Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Minor inconveniences and numerical asymmetries

As a teacher, I have many opportunities to cause minor inconveniences in the lives of my students. And subjectively it often feels like when it’s a choice between a moderate inconvenience to me and a minor inconvenience to my students, there is nothing morally wrong with the minor inconvenience to the students. Think, for example, of making online information easily accessible to students. But this neglects the asymmetry in numbers: there is one of me and many of them. The inconvenience to them needs to be multiplied by the number of students, and that can make a big difference.

I suspect that we didn’t evolve to be sensitive to such numerical asymmetries. Rather, I expect we evolved to be sensitive to more numerically balanced relationships, which may have led to a tendency to just compare the degree of inconvenience, in ways that are quite unfortunate when the asymmetry in numbers becomes very large. If I make an app that is used just once by each of 100,000 people, and my app’s takes a second longer than it could, then it should be worth spending about two working days to eliminate that delay. (Or imagine—horrors!—that I deliberately put in that delay, say in the form of a splashscreen!) If I give a talk to a hundred people and I spend a minute on an unnecessary digression, it’s rather like the case of a bore talking my ears off for an hour and a half. In fact, I rather like the idea that at the back of rooms where compulsory meetings are held there should be an electronic display calculating for each speaker the total dollar-time-value of the listeners’ time, counting up continuously. (That said, some pleasantries are necessary, in order to show respect, to relax, etc.)

Sadly, I rarely think this way except when I am the victim of the inconvenience. But it seems to me that in an era where more and more of us have numerically asymmetric relationships, sometimes with massive asymmetries introduced by large-scale electronic content distribution, we should think a lot more about this. We should write and talk in ways that don’t waste others’ time in numerically asymmetric situations. We should make our websites easier to navigate and our apps less frustrating. And so on. The strength of the moral reasons may be fairly small when our contributions are uncompensated and others’ participation is voluntary, but rises quite a bit when we are being paid and/or others are in some way compelled to participate.

One of my happy moments when I actually did think somewhat in this way was some years back when, after multiple speeches, I was asked to say a few words of welcome to our prospective graduate students. There were multiple speeches. I stood up, said “Welcome!”, and sat down. I am not criticizing the other speeches. But as for me, I had nothing to add to them but just a welcome from me, so I added nothing but a welcome from me. I should do this sort of thing more often.

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