Friday, March 19, 2010

Is life better with cell phones or is it just different?

(Electronic stuff.  Is life better or just different?)

My previous blog criticizing cell phones caused me to reexamine a question about which I have long pondered.  Are we better off with the invention of modern conveniences like cell phones or is life just different?  This is an extremely complex question, and one should not answer this glibly.  It seems to me that the only way to approach this problem is by using a cost-benefit perspective.  Let's return to the cell phone example. 

Cell phones allow us to communicate with other people and their electronic devices from almost any place at almost any time.  We can not only make voice calls, but we can send text messages that sit there until the receiver responds, and send photos.  With the "smart" phones, you can connect with the internet, and there are thousands of applications that can be downloaded that provide music, games, other forms of entertainment, and tools that range from determining what elevation you are at to helping you identify birds in the field.  Basically, you can send more information faster than ever before.  Very kewl, and extremely useful at times.

What about the costs?  Most people probably pay more per month than they would for their land line, cell reception is not as clear or as reliable as a land line (we need more frickin towers on more hills?), and the recent 10-year study released by the World Health Organization demonstrates that prolonged cell use increases the chances of developing a brain tumor.  One noted neurosurgeon, Dr. Vini Khurana, believes that worldwide there will be more deaths from cell phone use than from cigarette smoking, given that 3 billion people use cells.  Children, in particular, are warned not to use cell phones for long periods of time.  There are 330,000 vehicle accidents per year due to cell phone use while driving.  But other studies do not find a link between cancer and cell use.  So, innocent until proven guilty, or should it be guilty until proven innocent, like the FDA treats prescription drugs until rigorous tests prove otherwise?

In my originally question, I used the word "better" - is life better with a modern convenience like a cell phone or is it just different?  To answer this question, someone has to define the word "better", and I will leave that to you.  Is my life better because I can listen to music on my commute to work on the train rather than reading a book, or watching people, or talking to the passenger in the seat next to me? 

I've been picking on cell phones lately as the example du jour.  But you could replace the words cell phone with plastic bags, indoor carpeting, gasoline, automobile, prophylactics, shoes, rubber bands, or antibiotics.   Many, but not all, of these items results in a short-term benefit for the individual who uses them at the cost of degrading the greater environment for everyone else.

If, in fact, we could agree that life is mostly just different, not better, with some inventions, then the cost-benefit analysis begins to take a modified form.  Is it worth this "difference" to use a cell phone but to increase your chances of developing a brain tumor?  Is it worth this "difference" to be able to carry around water you bought in a store if it increases the plastic load in our landfills significantly?

On the other hand, if everyone in your community, or neighborhood, or profession adopt this new device and you do not, are you then at a significant disadvantage relative to your peers or competitors?  Maybe these devices result in life being "better" for the individual only after nearly everyone else has already adopted the thing.  It would be tough to be successful selling real estate if you had no phone when all the other agents did. But if no one had them, maybe life would not be any worse off for anyone.

I think the original question here would be a great topic for high school or college essays.  My perspective almost always comes from thinking about the trade-off between the quality of life for individuals versus the environmental cost to society generally, and there is almost always one.  What do you think?

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