Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 23, 2011

sunk costs

There are some excellent and helpful thoughts in this post by Megan McArdle, for instance:

A lot of the reaction to any new technology is simply that many of us invested a lot of effort in learning how to use the old technology well. That's especially true of books. (It's no accident that so many of the complaints come from journalists, academics, and other writers). For years, in school and at work, we constructed increasingly elaborate personal reference systems from notes, flags, and dog-ears, and our brains are now very nimble at using them. Change is hard. Moreover, it involves recognizing that all of our previous effort was a sunk cost: we have a painfully acquired skill that is now useless. We'd much rather double down than move on.

An incisive point. I really do need to ask how much of my resistance and discomfort — when I feel those, which is not always — are just the inevitable result of old and deeply-ingrained habits.

But while I’m asking, I want to question the chief analogy of the post:


  • Books : E-readers :: Horses : Automobiles


But I don't think the analogy is quite right. What’s the task at which horses and automobiles can be said to compete? Presumably, it’s transporting people or things from one point to another as quickly and reliably as possible. (When speed is not required, but rather peace and quiet, a horse may well be superior to a car, and walking superior to either.) What’s the task at which codex books and e-readers can be said to compete? Ummmm . . . .

See, that’s the tricky question. It depends on what you’re reading and why you’re reading it. If I’m reading a novel just for fun, I’d say the e-reader does a better job; if I’m reading a seriously literary novel for study, or am discussing such a book with a class, then I think the codex is far superior. And — I’m trying to formulate an abstract point here that’s still not perfectly clear in my own mind — when I’m reading a book whose key ideas are organized around the recurrence of certain words, I like e-readers better because they’re easy to search; but some books (especially novels) organize their central themes not around repetitions of words but rather repetitions of images or thoughts or events, and e-books are not well suited to investigating that variety of coherence.

Perhaps the e-reading technologies will improve and lessen the gap; probably they will. But what I want to avoid is the temptation to stop thinking in certain ways, stop striving for certain forms of understanding, because the technology I’m employing doesn’t favor them.

5 comments:

  • "...the temptation to stop thinking in certain ways, stop striving for certain forms of understanding, because the technology I’m employing doesn’t favor them."

    This is the the challenge of computer art. The tools originated from very technical people exploiting mathematical hacks to generate an image approximating reality. To then turn around and use them for aesthetic effect requires that the artist transcend the petty technical limitations of a given, soon to be obsolete, tool.

    The best tool for an artist working in computer graphics to learn is still a pencil, because the machine still fights against the aesthetic result in innumerable ways. The artist needs to learn to transcend the tools in pursuit of the image.

  • When I'm writing about a book, I now rely on both forms as much as possible: I annotate and bookmark the codex heavily--a task which is still annoying with ebooks--but a computer-searchable text also saves me a lot of time and hassle. So often I'm not just choosing the appropriate form for how I want to read (though I second your point on that), but I'm actively trying to use both technologies for the strengths they provide.

  • We do not easily apprehend the value of distance or silence, and (so far) digital technologies do a poor job of creating a simulacrum of either. A trip to the paint store shows that there are many shade of both black and white. So too with near, far, and quite.

  • Michael Straight said...

    "Sunk cost" is not really the right term here. It's not just people saying, "I don't want to switch because then all the time I spent learning the old way is wasted."

    There's also the issue of, "How long will it take me to learn to do as well or better with the new technology what I'm already doing now?" And that's a real cost, not a fallacy. If the cost is high enough, and is not going to be sufficiently repaid by gains from the new technology, then sticking with the old tech is not "doubling down," it's the rational choice.

  • I agree with Michael Straight and add that applying an economic metaphor frames the issue unfairly. Information in any form is not merely free-floating data but comes from within a context that provides coherence and meaning. That's inherently unquantifiable and does not yield to economic analyses, whose principle preoccupation is transactional efficiency.

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