2016-06-08

Not-Quite-Useless Machines

While I am a huge fan of new and innovative technologies, and the glut of human utility they have brought with them, the truth of the matter is that some technologies are worth more in hedonic utility than others. 

Vaccines, for example, are some of the most precious technologies human beings have ever discovered, saving and improving the lives of billions. On the other hand, electric carving knives offer little utility, other than the novelty of owning one and using it a few times. For most of us, it's just as easy to grab a traditional carving knife - it's certainly easier to clean, and you don't have to position a big twenty-pound turkey close to the nearest electrical outlet.

Etc., etc. You get the idea. While I believe that all technology has positive total utility, only some technology has positive marginal utility. A fair number of inventions might even have negative marginal utility.

If you're familiar with basic economic theory, then nothing I've said so far will strike you as particularly controversial, and in fact many of you will go so far as to say this is as much a logical law as the general principle of diminishing marginal utility itself. 

At a certain point - I'm not sure when - I decided to try to reduce my use of what we might call "useless machines," of which electric carving knives are an excellent example. Clearly, though, not everyone agrees with me, since the market for these contraptions still exists. That is to say, the list of "useless machines" I make will surely look different from yours, but we can all certainly produce such a list.

Once I started thinking about myself, I came to realize just how many useless machines I've been using all this time: Elevators for one- or two-floor trips, electric tea kettles, electric coffee pots, moving sidewalks, digital watches, and so on. It's rather astounding how many commonplace items are electrically powered, but unnecessarily so in that the cost of the electricity powering them is higher than the marginal benefit I (personally) receive from them. It's just as easy to wind a watch as to replace a battery. I actually prefer coffee made in a rangetop percolator or a French press to coffee made in an electric coffee maker. Useless elevator rides are making our sedentary lives ever-more-sedentary and contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Thus, I've decided to make the conscious effort to reduce - that is, attempt to eliminate - my consumption of useless technology. There are, I suppose, environmental reasons to do this, but I'm less concerned with that than I am in maximizing my figurative utility functions.

I encourage my readers to join me.