The Big Impact of Small Changes


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 about 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[1] 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[2]. Peloton might be less popular than parakeets, but it gets far more attention.

This 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[3] and cities[4] have been profoundly altered by Amazon and online shopping[5], which is still a fraction of what we 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[6] and their treatment of couriers has helped prompt a reconsideration of what a job means in the United States and Europe[7].

In an article about New York’s economic recovery from the pandemic[8], my colleagues dropped the mind-blowing stat that if just one 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 a 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 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[9] that have been designed around peak office worker commute times.

The digital butterfly effect[10] 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.

Tip of the Week

Buying used products is often gentler on our wallets and the planet. Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, recommends which electronics parts and accessories are a savvy secondhand purchase — and which ones might not be worth it.[11]

Memory for computers: Buy. Also known as random access memory, or RAM, these sticks to improve a computer’s speed[12] will last indefinitely, as long as the previous owner didn’t scuff them up with a screwdriver. It’s a good idea to inspect any product photos closely.

Batteries: Avoid. In general, I recommend against buying a used battery for any gadget. Batteries are intended for limited use, so it’s better to purchase them new.

Screens: Avoid sometimes. The screens on electronics wear out and look less bright over time. They’re also susceptible to disfigurements like “burn in”[13] and dead spots. You can occasionally find a good deal on a used TV with a screen that’s not too old and has good picture quality, but it’s wise to consider those purchases only from someone you know and trust.

Add-on accessories: Buy most of the time. Peripherals like computer mice and keyboards are pretty reliable. It’s still ideal to test them in person to make sure all the buttons and keys work properly. Take a pass on any accessories powered by rechargeable batteries that are not replaceable. And earbuds are a hard pass. Do you really want to wear someone else’s used earbuds?

Charging cables: Buy. As long as the cable isn’t frayed and the connector looks to be in good condition, it’s fine to buy a previously owned charging cable. Try not to spend more than a few bucks apiece since brand-new charging cables[14] tend to be inexpensive.


  1. ^ customers (
  2. ^ a veterinary trade group (
  3. ^ functioning of pretty much all businesses (
  4. ^ cities (
  5. ^ profoundly altered by Amazon and online shopping (
  6. ^ significant contributor to traffic (
  7. ^ and Europe (
  8. ^ about New York’s economic recovery from the pandemic (
  9. ^ could also profoundly change roads and transit systems (
  10. ^ butterfly effect (
  11. ^ Brian X. Chen (
  12. ^ improve a computer’s speed (
  13. ^ “burn in” (
  14. ^ brand-new charging cables (
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