IT Alters the Marginal Cost of Meaningful Relationship

Keep reading for a very wonky look at how a hybrid world threatens relationship building and what to do about it. This post needs work still, but it’s a start.

Decisions are made at the margin. That is, conditional on circumstances. When conditions change, marginal costs can be altered dramatically. I’ll pay more for a cup of water when lost in the desert than at home. I don’t plan to visit the Louvre tonight, but I might if I were already in Paris.

The Internet has dramatically increased options for communication at a distance, across time, and to large groups. Naturally, use cases that can adapt to those constraints are increasingly using the lower cost option. Offices are going remote, professional conferences are happening virtually, and romantic connections are sparked in an app.

But communication, like other experiences, is bought in a bundle. I might buy dinner for a girl to talk with her…but also to see how she dresses, how she orders food, and how she talks with others. To the extent that communication via the internet is degraded, it unbundles experiences. Indeed, I hear that kids hardly date any more – they just “talk”. When the main activity – talking – becomes cheap to do online, the ancillary experiential activities may become prohibitively expensive at the new margin.

Similarly, virtual collaboration unbundles our communication at work. Previously, office workers were constrained to do their work in person, so the marginal cost of impromptu conversations at the watercooler was low. Today, if workers are remote, casual impromptu conversations might be unaffordable.

Designing a virtual life, we must be mindful of the communication bundles we are buying and of the resulting marginal costs for a la carte experiences we might later want to add on.

An illustrative model

Say there exist a continuum of messages in terms of intimacy, each with an associated utility. All the messages can be delivered in person. The least intimate messages can be delivered remotely with little technology. As remote communication technology improves, increasingly intimate messages can be delivered remotely.

If the agent must choose a level of investment to determine whether communication is in-person or remote, better remote communication technology would push the agent toward less investment in proximity. For example, the agent might decline to commute to an office or choose not to move in with a romantic partner.

As remote communication gets better, net utility will increase although less intimate messages will be shared.

This conclusion holds as long as intimacy in communication is valued correctly. But if relationships have an addictive quality, or we value them later more than we value them today, we might choose too little investment in proximity. That is, we’ll be happier today keeping people at arm’s length, but we’ll be worse off in the long run.

Written on February 21, 2023