The smart guns are here May 16, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
Guns have been in the news a lot lately, due to the development of 3D printable ones. However, gun news is not confined to additive manufacturing. From NPR comes an item about a “smart gun”, that is, a rifle that does the aiming and firing for the shooter. The Tracking Point rifle has a computerized scope with laser range-finger and heads-up display that corrects the shooter’s aim for environmental conditions, and can also delay pulling the trigger until it computes that the shot will hit its mark. It also allows the shooter to record videos of each shot for review, or posting to YouTube.
The video promotes the rifle’s use as a means of making hunting more efficient. As noted in the article, this efficiency will not suit purists, who point out that the system has the effect of deskilling the practice of hunting. I am reminded of a quote from an episode of The Simpsons, where Lenny, a gun enthusiast and NRA member, discourses on why hunters need assault rifles:
“Assault weapons have gotten a lot of bad press lately, but they’re manufactured for a reason: to take out today’s modern super animals, such as the flying squirrel, and the electric eel.”
Of course, as is often the case when tools become automated, purists will stick to the old ways, while people who otherwise would not engage in hunting may take it up with the new gear that makes it easier to score. They will be encouraged by the familiar, first-person-shooter look of the Heads-Up Display.
Naturally, the new technology poses security issues. The TrackingPoint rifle seems like a godsend to anyone planning an assassination. Aware of the issue, company President Jason Schauble notes that the scope is password protected:
“It has a password protection on the scope. When a user stores it, he can password protect the scope that takes the advanced functionality out. So the gun will still operate as a firearm itself, but you cannot do the tag/track/exact, the long range, the technology-driven precision guided firearm piece without entering that pass code,” he says.
I wonder how many of the devices will have their passwords stuck on them with Post-it notes? In any event, the password scheme seems unimpressive. Given that the scope requires users to look into it, eye-scanning might be more a propos. Even in that case, it is unclear how robust the password system will be, or whether or not having to think of a password will deter people who want the system for malicious purposes.
Besides assassinations, some users may be inclined to appropriate the system for various stunts. Some will imitate William Tell and shoot objects perched on heads. Others may find excitement out of getting the system to do odd things that the designers have probably not considered. Think of Autotune, a system that was originally designed to correct variations of pitch in singing, but was quickly used to produce odd and inventive, new sound effects instead. TrackingPoint hackers will likely find ways to get the system to produce interesting patterns of shots, playing “X”s and “O”s or spelling names with bullet holes, perhaps.
It will be interesting to see how this gun factors into the ongoing gun control debate in the US. Is access to smart guns an inalienable right? Or, should they be regulated in some way? Perhaps the best move would be not to ban smart guns but to produce a weapon smart enough not the pull the trigger at all.
Can more efficiency increase costs? September 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article discusses reports that the introduction of Electronic Health Records (EHRs) in American hospitals may be increasing the cost of health care in that country. EHRs were introduced, in part, in order to cut down on health care costs by making record keeping and sharing more efficient and therefore cheaper. However, as the article notes, health care bills at hospitals that have adopted EHRs has increased, not decreased. What gives?
One possibility is that EHR systems encourage fraud. It is easy for doctors to click on check boxes that say they have performed tests or examinations that they have not actually performed. For example, one patient noted that he was billed for a complete medical examination that did not occur. He complained and the bill was changed. The patient, a health consultant, blamed the design of the software:
“No one would admit it,” Mr. Burleigh [the patient] said, “but the most logical explanation was he went to a menu and clicked standard exam,” and the software filled in an examination of all of his systems.
In fact, companies that produce EHR systems may be using this sort of “feature” as a selling point. Some vendors advertise that their software helps doctors to game the billing codes to maximize the amount they are able to charge for their services.
Certainly, some systems include features that lend themselves to the maximization of billing levels. They are able to automatically generate detailed reports about patient history, and allow for the copying of examination findings from one patient to another, a practice known as “cloning.” The point of these features seems to be that more detailed records can warrant more severe diagnoses, and therefore more costly services.
Of course, fraud or sharp practice were possible before EHRs. Perhaps, the security measures on EHRs may be more lax than on paper-driven systems. Some critics blame the lack of regulation on EHRs:
Dr. Simborg [former chair of a federal panel on the matter], for one, said he helped draft regulations in 2007 that would have prevented much of the abuse that now appears to be occurring. But because the government was eager to encourage doctors and hospitals to enter the electronic era, he said, those proposals have largely been ignored.
