We know resistance when we feel it. And we’re well aware that reducing physical or social inefficiencies can produce big benefits; Jacqueline Krim of North Carolina State University is a pioneering physicist who studies friction and says the U.S. could save $110 billion a year by limiting it.
Yet large-scale improvements in efficiency bring out unexpected collective behavior that may introduce new sources of social, if not of physical, friction.
Consider luggage. In the late 1980s, a pilot named Robert Plath borrowed the idea of the in-line skate to develop the first commercially successful wheeled suitcase. Today, most new luggage can roll. For soft cases, the conversion was simple.
Not so for some premium models. Halliburton aluminum luggage, which was invented by the oil well-cementing pioneer Earle Halliburton (but is now produced by an independent company, Zero Halliburton), is an incomparable made-in-the-U.S.A. suit of pressed aircraft-grade aluminum armor. It defies the ravages of human and mechanical abuse and is sealed with a neoprene gasket.
At last, the makers of my 30-year-old Zero Halliburton two-suiter have produced a replacement model, the Zeroller, with an elegantly recessed handle and polyurethane wheels. The price is still steep, $755 and up, but with the convenience of the Web I found excellent mail-order prices. And besides, the latches of my case were starting to wobble.
The problem with this convenience is social, not technical. The airlines, as the Baltimore Sun recently reported, have found that wheeled cases, which have grown in popularity since the early 1990s, have encouraged people to pack heavier bags. Facing higher fuel costs, most carriers have begun to impose a charge of at least $50 for bags weighing more than 50 pounds.
Whether reasonable cost recovery or stealthy rip-off, the charges mean that the more durable – and thus heavier – the bag, the smaller the free payload. At 13 pounds, a 24-inch wheeled Zero Halliburton Zeroller uses more than a quarter of the domestic allowance; a 26-inch model, closer in capacity to my old two-suiter, weighs 16 pounds, nearly a third. And thus the convenience of wheeled luggage begins to break down. At airports, it is common to see travelers hastily removing heavy items from their luggage and dragging them onto planes in plastic bags.