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The Cost of Technology

By Robert Seawright, Proprietor, Above the Market

Walt Mossberg has produced his final column for The Wall Street Journal after 22 years of tech reviews. Not surprisingly, he wrote about the products that most changed the digital industry during that time. That milestone has caused me to think a bit about the cost of technology, but not in the sense of Moore’s law.

Let me illustrate using a couple of real-life experiences (a bit ironic in the digital age, I know).

  • When I was a young lawyer, a senior partner and I were talking about the speed of communication. At that time (back in the dark ages), the fax machine was the new new thing (we charged a dollar a page for both incoming and outgoing faxes then — what a profit center!). He noted that “back in the old days” he used to write a letter about a significant matter. He’d assume a delivery time of 3-5 days and then allow some period for reflection and response. Thus he wouldn’t even anticipate a possible reply before a couple of weeks went by. FedEx shortened that time dramatically and fax machines shortened it again. His analysis was that this speeding up of things wasn’t a positive development. He thought reflection was important. So was cooling down when tempers were hot. As email, texting and social media have come on the scene since (not to mention stuff like SnapChat and Vine), we now expect (demand!) responses almost immediately. Short attention span theatre indeed. Reflection is a thing of the past.
  • When I was in grade school, early on, perhaps even first grade (which would have been Miss Frost’s class), I remember a lesson my teacher gave about the impact of technology (although she didn’t call it that). I grew up in a small town where people worked hard, but generally stayed at work “only” until 4pm (if blue-collar) or 5pm (if white-collar) and arrived home shortly thereafter (since “commutes” almost never exceeded single-digit minutes). My teacher’s thesis was that various time-saving techniques and devices in the future would make it so that our “work” was done by noon, allowing us to add much more richness to our lives. She was right on the facts, of course, but wrong in her interpretation. We now all have many ways to save time and many devices designed to do exactly that, but we also seem to keep having to work both harder and smarter just to keep up.

Technology comes at a significant cost. As the terrific television critic Andy Greenwaldargues in reference to the British anthology series, Black Mirror, ”technology isn’t always about getting the new thing, it’s also about giving something up.” Whether it’s time, reflection, privacy, modesty or whatever, technology costs a lot — no matter how cheap it is.

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