When you improve a process so that less of a given resource is used, it’s normal to assume that less of that resource is consumed. For example, imagine that new technology came about that meant gas boilers used half the amount of natural gas to accomplish the same task. You’d assume that natural gas consumption would fall globally but according to Jevons paradox, the opposite happens. William Jevons noticed that despite the Watt steam engine being vastly more efficient than the previous design, the use of coal in England actually increased. The technological advancement of the steam engine meant coal became a cheaper energy source which lead to increased use of steam engines and coal consumption.
“It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”William Jevons
Jevons paradox is not confined to fuel consumption. Another example I’ve heard used is that of a congested road. Imagine a narrow and congested road that’s overflowing with cars and then made much wider to ease congestion. The end result is more motor vehicles use the wider road resulting in higher pollution and no fix to the congested road.
How Jevons paradox affects you
Most of what you’ll read about the Jevons paradox relates to economics and fuel consumption, so I won’t cover old grounds. What’s not discussed and what I find interesting is how the Jevons paradox affects our daily lives. Instead of the technological advancement of steam engines and the resource of coal, we can look at any technological advancement and associated resource which is often time.
Prior to the washing machine being invented, everything had to be washed by hand, so you’d assume that once we had washing machines in the home everyone would have more free time. But that wasn’t the case, as Oliver Burkeman describes in the book Four Thousand Weeks.
[Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman]
In her book, More Work for Mother, the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows that when housewives first got access to “labour-saving” devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, no time was saved at all, because society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits; now that you could return each of your husband’s shirts to a spotless condition after a single wearing, it began to feel like you should, to show how much you loved him.
So just as more efficient steam engines lead to more coal consumption, more efficient cleaning technology lead to another counterintuitive outcome which was more cleaning and not less.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the Jevons paradox is digital communication. Imagine for a moment that email and instant messaging don’t exist. You’ve gone back to when posting letters is the primary non-verbal way to communicate.
Now imagine that miraculously the digital communication we have today came about in one big bang overnight. At first, you would be in awe of how amazing this is. You can now send messages to your friends and family at a press of a button. No more having to handwrite a letter and walk to the postbox or post office. This will surely save you a lot of time. But we all know this isn’t true. With the increased efficiency of communication, all that has happened is an increase in the amount of communication. No time has been saved, in fact with WhatsApp, email, Facebook, Instagram, [insert app] we spend more time messaging than ever before.
Since communication became so easy, anything and everything is sent. I can remember before we had email and the thrill one had with receiving a handwritten letter from a friend. Now compare that today with the plethora of instant notifications, funny cat videos and memes being forwarded. It doesn’t really compare. That put aside, I believe it’s fair to say that digital communication hasn’t made us more productive. Or put more precisely in the context of the Jevons paradox: with the technological advancement of communication, our resource (time) has not diminished, in fact, the opposite.
Working from home
So much commuting time was saved over the pandemic by working from home, it was logical to assume that everyone had more free time because of this. This doesn’t seem to have played out though. I’ve read numerous articles on how home workers are working longer hours than before and anecdotally I can attest to coworkers working longer compared to being in the office.
Just like more cars use a widened road and therefore no reduction in congestion, it seems the same happens when working from home. When commute time is removed it widens our availability and instead of being filled with free time, it’s filled with work.
The technology that allows us to work remotely provides true flexibility, but once again the outcome is counter-intuitive to how a non-contrarian would think.
Another comparison can be made with online dating. Today you only need to pick up your phone and start swiping, whereas, before the internet, it meant going to pubs, nightclubs and dances. For women, it was a lottery on who approached them and for men, it meant plucking up the courage to ask for a dance or phone number. Today it’s so easy in comparison. So you would assume that the number of single people would plummet. But just like society’s cleanliness standards rose with the advancement of domestic appliances, so too did the single population’s dating standards. Because dating became easier, the bar was raised and no time was saved being single. All that happened is people dated more.
And maybe dating apps have created more singletons (this is just my theory). If you’ve just had a breakup and before swiping was a thing, you could be put off (especially later in life) of trying to convince your married friends to hit the club and bar scene once again. The prospect of disco dancing in your 40s could be too much so you might think twice and instead try to make things work with your partner. Dating apps have removed friction but maybe created more single people in the process.
The aim of most technology is to make life easier and we’re surrounded by time-saving technology. You’d think this makes for a better life, but when you reflect, it’s hard to argue that we’re moving towards a utopia with so many of us stressed out and glued to screens. In fact, is a life that’s too easy a worse one?
What would happen if many of today’s “time-saving” technologies were removed? It’s something I sometimes consider. Would life really be worse without WhatsApp, or would a less distracted existence be better? And how about Amazon? Has being able to get whatever you want, delivered to your doorstep within 24 hours improved your life? Or would you spend less money, and enjoy the experience (slightly) more of interacting with humans in a shop.
The recurring theme of new technology is that it forces us to become more isolated which goes against the grain of our DNA. Zuckerberg wants to take it to a whole new level with his vision of the Metaverse. Ultimately, if new technology isn’t saving us time so that we can fill it with things we enjoy, like hobbies or meeting with friends. Then what’s the point?