However, the article does not comment on the state of regulations on the earlier billing systems.
Besides fraud, it is possible that increased efficiency could lead to increases in cost. Jevons’ Paradox applies to situations in which gains in efficiency are eroded, or even offset, by increases in consumption. Increases in energy efficiency, Jevons observed, make energy cheaper, encouraging people to consume more of it. In the case of EHRs, gains in efficiency in administration may be “consumed” through a focus on more expensive procedures. That is, doctors may react to time and effort saved in dealing with paper records by scrutinizing patients more thoroughly, perhaps looking for signs of more severe and expensive issues to treat.
It may be that the two issues are related. We would like to think that doctors would expend any gains from increased efficiency productively. However, what counts as productive depends on the incentive structure present in the system. If it pays doctors more to spend their gains in time by fiddling the bills, then we must expect that to happen.
The design of EHRs does seem to be focussed on generating medical bills. As Marshall McLuhan might point out, if bill-generation is the focus of the system, it will soon become the focus of the users as well. So, to reap benefits for patients of time gained through efficiency, perhaps the design of EHRs could be less about the generation of medical bills and more about generation of positive medical outcomes.
Toilet uptake August 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Wired has an interesting little piece on the problem of getting people in the developing world to adopt new toilet designs. In some places, sanitation is somewhat primitive and human waste finds its way easily into major water systems, where it can cause the spread of dangerous diseases. Where sanitation infrastructure is not available, the path to better sanitation involves the provision of toilets, perhaps of the composting variety.
Mushfiq Mobarak, working with the Gates Foundation, notes that technical solutions to the problem are well known. The main problem lies in getting people to adopt the toilets. For one thing, the cost of new toilets would usually be borne by the individuals purchasing them, whereas the payoff–in the form of freedom from epidemic disease–accrues to the whole community. In that situation, a person might prefer to wait for the neighbors to buy the toilets, at which point he would reap the rewards for free:
“Jointly, we’re better off adopting, but we’re all making decisions individually,” Mobarak said. From an individual perspective, “What I’d really like is for everyone else to adopt, but not me. And everyone will be thinking this way.”
In economic terms, this situation is known as a positive externality, a benefit realized in a transaction by someone who is not paying for it. In many cases, such transactions will simply not occur because the people involved would rather wait for others to pay to produce the benefit.
One solution would be to simply have the price of the toilets subsidized by the community, e.g., through tax revenue. However, potential purchasers might still prefer to spend the remaining purchase cost on something else that has a higher priority in their view. That might be education, electricity, rent, or some other good. In economic terms, these other possibilities are known as opportunity costs, that is, other options that are sacrificed when one option is pursued.
Another solution would be to “enlarge the pie”, that is, to provide some additional benefit with the toilet that would accrue to the purchaser alone and would make up for the externality or opportunity costs. The article describes how this was done for another design, that being an efficient cook stove. Like a toilet, a stove produces pollution that can be harmful to the whole community. So, the purchaser of an efficient stove is providing a benefit for the community that the community does not pay for. To overcome the problem of this positive externality, the designers included a novel feature in their cook stove design:
That’s now being accomplished by giving the stoves power-generating functionality, with embedded USB ports for charging devices, said Mobarak.
The heat from the stove can be used to power a small generator, useful for charging gadgets like cell phones, which are widespread in places like Bangladesh where access to electricity is otherwise unreliable.
So, then, what individual benefit could a toilet provide to its owners alone? Well, it could save its owners from having to defecate in public, a practice that not unusual in many places in South Asia:
Apart from making the new toilets as inexpensive as possible, said Fisher [co-founder of KickStart], the key is making them a social norm and object of aspiration, and making pit latrines and in-the-open defecation an object of community opprobrium.
In other words, the solution lies not in changing the design of the toilet but in changing the social norms of the community.
There is a tension inherent in this approach. Making something an “object of aspiration” means, in economic parlance again, making it a positional good, that is, something whose value depends on how it compares with other things like it. Rarity is often key to the value of such goods. For example, an antique car is valuable in part because there are not many comparable cars around. A Model T would not be so valuable (or “aspirational”) if everyone had one. Likewise, a toilet can be aspirational only if they are relatively rare. Yet, the benefit of sanitation accrues only if the toilets are common.
