Four Modern Day Paradoxes of Human Construct
The Snake Paradox – The more crap the graphics,
the more addictive a game is (I admit it… I made that one up!)
Us humans are fucking dumb sometimes aren’t we? We are always striving for more. More money, a bigger slice of the pie, more productivity, better technology, more efficiency. It is this trait that has taken us from our original spawning ground of East Africa to become a multi-billion member, world wide force that even nature itself now has to reckon with. But we don’t always seem to use our gains to good effect in my humble opinion. Let’s have a look at where we are squandering some of them with a list of Modern Day Paradoxes of Human Construct:
1. The Productivity Paradox
The smarter we work, the harder we work
As this is primarily a blog about working as little as possible this has to be number one in the charts 1. For evidence of this paradox look no further than Keynes’ failed prediction of the 15 hour work week. From the linked article: living standards have increase nearly 8 fold as he predicted, yet the drop in working hours has failed to materialise. There are a few reasons I can think of for this:
- Your lifestyle has already been designed – Corporations have a huge vested interest in keeping you preoccupied at the office for most of your waking hours, so that you don’t have the time to think about or find solutions to any of the problems you face outside of work other than paying for them.
- People have forgotten how to think for themselves – Most people are so used to the born/school/work/retire/die-shortly-after paradigm that not working scares the living shit of them. These people have invented such (generally unspoken of) concepts as busy-work, totally unnecessary meetings and metrics, talking a lot of bullshit, and “putting facetime in at the office”. All of this boils down to more time spent at work while actually not doing anything productive.
- Internet facilitates goofing off – Facebook and the internet have allowed many others to “goof off while getting paid for it”. The sad reality is that if we just worked harder when in the office, we could potentially work far less hours and actually do something more worthwhile with our free time other than reading buzzfeed “articles” and celebrity tweets on t’internet 🙂
- Parkinson’s Law – This could actually be one of the paradoxes itself but it is really a sub-paradox of the productivity one and is clearly the underlying law to the last two points raised above. From the Wikipedia link: Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
2. The Energy Efficiency Paradox
The more efficient our energy usage becomes, the more energy we use
Some of you may be surprised by this paradox but in nearly every single case of a large efficiency gain in some technology or other, instead of us humans using it to save money and energy, we have just used those gains to use more energy in other ways. For example, this could be by increasing production and making unit price cheaper, so more people end up using it and therefore increasing overall energy usage. We also like to make things bigger and “better” (50″ flatscreens LCD as opposed to your old 14″ vacuum tube televisions) so we end up using the same or more energy than the original bit of kit did in the first place.
For an easy example look at mobile phones. Now my trusty old first ever mobile phone, the Nokia 5110, used to last 4-5 days between charges. Now we have much more efficient processor chips and batteries yet I have to charge my phone at least once a day. Is this progress? You can argue that today’s phones do 1000 times more than just phone, text, and snake (and you’d be correct), but I can’t help thinking that more emphasis should be on getting energy usage down rather than using the gains to cram more and more bells and whistles into the diminutive boxes that now run our lives for us.
For many other examples of this paradox in action please see my favourite article on this paradox at Low Tech Magazine here.
The person who “discovered” this paradox was good ole Bill Jevons way back in 1865, however I have been careful not to mention him up till now as some people say that his paradox is bunk. My two pence on this “bunk” article are that as well as being surprised to see it in a climate change themed website – I think it misses the wider and much more important point that clearly efficiency gains are not all that are needed to avert climate and resource depletion distasters – I also I feel that the author is being somewhat pedantic. It may be that Jevons is not strictly always true, in that a more efficient product (e.g. Air Conditioners as used in the article) may not literally lead to people deliberately using more energy directly with that product. But clearly all productivity and efficiency gains with new technology, which are all related, have tended to just bootstrap our societies into being able to invest more of our money and resources into even more energy demanding activities. Whether that is by buying larger houses and AC units to cool them, the energy to power them directly, or something completely different, even down to being able to afford to have more children a.k.a population growth, the end result has always been thus far more total energy usage. This does not mean energy efficiency is not something to strive for but it does mean we need to have a serious look at how we are allowed to put those gains to good use going forward. Going back to the “bunk” article I think comment #15 absolutely nails what the rational position on all of this is/should be.
3. The Veblen Goods Paradox
The higher priced an item, the higher the demand
The caveat here is obviously that the product has to be deemed a luxury good by the masses, but looking at what ridiculously expensive tripe there is out there, I don’t think that is particularly hard 2
This paradox manages to simultaneously amuse and yet exasperate me. For a start, I cannot believe people pay ridiculous prices for a product (designer handbags, watches and so on) when they could get what amounts to the same thing for 1/10th or less of the price. But those people are free to do as they wish and are easy enough to mock, which provides me with at least some gentle amusement. And if you are one of the super-rich, then fill your boots I say, that money has got to go somewhere!
But the companies making the damn things wind me up even more. I’ve often ruminated that I could easily set up my own company, make a product, set the price at 10 x the average and people would buy it simply because it was that expensive. If you think you need some sort of background, history or heritage to start up your own designer brand please see the many relatively new companies who have come out of nowhere and started charging exorbitant amounts of money for pieces of coloured and stitched cloth. For example SuperDry, who are often seen as being a Japanese brand. The company was established in Cheltenham FFS! Jack Wills is another who have only been around since 1999 yet are what all the cool kids want to be wearing these days (their business model seems to be just copy the style of Gap, Hollister et al). So much for brand equity, just slap on a high price tag and your products will become instantly desirable!
Fair play to them all I suppose, but as someone who doesn’t believe in this sort of thing I’d have a very hard time with my conscience making swimming pools full of money from it! The cynic in me also has to question whether they believe their brand is delivering true value to their customers for the extra money they are charging for their products, or whether they are also just cynical barstards who know how this mechanism works and are exploiting the shit out of it. Proof for this latter possible reality surely lies in some of the horrendous crap these expensive brands come out with:
Wait… you want ME to give YOU money to
wear this crime against humanity?
Surely this is just a cruel trick on the poor/rich unwitting people who fall for the Veblen trap?
4. The Paradox of Choice
The more choices we have, the higher anxiety levels we experience
Who would have thought 10,000 years ago, when the main choice was eat whatever you could find or die, that we’d actually ever get to such an advanced stage where too much choice was potentially degrading our wellbeing. I’ve written about this before over at Done By Forty in my guest post Limit Your Options, Expand Your Wallet so head on over there for the full low down. This paradox was first written about extensively in the book* of the same name by Barry Schwartz. It has had some criticism according to the Wikipedia article, which states that research finds “no meaningful connection between choice and anxiety” – but from personal experience I think there is a lot to be said about keeping your options simple and limited.
Well I think that’s enough about paradoxes for today. I was going to write some more but 1500+ words is about the limit I think most people will want to read in a sitting?!
Personally I find this sort of thing really interesting so I hope you have too! If it get’s a good amount of interest, I will consider doing a mini series, as there are tonnes more fascinating paradoxes out there to tell you about 🙂
That’s probably me done for this week so until the next post (our February expenses report… stay tuned!) have a good weekend to all of you!
- Sorry for not doing the “countdown” pop-hits chart style list. Personally I don’t see the point in leaving the best till last! ↩
- Fancy packaging, moderate marketing spend and paying off a few celebs to wear/use it should suffice ↩
- Which is closely related to the Paradox of Value (why is water, which is much more useful to us, cheaper than diamonds?) ↩