Putting Off The Bill: The Different Costs of Tech

Putting Off The Bill: The Different Costs of Tech

It’s a classic idea in both Psychology and Economics that when things get cheaper or easier to do they get done more often. While this is an idea sculpted out of little more than common sense, it turns out to be a profound truth with a great degree of explanatory power. In fact, it can help us understand much of our obsession with the Internet in general and certain technology products in particular.


Most people think of costs in purely monetary terms. However, money is only one type of cost. We also pay for things with our time, effort (both mental and physical), dignity, and so on.

The Internet has been a profound force in our lives partly because it has allowed us to do many of the things we did before but in far less time and for far less money. For example, millions of us have been avid newspaper readers for decades and have been used to paying a certain fee for our news. However, with the advent of the web, we were suddenly able to receive the daily paper for free – without even having to leave the comfort of our homes (or even our beds). Suddenly, a product that traditionally required us to sacrifice a modicum of time, money, and physical effort to acquire required no sacrifice at all. It was the closest thing that many of us had seen to a free lunch. Of course, the long run consequences would turn out to carry a huge cost.*

Social products like Facebook have been similar. Facebook, for example, has allowed us to keep in touch with our friends and acquaintances in much less time, and for far less money, than before. While we have traditionally had to take time out of our busy schedules, not to mention gas or transit money, to go visit our friends, today we can converse, text, and share photos with them while we endure our daily commutes. The gas or telephone money that we used to pay to connect with our friends? Well, it’s still paid in the form of a data or Internet plan, but we don’t take this into account when texting our friends or uploading photos. The payment is too far removed in time for us to make a true association between the two.

Because the time and effort cost of socializing has decreased with Facebook, we spend a lot more of our daily time engaging in this activity. It’s so common to see people hunched over their phones even while walking down the street. A quick glance at what they’re doing will reveal Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, or a variety of other communication apps. Once again, the cheaper a behavior becomes, the more it’s done.

But as the outrage at Facebook’s privacy policies has shown over the years, we pay in other ways. Our information is used for ad targeting and a variety of other purposes. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just a different kind of cost, one that people are more than willing to pay, as Facebook usage numbers indicate. What percentage of Facebook's user population would leave if they had to pay five dollars a year? It’s hard to say, but the number would likely be substantial. Of course, we’re mainly talking about short term costs here. In the long term, it’s likely that we’ll pay in other ways for the increase in digital communication versus in-person communication. Perhaps certain social skills or in-person interpersonal communication abilities will suffer. We can only speculate what the price will be. But these costs will likely be offset by the advantages of continuous messaging and communication on these platforms.

We love cheap things. We can’t get enough of free stuff. We consume it voraciously. However, it’s hard to realize that bills come in many different forms, and at the end of many great meals our eyes may pop at the sight of the check. This is the nature of life, and with the rise of “free” internet services we’re in a new era of delayed costs, one that will come as a surprise to many of us.

* For instance, The New York Times cut 100 newsroom jobs this week (link here).

Image: Wikipedia 

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For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

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"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

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If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

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