Thursday, January 13, 2011

The High Cost of Cheap Communication

15 years ago, I don’t think I would have imagined it possible to look someone in the eye as I chatted with them from 5000 miles away. Not, that is, unless I paid substantially for the privilege. Today, a webcam-and-microphone combination is cheaper than dinner for two at Applebees and Skype software costs nothing but the time to install it. E-mail is ubiquitous, texting is close to free, facebook is available on cheap telephones, and twitter can seemingly show up on anything that runs on batteries. Rapid communication is shockingly inexpensive, with the predictable result that a whole hell of a lot more messages make it past the quality filter. The benefits of the communication revolution are readily apparent to anyone who has had to coordinate anything on the hoof (imagine how different is the procedure to make lunch arrangements with friends today than a decade and a half ago).

For Soldiers in the field, this means that instead of waiting weeks for APO deliveries (I’m not fond of the “snail mail” moniker), messages that takes seconds to compose whisk their winsome way around the world in mere milliseconds, fresh as a daisy. This, combined with the negligible out-of-pocket expense, means that messages that were once far too trifling to send come pouring in at a rate of knots. The Soldier of yore might have expected to hear about Uncle Frank’s surgery or the fire out by the ol’ barn, but by no means did he help junior with his homework. Today’s combat-deployed Soldier has one boot in theater and if not all of the other, then at least some of the laces still at home to a degree that was unimaginable to the average infantryman of previous wars.

Under normal circumstances, most of us handle split attention fairly deftly. We can track careers, family, football scores, pop culture minutiae, fashion, art, or any of the other tiny stars of interest in our personal galaxies with relative ease. Under normal circumstances, we are not under enemy fire. Think of two competing goods: mission-relevant information and all other information. Like other resources, attention is finite, and plain ol’ microeconomics show that if we make irrelevant information cheaper, people will consume more of it. Logorrhea from home is a tax on Soldiers’ attention and may contribute to a decline in readiness.

Without taking a closer look, it’s impossible to say exactly where the margins are, so the details end up in the good ol’ “it’s an empirical question” pile, so beloved by classroom economists, but that’s fine. There’s also a big steaming policy question I wish I could just ignore. Part of the equilibrium solution is that we’d have to compensate Soldiers for giving up the luxury of staying in contact with family back home (assuming we don’t have Jonesian 0-MP Soldiers), which may or may not be substantial and could hurt morale. At any rate, I’d like to run those crazy regressions. I imagine the data is out there.

H/T Dave Gauntlett