Monday, February 28, 2011

Objects and materials: On cost and value (quasi-guest blogger #14 Marco Ceze)

Back to how we perceive the physical objects that we choose to interact with and buy. Marco called me today about some thoughts, and this post reflects his thoughts, with a sprinkling of mine. Actually, Marco and I had a wonderful conversation a couple of weeks ago that led to the Objects and materials series of posts. This post is (kind of) about costs and benefits/value, but as you can probably tell, I am in no way a proponent of cost-benefit analysis, particularly when carried out using neoclassical and utilitarian approaches. I tend to align with the thoughts of someone like Doug Kysar...but then again, make a convincing argument and I'll side with you =)

Life in today's world is full of trade-offs and making choices with a dearth of information. We never know fully the impacts of our choices given a complicated world. Under these circumstances, it is somewhat natural to think about the benefits or value of doing something compared to the costs. (When I say "costs" I am talking about the price you'll face at a store.) This is probably the simplest way to boil down tons of considerations, making choices potentially more tractable. (I do not necessarily advocate this) Furthermore, many people especially in the West tend to think about the short to near term, and so the benefits of making a particular choice need to be realised sooner rather than later.

Let's focus on the glass versus plastic debate. Imagine you are going to throw a party. Of course, a plastic cup costs you much less than one made of glass, especially when you go to a party store and buy a hundred of them. The value that those plastic cups provides you and the people coming to the party is immediate, as would the value of using glass cups - everyone will drink and enjoy themselves (but hopefully have a DD to take them home). The cost of a hundred glass cups, of course, would be much higher than the cost of a hundred plastic cups. Glass cups, however, will more likely be reused, because we don't think of glass cups as "disposable." (Glass bottles on the other hand would be considered "disposable" by most.) But there is constant uncertainty about the future? What are you going to do with all of these glass cups? Your lease is ending in three months and then you're going to have to move all of these cups, or donate them! What a hassle...A glass cup over its lifetime will probably provide much more value than a plastic cup, making its cost-to-value ratio smaller than that for a plastic cup. However, the issue is the lifetime. As soon as a benefit or value is realised, many times we don't think it worth keeping something to see added benefits, and who knows what those benefits may look like. Throwing plastic cups away is generally much easier than continually washing glass cups. This is also the point where the social learning about materials seems to kick in, and lend its hand in this cost-to-value valuation. Since the monetary cost is less (and we know that by looking at the price tag), and the benefits and values have been realised immediately and future benefits are uncertain and since the material is "disposable," people will likely choose plastic SOLO cups over nice glass cups. Hmmm...does this make sense?

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