Thursday, January 21, 2010

opportunity cost?

Most readers I'm sure are familiar with the concept "opportunity cost." Opportunity cost is the value of the next-best choice available to someone who has picked between several mutually exclusive choices. It is a key concept in economics. In essence, it is what we have given up in order to get what we have and it could be described as the road not taken. In economics it is about how we spend our money, but of course it really concerns a great deal more, the ways in which we discover depth of meaning in our lives. In the examination of opportunity cost, we are challenged to become intellectually engaged in the examination of what we do, rather than simply allowing ourselves to be blindly led.

And so what is the opportunity cost of all this wondrous technology? Ear buds with music streaming between ears, through the brain. Fingers and thumbs on powerful tiny keyboards streaming instant messages to friends. Children feeling important and connected by the constant interruption of tones that announce the arrival of some new bit of un-repressed chit-chat from friends compelled to share 160 characters of unedited cryptic monologue?

Are we missing out on a richly textured inner life in which thoughts are carefully refined and organized, edited before being expressed? Are we missing the wonders of listening to where we are, to the people we are with, to the sounds of nature of which we were once a part but from which we are now estranged?

In schools children now arrive knowing little about working with their hands except on the hand-held devices that have become the ubiquitous requirement of youth. As exciting and wonderful as these objects are they must also be understood as the absence of scissors, the absence of string... the absence of wood and saws, and pocket knives and skill in their use. If the things in our museums are to be honored by future generations, will they be understood by those who have little sense of their own creative powers? By those who have spent little time in quiet reflection and know little about the making of things?

And so, I ask, can we take both roads, not forsaking one for the other? Can we gain a sense of reason and reasonableness in our use of technology? Some parents are taking away the hand held devices at night so that children at least have the opportunity to sleep uninterrupted, and perchance dream. Perhaps in dreaming they will come to wonder about the making of things, and think about the creative powers they have neglected to form. And as parents and grandparents, and as teachers, we should be talking about this and putting real tools in the hands of our children.

This afternoon I have been working on a table with spalted walnut top and sugar maple legs and stretchers. It is made entirely with woods from Arkansas... An important consideration to some. The meandering line in the board for the top will allow the wide stock to pass through the planer. It also provides an opportunity to deal creatively with defects, and will allow the two parts of the table top to be secured with sliding dovetails, so that when the table is complete, there will be no man-made fasteners... With the exception of metal glides, it will be all wood. In terms of opportunity costs, I could have chosen many other techniques in the making of this piece. But the road less traveled offers benefits known only to those turning down the forested path.


  1. Anonymous4:55 PM

    Those ear buds with the music blaring just cost a young girl her life in this area. She never heard the car that hit her, which she might have avoided if she had been able to hear. In my classes, students whose cell phones ring are invited to leave, understanding that I won't repeat whatever they missed while out of the room.


  2. Can we expect children to use good judgment in the use of technology? Probably not. It all seems so happy and harmless and so convenient.

    Especially for schizophrenics. Now they can stand around talking to themselves and people will just think they are on their cell phones.

  3. Anonymous5:48 AM

    Kids believe, just like we believed at that age, that they are invincible and bulletproof. Some pay the price, and some like us just feel the lessons learned in arthritic legs and various scars. And the vision of people standing around talking to themselves is a common one at my school. Very odd. And I really don't want to know all those details of their lives.


  4. We create schools based on the principle of children not doing anything, so how could we expect them to have anything interesting to say, even to each other?