New incentives for riding and driving

Tyler Cowen endorses this Interfluidity tweet: “iphones & public transit: i’ve found smartphones increase the opportunity cost of driving, tilt toward public trans. just me?”

I disagree: for me, the smartphone equivalent (an iPod Touch) has increased my productivity and happiness while using mass transit, but I still find using the Touch in a public environment uncomfortable. On the other hand, the ability to play podcasts, and to play them double speed, has dramatically improved my enjoyment of driving. Therefore, although the device has increased the quality of both experiences, the balance tilts more toward driving than it used to.

In both cases, I marvel at the increase in utility and enjoyment of what used to be wasted time.

I suppose the punch line is that I live five blocks from my office.

Laptops in class

Jon Ippolito asks, “Laptops in class: menace or scapegoat?

I add: or no big deal?

Before I started teaching this year, a new colleague asked me whether I allow students to use laptops in the classroom. I replied that I hadn’t given the issue much thought: only one of my past students had used a laptop regularly, and that one had asked for permission based on medical reasons. No problem. Therefore, I said that I probably wouldn’t allow laptops, but I didn’t know whether we would need to address the issue at all.

A week later, when classes began, I had a group of 12 first-year students, and a third of them pulled out laptops on the first day of class.

Having no policy in mind, I told the students about my conversation with the colleague and said that I was willing to give laptops a chance: if I saw them interfering with conversation or distracting students, I explained, I would make a rule against them, and we’d move on.

As it happened, I never noticed the computers causing a problem in that class, or in my others, where they also began to sprout. The students used the laptops sometimes, left them aside other times; in small rooms housing discussion-based classes, the computers functioned as useful supplements to our conversations or simply as tools for reading class materials that would normally have been printed.

I anticipated more problems in part because I’ve seen students in other situations drift into email or solitaire, in part because I know my own weakness for checking email, even when I know I should resist. Perhaps students now have grown accustomed to constant access to the web (via smart phones) and therefore have developed more resistance. Perhaps I was just lucky last semester. I don’t know how this will go in the future.

I do know this, however: when I talk to friends, I increasingly find one or more members of the group pausing to check something on the web–a bit of historical information, a basketball player’s scoring average–to enrich the ongoing conversation. When I attend a meeting or a conference session in which the connecting to the web is unavailable or frowned upon, I feel that constraint as a limit on the conversation’s potential reach.

I do not claim that this feeling is good, only that it is real. For many of today’s 18-year-olds, the feeling must be stronger than it is for me. A lot of us now live an emotional life in which the lack, not the presence, of internet supplements to conversation feels like a needless artifice.