Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Technology: Paths of Least Resistance

Electricity is really complicated. There are a lot of simple explanations, but as soon as you look at any system complex enough to be useful, those explanations break down at least in part. However, there is one bit of information that is generally helpful enough to be useful beyond the ideal examples: electrons tend to follow the path of least resistance. This is the essence of Ohm's law, named for Georg Ohm, an early pioneer of circuit theory of the nineteenth century. Basically, set up two parallel paths for electrons to follow, and you will get more current across the path with less resistance.

This is pretty intuitive. Just like water flows downhill rather than up and a box slides away when you push it,  things tend to go in the direction with the least force resisting them. This is actually a really important principle in physics. But it turns out that this principle, with only slight modifications, is highly applicable in human behavior as well. This shouldn't come as any real surprise. If you have to choose between two roads to the store, do you take the busy, congested road or do you take the clear road? Of course, some people will still take the busy road for a number of reasons (if they didn't, of course, the road would not be congested) but if you have no other errands on the way you might very likely take the clear road.

I am aware that I am stating the extremely obvious at this point. Bear with me.

Now consider the people who like to violate the "principle of least effort", as it is known in behavioral terms. I'm talking about those people who voluntarily choose to take the extra mile, do the extra work, or eat the extra salad. Note that this is still at least partially analogous to physics; not all the electrons take the low-resistance path. The difference is that those people don't just emerge on the other side of the action the same as they would have been had they picked an easier way. Those people have most likely improved. They have learned. They have built up muscle and burned excess fat. They have found solutions and gained emotional strength and all those other great things that people always say happen when one faces challenges.

So the point: low resistance bad, high resistance good. No, wait! It's not nearly so simple, but I am suggesting that in order to gain and improve, we must occasionally take paths of high resistance.

This is relevant specifically because we live in an age in which the high resistance paths are becoming less necessary for survival and at least the minima of fulfillment. Whereas one might formerly spend hours poring over printed texts for some important bit of information, now one can find satisfactory information online almost instantly. Where one formerly had to sit down and write (and in the process, develop reasonable penmanship), one can now call, text, or email in a way that renders both penmanship and patience second-rate qualities.

Now these elements of our culture are not bad. Think of how much can be accomplished through instant communication and information access. Really, the benefits are remarkable. However, we must be able to use these things and many others of a similar vein responsibly. Technology removes the effort from the action in so many situations that we have become too used to the low-resistance path. We don't even consider the higher one.

Take scholarly research, for example. The path of least resistance is, of course, to google your topic. Honestly, that is what I usually find myself doing. However, I once wandered into the BYU library and found some actual printed books and sat down and did some research. The enlightenment I gained was well worth the time I took to find those books. On that subject, furthermore, it was hard to find good, well-backed research online. The path of least resistance was still the internet, but it would have returned inferior results. This is the danger of the path of least resistance: it may leave you with less value than you could otherwise have gained.

Another example is entertainment. Amid the television, movies, games, online videos, and other easy-access new forms of entertainment, I think we tend to set aside other, less effortless pastimes that have real potential for personal edification. I will not speak for all, but I know I would be a much more well-rounded student now if I had spent less time in my formative years playing video games and more time playing sports, writing (yes, I was interested in writing back then, just not enough to pull me away from the Playstation), playing music, and so on. I chose the path of easiest entertainment and it cost me.

So is the instant, the easy, the cheap bad? Only if you never touch the time-consuming, the difficult, and the expensive, because without these you'll atrophy. Don't be addicted to instant access; be willing to look a little harder and dig a little deeper for the gems that lie under the surface. That doesn't even mean don't use the internet; it just means be aware of the various means, technological and otherwise, for improvement that are at your disposal and use them.


  1. Articles that pertain to this (we just read them in FDENG 201):

    Great post. I agree.

  2. Thanks for the links! You'll notice that I didn't go through the effort (I complied with the principle of least effort) to find any supporting articles myself, so you just saved me some potential future work on this.