A friend pointed me to Bret Victor’s clever Ten Brighter Ideas, an (under construction) online interface for exploring the effect of behavioral interventions of American energy consumption.
In honor of my late grandfather, who decided to save money by unplugging his coffee maker before leaving for vacation, I asked the tool “What would happen if 50% of American households unplugged their microwave at night?” The answer: a 0.01% (i.e., one part in ten thousand) decrease in energy consumption.
I like this tool because:
It encourages thinking along sliding scales. Rather than just saying all or no households turn off their microwaves, you need to move a slider to pick the number. My gut tells me there’s some psychology that makes it harder to push a slider to 100% than checking to check a box labeled “all”. I’m tempted to believe that this encourages users to place more sensible boundaries on the possible penetrations of implementation.
It’s quantitative. I’m interested in numbers and policies, and I think it’s fascinating how much public debate proceeds with no quantification or verification. RAND’s study of food deserts is a fun example: $500 million was spent on eliminating food deserts, but no one really had any idea whether than money was doing what it was supposed to. In this case, it’s almost certainly not bad for people to unplug their microwaves, but is it really that much good? Nope. I expect that many things that almost certainly aren’t bad that are touted as moral goods aren’t actually that good from a more functional point of view.