It seems like the most effective strategy left is that of stigmatizing the lack of a toilet. Yet, a punitive approach (“community opprobrium”) promises to be difficult and unappealing. Instead, it might be an idea to adapt the aspirational approach: Offer the toilets in a range of designs, from the simplest and cheapest to the fanciest and most expensive. The fancier toilets would be the rare, aspirational items, with the simpler, cheaper ones serving as “gateway” loos. The aspirational benefit of the different toilet designs could be realized by their owners when guests in the house have to use the owner’s WC and can admire the toilet there. A somewhat similar situation exists in consumer contexts in countries like Japan.
Of course, what constitutes a fancier toilet would take some time and effort to determine. And tasteful advertising would be necessary too. My point is simply that the introduction of toilets into new settings requires us to consider the whole social structure of that setting which, in this case, might cause us to reconsider whether or not one toilet is really the whole answer.
Engineering better school lunches April 10, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From NPR comes an interesting piece about a school lunch program operated by Indian engineers. The operators are called “Akshaya Patra“, which is directed by Shridhar Venkat, a former corporate CEO. Currently, the group delivers around 1.3 million school lunches daily, using freshly prepared foods.
The government provides grains and some funding, which is topped off through donations. Through these subsidies, and through efficiencies of scale and shipping, Akshaya Patra is able to deliver healthy lunches at about 11 cents/meal. No doubt, the availability of cheaper labor is helpful there too. Even so, the ability to serve decent food each day to school children over such a large area and at such a low cost is an astonishing feat. Nevertheless, Venkat says, they are always looking for more economies so that they can feed even more children.
Venkat’s motivation is certainly laudable as well:
“Feeding a child is not charity,” [Venkat says]. He used to be a corporate executive. To him, a child like Suchitra is not a hungry 13-year-old girl in poverty. She’s an opportunity, and giving her lunch is an investment. Tomorrow, an educated Suchitra could produce a huge return on that investment to her community, he said.
The payoff is that children are able to attend school who otherwise would be prevented because of a lack of nourishment:
“The school attendance goes up, malnutrition level comes down, dropout rates comes down,” Venkat says.
An increase in education levels benefits both the individual children and the country as a whole.
So, kudos to Akshaya Patra and to Shridhar Venkat on their accomplishment! It is always good to see technical and logistical savvy being used for such good ends.
Human prehistory and the paradox of specialization March 2, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent Discover magazine has an article on How we won the hominid wars. The article features a discussion with anthropologist Rick Potts, who talks about why modern humans persisted whereas Neandertals, Denisovans, Flores “Hobbits”, and other human types died out. In brief, his answer is that our ancestors were generalists whereas theirs were specialists. Being generalists is a better strategy for survival when environmental conditions begin to fluctuate.
This story provides an illustration of a general issue concerning sustainability. Sustainability refers to the length of time that an activity can endure. It is often equated with efficiency, or “bang for the buck.” This identification makes sense: If a process can be made more efficient, that is, be made to consume resources at a lesser rate, then it can endure longer while consuming those resources. There are some problems with this identification, as in the case of Jevons’ Paradox, previously discussed in this blog.
A related issue concerns adaptability. By this, I mean the facility for changing how a process is undertaken. A car could be considered adaptable, for example, if it can utilize different fuels. The Ford Model T, produced from 1908 until 1927, could run on ethanol, gasoline or kerosene. This was convenient for drivers who could not depend on the availability of any one fuel in general. However, such a generalized motor will not burn any one of those fuels as efficiently as a more specialized motor. As gasoline became more economical and widespread, it was adopted as the fuel of choice and automotive motors specialized in consuming it. I would not put kerosene in the tank of a Ford Focus!
So, although specialization permits greater efficiency and therefore sustainability in one way, it can put that sustainability at risk in another. Specialization locks the design in to the resource in question. If there were some sudden and major disruption in the supply of gasoline, for example, our current automotive fleet could not sustain our current transportation demands.
A similar issue may be seen in the biological world. The giant panda, for example, is a specialist:
An animal that shows a strong preference for one particular prey species and does not change its diet when the abundance of that species decreases, can be referred to as a specialist. While an animal with weak preferences for a prey species and one that frequently switches prey types is known as generalist.
The Giant panda relies exclusively on the stems of bamboo plants.
