The Law of Diminishing Returns or Why I don’t want my stove talking to me

Recently the place where I work instituted several changes. The first was a change to the time clock system, the reason being the old one had some problems so our business went shopping around for a new one. Long gone is the old fashioned punch clock where you inserted your paper time card and heard a satisfying ka-chunk indicating you had clocked in or out (I’m sure I’m dating myself here). That was deemed ‘inefficient’ and consigned to the dustbin of history eons ago. Now you swipe an employee badge in front of an electronic eye which duly records your swipe electronically (though they still call it ‘punching’ for some reason.) and stores the information in a database.

Well the new system goes a step further. Now you can go online and access your time and attendance records, view ‘punches’, put in for time off, etc. We could do this to some extent with the old system but the new one has so many bells and whistles that we workers were scheduled for an hour long (or so) class to show us how to access and make use of this wonderful new software. Needless to say a number of the workers who were not especially computer savvy were intimidated by the new system and needed help getting through the process of creating an account with user name and password. I overheard one male worker muttering under his breath about this ‘bull####’ and I found myself unable to disagree with him. We are able to access a PDF file telling how to use the new system on our internal intranet but were advised not to attempt to print it out as it was over 40 pages long. Huh?

The second change which came on the heels of the first has to do with our benefits package. Our business has always offered a generous benefits package which includes medical, dental and life insurance among other things. In previous years we would attend a benefits meeting where we would enroll in the benefits program (if we were new workers) or check off boxes on a sheet of paper listing what we already had for benefits and note if we were continuing with the same coverage or wanted to make changes. We would then pass in the piece of paper to the Human Resources office. Simple, right?

Well, now this process is now being transferred online and we ‘just’ sign on and do the same thing only electronically now. We could do this from the comfort of our home, on our ‘smart phones’ or sit down with the agents from the various agencies who would walk you through the process of enrollment. But again, more than a few of our workers were dismayed by the apparent complexity of what had formerly been a simple process. I was saddened to see how distressed one older woman was over the prospect and had to explain to her several times that the agents would help her through it. Unfortunately I couldn’t promise her it would be easy.

If it seems our love affair with computers and the Internet is getting out of hand, you are not alone. The demented drive to ‘wi-fi’ or otherwise computerize every widget and gadget in our lives is overwhelming many people with a tsunami of gimmicks and options that many are beginning to feel they neither need nor want. Has the old saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ been forgotten?

One example is automobiles and the spate of recalls that has been occurring in recent years. As often as not, it involves issues with the car’s software. Since when do cars need software? A car is just a tool that gets you from point A to point B. For years our automobiles did just that without the high tech paraphernalia that is now being crammed into every nook and cranny the vehicle has. You could certainly pimp it up if you wanted with rally stripes or custom paint jobs. But now there is BlueTooth, GPS and assorted attachments for hooking up your phone or ipod that all provide distracting entertainment as well as addled road directions apparently working under the assumption that you find driving terribly boring and can’t really read road maps anyway.

Wi-Fi is adding to the technical bedlam with wireless connections for practically every object in our lives; televisions, stereos, hi-tech kid toys, phones, home security systems, thermostats and pretty much every appliance you possess. Articles bubble with enthusiasm over how this latest tech will ‘enhance’ our homes though they don’t bother to explain why we would even need this stuff in the first place. However CNET.COM in a review of several high-tech kitchen appliances did put a finger on an irritating issue with all of these gee-whiz devices. Not only do they not quite live up to their promise but they are pretty damned expensive.

This brings us to the issue of the Law of Diminishing Returns. The Law of Diminishing Returns is a term commonly used in economics. It states that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output. Or to state it more simply, the more you spend on producing a commodity the less you get back in terms of output.

How is this possible? Look at it this way. Say a farmer waters his crop. So far so good. The crop grows nicely (with the help of a little dollop of fertilizer). Then he waters it more. Well, ok, but now the soil is getting a bit saturated but the plants are able to soak most of it up and the sun evaporates the rest. Then he waters it even more. Now the poor plants are swimming in a pool of more water than they can possibly handle and begin drowning (yes, plants can drown!). If the farmer doesn’t cut back on his watering, he’s not going to have any crop to speak of. More is not better.

John Michael Greer in his ArchDruid Report has covered this issue a number of times in his blog, particularly in his fictional depiction of a near future America that has broken up. The character in his story encounters another who points out to him that the law of diminishing returns applies to technology as well as to anything else. The young man has a difficult time accepting this possibility, raised as he was in a world which believes the more technology, the better. Apparently Mr. Greer touched a nerve with this segment of his story, judging from the comments it received.

As already noted, none of this high tech wizardry comes cheap. From the rare earths mined to create microcircuitry, to the energy and water gobbling data farms that house the vast quantities of information constituting the ‘Cloud’ and the continual updates to the software which supports all this, all of it costs money and quite a bit of it at that. Subsidies can mask some of this but in the end, we are the ones who pay for it all. If you want to know if it is all worth it, look at what the Law of Diminishing Returns states and ask yourself if the return you are getting is worth the time and money you invested in your wonderful gizmos.

Do you really need to integrate your fridge, air conditioner and stove through Wi-Fi? What real advantage is there in being able to pre-heat your oven from the grocery store? What’s to stop someone from hacking into your system and cranking up the thermostat to 90 plus degrees on a hot day just for giggles? Or hack into your talking stove so it texts suggestive remarks instead the current temperature of the oven? What happens if the data farm that handles all this information gets destroyed in a storm or earthquake and the backup doesn’t kick in?

The more we ‘improve’ our lifestyle, the more costly problems seem to crop up. The interconnectivity of every aspect of our life not only is convenient for us but also for those who do not mean us well. Recently a DOS attack occurred, interrupting Internet services for NetFlix, Twitter and Reddit. A few years ago Anthem Blue Cross suffered a massive data breach that exposed the personal information of nearly 80 million individuals, not the first firm to suffer such a data theft and certainly not the last. Now subscribers (myself among them) must perpetually monitor their credit reports for suspicious activity.

More and more we begin to see the Law of Diminishing Returns rearing up to bite us on the backside as the gleaming promise of computers and Internet connectivity gets transformed instead into a nightmarish snarl of hacks, web complexity, nonsensical updates and expensive kludgy workarounds. When will we realize that more tech fixes are not the answer but rather returning to simpler methods is what is needed to accomplish what we desire? Let’s just have a stove be a stove and a car just a car.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” 

― Ernst F. Schumacher