The outsize effects of many small changes :
I'm going to try to shock you with some numbers. They show that we might have a warped view of the popularity of some habits, but also that even small changes in our collective behavior can have huge ripple effects.

Some statistics :

Americans spend about two-thirds of their TV time watching conventional television and just 6% streaming Netflix.
Online shopping accounts for less than 14% of all the stuff that Americans buy.
Remote work is a hot topic these days, but only about one in six U.S. employees are working that way.
About 6 percent of Americans order from the most popular restaurant delivery company in the United States.

Maybe you're not surprised by those figures. I was. They're a sign that we sometimes believe that behavioral changes from new technologies are far more commonplace than they really are. Why? I'll offer two possible explanations.

The first one is that people [ and journalists ] tend to pay more attention to what's new and novel. That might be particularly true if the behavioral changes are happening to relatively affluent people. The vast majority of American workers kept doing their jobs in person even in the depths of the pandemic, but half of professional workers at one point did their jobs away from an office because of the coronavirus.

And Peloton, the maker of $2,500 exercise bicycles for streaming fitness classes, has about 2.1 million customers paying to use its exercise bicycles or treadmills. For comparison, about 3.5 million households in the United States had birds as pets during a recent year, according to a veterinary trade group. Peloton might be less popular than parakeets, but it gets far more attention.

That doesn't mean that Peloton doesn't matter, that remote work isn't worth paying attention to, or that Netflix isn't a big deal. Today's novelties can become tomorrow's commonplace.

That brings me to the second explanation, that relatively small but rapid changes in individual acts , repeated millions or billions of times, can disrupt everything around us.

I've written before about how many of our habits and the functioning of pretty much  all businesses and cities have been profoundly altered by Amazon and online shopping, which is still a fraction of what we all buy. Ditto for Uber and Lyft.

The companies account for a small amount of miles driven in the United States, but their vehicles are a significant contributor to traffic and their treatment of couriers has helped prompt a reconsideration of what a job means in the United States and Europe.

In an article about New York's economic recovery from the pandemic, my colleague dropped the mind -blowing stat that if just 1 in 10 Manhattan office workers stopped coming in most of the time, that would translate to ''more than 100,000 people a day not picking up coffee and bagel on their way to work or a drink afterward.''

You can imagine that might hurt sales for a bar in Times Square - and maybe help one of the suburbs one in the suburbs if people swapped an after office-drink with an after-Zoom one.

Just a little more remote work could also profoundly change roads and transit systems that have been designed around peak office worker commute times.

The digital butterfly effect of a zillion little changes can be unpredictable and uneven. People, companies and policymakers will have to figure out how to deal with the big differences that can come from little changes.

The World Students Society thanks author Shira Ovide.


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