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Megascope: There’s the Rub

The spread of easy electronic fixes to knotty problems can postpone fundamental solutions.
September 1, 2005

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.

The transfer of information is not so different from the movement of personal effects. Neither in principle requires nearly as much work as was once believed. In the case of data, the Web has trivialized the effort of searching for knowledge that was theoretically public but too tedious in practice to discover.

The New York University communication scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan has even proclaimed “the collapse of inconvenience” to a Boston Globe writer, referring to the millions of Web users who employ the pitiless eye of search engines to hunt for awkward personal data, from youthful indiscretions to middle-aged eccentricities and worse.

In popular culture, too, the extension of efficiency to the masses has changed behavior unexpectedly. The CEO who did the most to encourage early television remote control, E. F. McDonald Jr. of Zenith, hated commercials and expected newly empowered, remote-armed viewers to force the replacement of advertising with subscription-based television. They of course did no such thing; even most premium cable channels now feature advertising. But restless viewers did change programming in other ways.

For decades, programmers have been increasing the pacing of their shows. This makes it less likely that viewers will change programs at any instant, but for many observers, the jumpier action makes the shows less effective. Our ability to avoid commercials by fast-forwarding effortlessly through our TiVo-cached and similarly stored programs is making product placement more pervasive.

Finally, the spread of easy electronic fixes to knotty problems can postpone fundamental solutions. The ease of crafting new legislative districts with mapping software has invigorated the ancient art of gerrymandering. And a taxation expert, Joseph J. Thorndike, recently argued in the New York Times that electronic income-tax preparation software has removed an important incentive for tax reform: the annoyance of calculating certain taxes. If citizens had to fill out their forms manually to comply with the alternative minimum tax, originally directed at the wealthy but expected to soon snare a third of taxpayers, the tedium of the calculation (by many who turned out not to owe any tax) might have tipped the scales for reform.

I’m not about to do next year’s form 1040 on an abacus, but sometimes a bit of inconvenience is just what I need; having a manual transmission discourages me from answering the cell phone while driving. As Vaidhyanathan observed, “It turns out inconvenience was a really important part of our lives, and we didn’t realize it.”

Ed Tenner is a writer, speaker, and consultant on technology and culture, a frequent guest on NPR, and the author of the best-selling Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (2003).

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