Big, Beige and Bulky: Æsthetic Shifts in the Hearing Aid Industry (1945-2015)

Æsthetics play an important role in the success of technology products. Theorizing about how the aesthetics of technology products shift over the course of the technology lifecycle, scholars posit that there is limited aesthetic innovation during the era of ferment, but that producers engage in aesthetic innovation when the technology matures to differentiate their products in the market. We extend this theory through an inductive examination of technological and aesthetic innovations in the hearing aid industry over the 70-year period 1945-2015. We identify that each technology lifecycle is associated with a dominant aesthetic—that is an aesthetic manifestation, which is present in the majority of products during that lifecycle. In contrast to existing theory we show that the shift between dominant aesthetics occurs during the era of ferment. We find that categorical aspirations—aiming for the product to take on the meaning of other product categories—are a core driver of aesthetic innovation. Over the course of the technology lifecycle producers become dissatisfied with their products’ aesthetic manifestations and they begin to draw analogies to other product categories. These new categorical aspirations do not spur new aesthetic manifestations—they remain latent. However, when a technological discontinuity jolts the existing dominant aesthetic it frees up producers to experiment with the accumulated latent categorical aspirations. After a period of aesthetic experimentation, the industry settles into a new dominant aesthetic, which undergoes minor aesthetic elaborations as the technology matures.

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Interview and camera by STORM post-doc Thinley Tharchen and emlyon Ph.D. candidate Laura Dupin.
Editing by emlyon Ph.D. candidate Laura Dupin.