Cheap speed

Digital travels faster than physical. An email travels faster than a letter. A physical letter has constraints in relation to size, weight, cost. Digital communications costs seem vanishingly small. If I want to send a letter within Ireland it will cost me one euro for postage, and that does not include the cost of the paper or envelope. If I want to send an email anywhere in the world it costs me somewhere in the region of two hundred thousandths of a cent. Whereas a paper letter will take around 24 hours to arrive, my email will arrive in perhaps 24 seconds, certainly within 10 minutes. 

When the cost is so small it’s easy to think there’s no cost at all. However, as we discovered earlier, to deal with email spam pollution, we’d need to plant 1.6 billion trees. To deal with legitimate email pollution, we’d need to plant 21 billion trees.

Speed and cheapness, what a powerful, intoxicating combination digital delivers. In the land of email, texting and Slack, things happen more quickly because they can. Those who take advantage of the speed opportunities can refashion industries. Fashion can be turned into Fast Fashion. The competitor who is not changing fast enough gets left behind. Fast Fashion may not be better fashion, but it is most definitely faster fashion, and when the price is so irresistibly low then the addictions blossom. 

With digital, everyone is racing faster. To where? To the bottom, often. Factory workers get paid slave wages and fashion designers are being burnt out at a frenetic pace. Why? To dump a truckload of fashion every second?

Ah, but we humans, we can’t resist speed, can we? I remember one dark, rainy winter night driving on a small Irish road. As I approached a bad bend, the signs kept warning me to slow down, slow down. Once I had gone around the bend and the straight road lay in front of me, there were no signs that encouraged me to speed up again. I did that naturally. 

There are limits to speed though. The relationship of speed to risk is not dissimilar to the relationship of image resolution to image size. If you double the speed, you treble or more the risk. 

An increase in average speed of 1 km an hour for a car increases the risk of a crash by 3%, with a 4–5% increase in the risk of a fatality. If you crash while driving at 80 km an hour, you are 20 times more likely to die than if you are travelling at 30 km an hour. There is also a link between speed and pollution. The harder the acceleration, the greater the spike in fuel consumption. Consistent, moderate speeds work best for the environment. Cheap thrills kill the environment. 

Digital is an accelerant. Digital is fluid. In e-commerce, we used to be happy getting the delivery in a week, then it was a couple of days, then it was same-day delivery, and now the promise is one hour. Like with everything else, as speed increases so too do the risks and the costs. 

If you’re going to deliver very quickly then you will have to hold more stock, thus increasing costs and waste. The vehicles will be less efficient because they will tend to be partly loaded. Increasing speed of delivery is more stressful for the workers, with drivers having more accidents as they race to get something delivered on time. Amazon workers are set grueling targets, expected to scan items every 11 seconds, and measured and tracked with dystopian precision and ruthlessness. As a result, its US warehouse workers have twice the injury rate of the industry average. 

When I was a teenager, I worked for a summer in Daimler Benz in Germany. My shift was from three in the afternoon until one in the morning. We had a quota to meet. However, most of us reached our quotas by eight or nine in the evening. We could go to the canteen, have a shower, do whatever we wanted. Germany was doing great. Workers were doing fine. They could have a good middle-class lifestyle. There was slack in the system, a bit of humanity, a bit of civilization. 

What of today? What of progress? What of digital? Middle classes are shrinking, as some move up and more move down. To meet consumer desires for ever-faster deliveries, workers are exhausting and hurting themselves for minimum wages. That’s not okay. That feels like digital is ripping up hundreds of years’ worth of worker protection and rights, that digital is sending a large part of the workforce back to the nineteenth century. For what? So that Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates can add another few billion to their pile of billions that they will never be able to spend? 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Digital doesn’t have to be a wrecker of lives and destroyer of the planet. Properly used, digital can facilitate conservation. If that delivery truck is full and if it’s going at a nice, consistent speed, and if the workers feel physically and mentally okay, then e-commerce can help reduce energy use, waste and pollution. If, on the other hand, speedy, frenetic e-commerce encourages the very worst frivolous, unnecessary purchases, then we’ll all heading to hell in an Amazon package.

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