Tuesday, 5 March 2013

click here

and lose your will to live. Whoever invented web-based forms should be a non-believer (and right about the absence of an afterlife)...Personally, I think that one of the choice circles of hell should be reserved for them. You see: There was a time when providing a reference for a student or submitting a paper was straightforward. You printed it and mailed it. It took 30 seconds. Sure, it took time to arrive. But since admission decisions take ~6 months, and journals can take up to 2 years easily, it didn't matter.

And today? Every university (and every journal) has its own web-based form, with radio buttons neatly arranged so that you can click on whether the student is in the top 10%, top 5%, in terms of motivation, skill, technical knowledge, etc. Mind you, the categories are always subtly different. Sometimes, you need to provide exact class rank. Sometimes, you can compare with multiple cohorts. I am sure it is tremendously important that one university asks about motivation for proposed course of study, and the next one about interest and enthusiasm for research. And so on. No way to delegate this. What took 5 minutes now takes 20-25 minutes, every time. The effect? I limit references to no more than 5, and that is getting to be too much. So far, so simple, so bad.

Now, let's think about the economics of this. I am sure the web-based forms save somebody's time. Probably that of the secretary of the institution receiving applications. Instead of assembling packages with multiple letters and the application form, they can now just look at the web application - already all in one place. In other words, we found a way to use professors' time on a vast scale to save a tiny bit of secretarial time. I am sure nobody in the admissions office got fired because we can now deal with the applications in half the time. The net result is that a precious - and unpriced - resource is wasted, and a relatively cheap and easily replaced resource - administrator time - is saved. This outcome is thoroughly negative in terms of mapping people's time into output, and using precious resources for what they are best at; it is division-of-labor in reverse. Of course, it would take a social planner to undo this; every single admissions office loves the new system, I am sure, and the professors' mostly don't scream bloody murder about it because everyone is doing it.

Of course, this is only a tiny bit of one's academic duties; why think about it? Because it stands pars pro toto for many other examples of seeming productivity improvements that simply push costs elsewhere, and distort outcomes and incentives. Submitting a paper? You have a manuscript with tables and figures, all where they should be? Please take them apart for the web-based submission. You had a single file? You will now please produce 17 files - one for the manuscript, one for the title page, one for each table and figure - and then the online system produces an integrated pdf with your files (which you already had ready to go).

On hold on the phone when calling your airline or bank? Surely, the average person on hold has a higher opportunity cost of their time than the average operator (more often than not, in India). Total welfare goes down, but some productivity statistic somewhere is being flattered. A huge part of economics is about how individual optimizing behavior can produce sub-optimal outcomes in the aggregate; me thinks someone should consider seriously if the internet and web-based solutions have not just multiplied the "waste someone else's time" form of seeming productivity gains by a factor of 10.

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