Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Price, Convenience?

What is technology, after all?  Let's break it down to its simplest.  I think technology falls into one of two categories:
1.  New capabilities we didn't have before, such as breathing underwater or in space, or flying.
2.  Convenience - doing things we always have done, but faster with less work.

There might possibly be a third category, that of entertainment, but I need to think more on it - perhaps it is some shading or blending of the other 2.

Most of the technology out there is of the second.  Truly innovative and creative inventions can achieve the first - but they are few and far between.

In America, as in many other countries allowing some form of "free" enterprise, people are incented to develop new products and services - and hunt for markets for them - whether or not they really provide true benefit.

That begs the question about what is meant by "true benefit?"  I would argue this is something that is generally agreed as a benefit, with little or no negative effects.  DDT had a benefit, but the negative effects I would argue vastly outweighed, and gave it a net negative impact on our lives.  So true benefit is something where the net impact is largely positive, that is to say the negative side is very small.

This balance of net effect can change over time, and change as the technology evolves.  For example, when Mr. Bell invented the telephone, the negative side effects were relatively minor - unsightly wires strung up on poles everywhere, and perhaps some exposure to electrical radiative energy.  With cellular phone technology, this can be argued to be a larger negative effect - larger amounts of radiation, and social impact of being able to be always reachable means it is hard not to interrupt socially important interactions for the call of the moment.

Let's look at the microwave oven.  What are the negative effects of this?  Many argue radiation exposure, many argue that the way it cooks the food, it destroys much of the nutrient value of the food.  I would add that we also have what I like to call the "microwave effect."

The Microwave Effect is an increased social expectation of instant gratification.  I would associate this with
  • A shorter attention span
  • Less patience (as we all know is a virtue!)
  • Less planning and therefore less wisdom
  • An "addiction" to convenience
  • Removal from a "connectedness" to the source of our products and the process of using them
With the microwave oven,  not only is our food heated unevenly (which I always hated), and the nutrient value damaged, but we expect dishes to take less time to prepare.  "What, you seriously expect me to cook something that takes 30 minutes to make?"  (Come on, 30 minutes is too long??)  It takes less planning - if it is frozen, you can still throw it in, so you don't have to think ahead.  Thinking and consciously participating in our own lives is what makes us alive - rather than just floating from event to event or neurotically, anxiously keeping some hectic schedule.

This addiction to convenience removes us from the source of the food - did the food come from somewhere nearby, or halfway around the world?  Or more likely, did portions of the meal come from multiple countries spread around the globe?  What is the cost of this?  In time, energy, fuel?  What is the cost of putting the decision of our food sources in some corporate executive's hands, while the farmers in our own back yard are struggling to pay their bills, let alone buy the product your company makes?

However, the Microwave Effect is not just limited to microwave ovens - hence the name.  One could perhaps argue that personal vehicles may have some of it, or the plethora of specialty TV stations.

Whenever we use technology, I would challenge you - think about the lesser-known negative impacts.  Where was it made - and do you want your money going to them?  How was it made - were they environmentally conscious?  Was the packaging outrageously excessive, so that something you use once (to get the product from the factory to you) get thrown out, to last in a landfill for over 1,000 years?

Does this technology give a "true benefit?"  That is, not only is the net benefit good, but is the negative impact small?

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