Specializing in the stems of bamboo plants has worked well for pandas in the sense that it has provided them with an abundant food supply and has allowed them to avoid competition with other herbivores (bamboo stems are not the easiest things to digest). However, specialization leaves the giant panda at risk of extinction in the event of a sudden and major disruption to their food supply.
So, back to the hominid wars. Why did the Neandertals go extinct? In part, it may be that they were physiologically specialized to cold weather and could not adapt to weather fluctuations that cropped up. Why did the Flores “hobbits” go extinct? In part, it may be that their specialized body form confined them to their small island home and left them unable to cope with some large change, perhaps the arrival of modern humans.
The tale of modern human beings then, may illustrate another paradox of efficiency and sustainability: The paradox of specialization. Specialization may increase efficiency and therefore sustainability in one way but also produces a lack of adaptability that may threaten sustainability in another way.
Google glasses February 23, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
The New York Times reports that Google is designing a pair of glasses that will display your smartphone information for you right in front of your eyes. Basically, the glasses will take the place of your smartphone and use the lenses of your glasses as their display. Naturally, the glasses will run on Android and will be priced comparably to an Android smartphone.
(Erik Möller/Wikimedia commons)
So, the phone will be able to do those things that your smartphone now does, e.g., display text messages, broadcast your position via Google Lattitude (say), and allow you to talk on the phone without holding a phone in your hands. Also, the device will have a camera that will allow the phone to double as an augmented reality device:
The glasses will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor the world in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings and friends who might be nearby, according to the Google employees.
Reminds me a bit of the police camera-glasses I discussed yesterday.
Naturally, Google is concerned about the privacy implications that could be raised here. (I will wait until you finish laughing. Ready now?)
Internally, the Google X team has been actively discussing the privacy implications of the glasses and the company wants to ensure that people know if they are being recorded by someone wearing a pair of glasses with a built-in camera.
I guess that the glasses could come with a little LED that blinks as the wearer records everyone. Or perhaps the glasses could display a map of other wearers of the glasses in the vicinity. Or people could log in to their Google accounts to request that their faces be blurred in any recordings, a la Streetview. In any event, as long as you know you are being recorded, your privacy is assured!
Should we not also be concerned about how such glasses will distract people as they walk around town or drive their cars? It might be legal to drive with these glasses on in Ontario, where only hand-held devices are forbidden to drivers, but it hardly seems like a good idea.
In any event, the greatest advantage of the new Glasses will be in the increased efficiency they give to users. Facial recognition software will allow the glasses to recognize and identify my friends (and enemies) for me, freeing up the facial recognition part of my cortex for more important jobs, like monitoring my Google+ feed. When the display resolution gets high enough, I will not actually need to go anywhere. Instead, I can log in to Virtual Streetview and meet avatars in virtual reality, while beholding Google’s virtual ads.
Perhaps these worries are the products of a hyperactive imagination. I hope so. However, it seems that Google wants to build a wall around the users of their goods and services, so that they can be submerged in Google juice and pumped for cash as efficiently as possible.
Parking and progress February 2, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The New Scientist has an interesting item about a networked parking lot that makes parking more efficient. The basic idea is to have sensors in each space in a lot, which report their empty/full status to a central system. The information could then be presented to drivers through smartphone or in-car apps. As a result, the drivers could head right for an empty spot, instead of hunting around for one.
There are two reasons presented in favour of this scheme:
- Being able to find a spot right away would lessen frustration for drivers:
It’s a problem familiar to most of us: you circle for ages waiting to find a parking space and just when you’ve spotted one, someone else darts in first.
Most people do not enjoy parking lot driving (and I am one of them), so lessening its duration seems like win for sure.
- Lessening the time spent parking should lessen the pollution produced by cars idling while waiting for a space, or crawling slowly around the lot:
That means more emissions. According to a 2007 study by Donald Shoup at the University of California, Los Angeles, drivers in a 15-block district of LA notched up a staggering 1.5 billion kilometres a year looking for parking spaces. That’s the equivalent of 38 trips around the Earth, 178,000 litres of wasted gasoline and 662 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
That is a staggering statistic! It would be wonderful to eliminate the pollution generated by this useless activity.
The article does not consider any possible downsides, but there are some possibilities. First, as per Jevons’ Paradox, gains in efficiency can actually increase overall consumption. In this case, making parking more efficient may simply encourage more people to travel to parking lots more often. The result may be an increase in driving, and thus an increase in trips, travel time, and pollution. Traffic seems to be particularly vulnerable to such effects, so the problem cannot be easily dismissed.
