome: Aesthetic Shifts in the U.S. Hearing Aid Industry (1945-2015)

Aesthetics play an important role in the success of technology products. Scholars have theorized about how the aesthetics of technology products evolve over the technology lifecycle. Yet, due to limited empirical evidence the literature remains inconclusive about which mechanisms trigger periods of aesthetic innovation. We extend this literature through an inductive examination of technological and aesthetic innovations in the hearing aid industry over the 70-year period 1945-2015.

Previous works have suggested that the transition to a new technology lifecycle eventually will force producers to unleash a new wave of aesthetic innovation. However, we find that only some technology lifecycles show such pattern. We offer a theoretical model of aesthetic shifts capable of accounting for this variation. We find that producers pursue new aesthetic manifestations to align the evolutionary trajectory of their product category with recent cultural developments in society. Producers do this through categorical aspirations to other product categories. A technology lifecycle unleashes a wave of aesthetic innovation when new categorical aspirations reside latent within an industry. This occurs when producers realize that current aesthetics have failed to generate the desired market outcomes. However, the sole presence of a categorical aspiration does not lead to an aesthetic shift until technological changes offer producers opportunities to radically alter technological designs. When a technological discontinuity triggers an era of ferment, categorical aspirations are taken from their latency and enacted in aesthetic experimentation.



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