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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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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