Second, who is really benefiting from this efficiency? Drivers may benefit, if the effect of Jevons’ Paradox can somehow be avoided. However, the parties most likely to benefit are the establishments that use the parking lots. For example, the stores in a mall would likely do more business if people can be packed more efficiently into the parking lot. Right now, the possibility of a frustrating parking experience probably keeps some people away from the stores. If that frustration can be relieved, then more people will come to shop at the stores. That is a win for the store owners and their shareholders, not to mention the employees at the stores themselves.
The losers in this situation would be those who do not drive cars, either for lack of income or simply preference for transportation alternatives. If people with cars are more able to access stores through parking lots, then there is less incentive for cities to provide access to them through public transportation. Those citizens without cars will then have less opportunity to shop at the same establishments as their fellow citizens. That may or may not be a big problem, depending on what shopping or other service opportunities are at stake.
There are other possibilities for increased efficiency in access to resources that do not require high-tech gear or that invite more traffic. For example, the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte has a program called Popular Basket in which busses travel around the city carrying basic food staples, acting as a kind of traveling farmer’s market. When the bus parks in your neighbourhood, you can pick up what you require. Instead of each family making a car trip to the mall, the mall comes within walking distance of every family in the neighbourhood. The scheme could cut down significantly on car travel while allowing neighbours to meet on occasion.
Of course, the scheme comes with trade-offs of its own: The buses tend to carry only basic goods, and are not always available. Furthermore, they might be viewed as beneath the dignity of some potential customers in North American cities. My point is simply that making parking lots more efficient is not necessarily the solution to our traffic woes, and that there are innovative alternatives to be considered if we look beyond our preference for shopping malls and high-tech gear.
iPads in the cockpit July 27, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The New York Times reports that commercial airline pilots will be using iPads instead of paper manuals in the cockpit. Instead of carting around 40 lbs. or so of manuals of various kinds, the aircrew will be able to consult their tablets:
There are the aircraft’s operating manual, safety checklists, logbooks for entering airplane performance data, navigation charts, weather information, airport diagrams and maybe a book of KenKen puzzles thrown in for good measure.
There are numerous benefits to the scheme. First off, not having to cart so much weight will be easier on the backs of the flight crews. Then, iPad apps will be easier and more efficient to access than bulky manuals, and will be updated automatically instead of through tedious swapping out of physical pages.
The main concern mentioned is safety. Could signals originating from the iPad not interfere with flight electronics? This worry is easily addressed:
Moreover, the F.A.A. said pilots at the two airlines would not have to shut off and store their iPads during taxiing, takeoff and landing because they had demonstrated that the devices would not impair the functioning of onboard electronics. Alaska Airlines pilots, like passengers, still have to put their iPads away during those critical phases of the flight.
Not considered in the piece are some of the advantages of paper manuals. For one thing, hackers on the ‘net cannot break into a plane’s binders and change their contents or crash them. Likewise, paper manuals cannot be infected by contact with other documents on the shelves, whereas iPads can indeed get infected with viruses and other malware. Paper manuals do not experience battery failures, nor can their batteries be hacked, unlike Apple’s batteries. Flight crews will not likely be distracted playing games on the manuals (or even reading them) when they get bored with monitoring the instruments.
Also, I wonder if iPads might not be adversely affected by the higher-than-normal levels of radiation to which they will be exposed during frequent flights. I would guess that Apple has not tested them for this contingency, although their EULA undoubtedly takes care of this issue. (Haven’t read the EULA? Let Richard Dreyfuss read it to you!)
In any event, the move makes sense to me. With Apple set to store all our data in the clouds, iPads aloft should have the shortest access times.
E-tickets July 12, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Here is an interesting little note from the Canadian Press about e-tickets. The term “e-ticket” probably makes you think “airplane ticket”, right? In this case, though, an e-ticket is a new way that police have of writing up wayward members of the public. That’s right! Instead of writing up a ticket by hand, police will be able to print one off.
(Image courtesy of US Navy via Wikimedia commons.)
There are two main advantages of e-tickets:
- Tickets can be issued more efficiently:
Officers will simply scan a driver’s licence on a computer inside their cruisers, then print out a copy for the driver while the ticket is being electronically sent to the courts.
- Tickets are more likely to stick:
[Winnipeg Police Inspector] Mr. LeMaistre says typing the tickets could also cut down on spelling errors and poor handwriting that sometimes can get tickets thrown out of court.
Is this development a good thing? Some critics argue that it is not:
Len Eastoe of Traffic Ticket Experts says it’s a big negative for the public as officers will be able to issue more tickets.
This argument recalls the argument about photo radar, which many critics feel is used by police as a cash grab, that is, to generate revenues through ticketing lots of minor moving violations. Of course, an e-ticketing system does address one of the critiques of photo radar, namely the absence of a police officer. That is, photo radar has been criticized for being automatic, no officer present, and thus omitting the opportunity for a police officer to exercise discretion or to watch for more egregious traffic violations such as texting-while-driving. Since the e-ticketing system is not automatic, this argument cannot be applied against it.
I commented in this blog post last year about a ticket-processing system that was so allegedly user-unfriendly and inefficient that police would refrain from writing tickets just so they would not have to use it. That situation seemed like a bad thing, so it seems odd to frown upon police having a more efficient system. Still, if the new system is expensive, it is easy to imagine that it could cause officers to be employed like human photo radar units, hiding behind bushes and passing out tickets for minor but profitable misdeeds.
Conservation through competition May 26, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A study by the Environmental Defense Fund, summarized in this FastCompany article, concludes that consumers who receive detailed power usage reports from their utilities tend to cut down on their electricity consumption. Particularly important also is information comparing the individual customer’s power usage to that of other, similar customers in the same region:
Homes that received the reports slashed energy consumption between 0.9% and 2.9% annually. That sounds like a small amount, but the EDF estimates that cutting residential electricity usage across the U.S by 1.8% would save over 26,000 GWh of electricity, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8.9 million metric tons of CO2 each year (equivalent to the emissions of three 500 MW coal-fired plants), and help households save a combined total of over $3 billion dollars per year on electricity. That’s a lot of energy savings just for redesigning a bill.
This tendency of people to reduce power consumption when presented with richer information and under pressure of social competition has been noted before. It is interesting to consider how it might work.
(Image courtesy of Paulo Barcellos Jr. via Wikimedia Commons.)
First of all, the introduction of conservation measures does not necessarily result in conservation. Jevons’ Paradox suggests that the presence of more efficient gear can actually increase consumption. For example, the introduction of efficient, LED light bulbs could conceivably increase electricity usage as people find more places they want to light up. Why is it, then, that people who consume power more efficiently after receiving fancy power reports do not simply find more ways to consume power efficiently, thus increasing their overall consumption? Well, this possibility is not ruled out by the EDF report since it accounts only for power consumption in the home, and not at work or elsewhere.
Psychological research suggests that this possibility must be taken seriously. It has been shown that people who make an effort to conserve energy in one way can increase their consumption in another through a process of “moral capital”. That is, people increase their sense of moral righteousness through acts of conservation, thus acquiring “moral capital” that they then spend on themselves later through acts of extravagance. It is as though our moral compass includes a kind of sweet spot of righteous conduct that we aim towards, whether that means improving our conduct or debasing it. See Edward Tenner’s recent blog post on the perverse effects of conflict-of-interest disclosure.
Despite this reservation, I would not conclude that the EDF study has it wrong. Another psychological theory, cognitive dissonance, suggests that people really can be nudged into better behaviour. Researchers in an experiment asked pool patrons to take a survey about their attitudes towards water conservation and their past efforts to conserve water. The real point of the survey was to remind people that conservation is something they approve of, and that they probably have not done as much as they could to conserve water. In short, they were hypocrites. Researchers observed that these subjects took shorter showers than others afterwards, in an apparent effort to conserve water. Receiving a periodic energy consumption report could act like the survey in this experiment, reminding people of their approval of conservation as a good behaviour. That might dampen their tendency to return to their more extravagant former behaviour pattern.
Finally, as Marshall McLuhan would point out, the report itself conveys a powerful message to the utility’s clients: It changes power consumption from an individual (or family) concern into a communal one in which people compete or collaborate in groups. In other words, it reminds customers that their consumption of power affects not only themselves but everyone else on the grid. In turning consumption from an individual to a social concern, it opens people up more to social expectations. If people think that others are aware of their usage and would judge it harshly, then that is a powerful inducement for reduction also.
However, we will not really know what is going on until we have reliable data on the power consumption of individuals instead of light bulbs or homes.