whenever i buy anything i am acutely attuned to not only its immediate cost but the psychical and psychic costs of ownership. this has so far in my life meant that i have ended up with a lot of super lightweight laptops and very very few pieces of furniture...
most people use this calculus at least in a few places (like not bringing your own food when you travel and relying on the market to provide something you will want to/can eat), but i apply it basically everywhere.
i am most attuned to the carrying cost of things with travel. i categorically refuse to check bags and over time have been taking less and less with me wherever i go. several years ago i started tending towards a philosophy of 'on demand' clothing, basically meaning that i don't ever go shopping but i do buy clothing as i need it on the way to specific events or in specific situations...
i am now experimenting with on demand shelter. to explain, the last time i was in san francisco i got accidentally locked out of the place i was staying very late at night (no, i wasn't fighting with my girlfriend, i just lost my key to the apt i was staying at). it wasn't even a slight hiccup or inconvenience. within 15 minutes i had checked into a hotel and was asleep and happy.
learning from this experience, i am now on a flight out to la which gets in at 10:00 pm local time 1am est. i have about $3 in my pocket and no other cash, i have absolutely no idea where i am staying, i have not booked a hotel room. i don't even know where i am going tomorrow. all i know is that i have a meeting with some people at some point tomorrow am and that lax is the closest airport.
i plan to land in la, have immediate access to an atm to get cash, pull out my blackberry to figure out where my meeting is by looking up the work address of the people with whom i am meeting on google. i will then find a cab (which i have not pre-arranged but i expect to be available at the airport), tell him to start driving towards the place i have to be tomorrow. on the way i will pull up google maps and figure out the closest hotel. if possible i will book on a wap site, but most likely i will just call the hotel to make sure they have availability. check in, amex and id out, sleep, zero stress, maximal efficiency...
why am i doing this?
because the psychic carrying cost of having pre-booked a hotel is too high, just as are the physical and psychic costs of packing. it just isn't worth it to me anymore. pre-arranging anything in our digital age has become way more trouble than it is worth... i did think about booking a place ahead of time, but the fully baked cost of booking ahead was too much for me.
why does this work?
first and foremost, because of capitalism. i can rely on the market every step of the way. first it will provide for me a conveniently located atm, then a cab waiting to take me where i need to go, then a hotel room. in the first two cases the market is really close to perfect, i might pay a 2-3 dollar tax on the atm for not bringing my own money and maybe have to wait a few minutes for a cab - but capitalist competition will provide for me. as for the hotel room, a little bit more tough, but still seamless - my access to poll the marketplace on the fly with my blackberry will provide me with convenient clean shelter a reasonable price.
second, because the risk is really low if capitalism fails me, so i can float the cost of the disaster. if the market fails me i have at least five friends in la who i can crash with... they don't know i am coming, but i can rely on being able to reach them almost instantaneously if need be....
third, identity and credit. this comes from a few directions. first, economic identity and credit, as verified by amex allows me to pay for things without cash (credit from the government) in a foreign land. second, social identity and credit, if none of my five friends are around then i can poll a larger set of associates through facebook or friends of friends to keep me safe.
fourth, cheap communication and synthesis of information (search).... without total and persistent access to the internet this whole thing falls apart because i would be at an informationally disadvantaged position... i could have friends that could help, but i couldn't reach them. there could be 20 hotels for me to chose from but i couldn't find them. even if i found one hotel, i would have no ability to compare options and from an informationally disadvantaged position i might either end up in a bad hotel or pay too much.
where do i think this doesn't yet work?
my memory/digital footprint - it is too central a piece of the equation to just throw everything in the 'cloud' and expect life to work. i probably have an aggregate of at least 300 gb of data in my bag. i could almost certainly get that down just 1-2 gb with no problem, but the carrying cost of data is so low that i don't need to - the equation doesn't work out... the cloud just isn't there yet.
power/adapters - again, the data and communications access are not worth much if you don't have the juice. mini usb/standardization makes this easier (i don't have a blackberry charger with me, i know that my pr firm in la and girlfriend in sf will be able to spot me)... but i do have a charger for my laptop (the air adapter is a bit harder to come by thanks to apple's insistence on closed loop proprietary systems, and i do have a usb to mini-usb cable in case my blackberry theory breaks down)
my running shoes - a few years ago i experimented traveling without my running shoes while on a trip to las vegas with my college roommates. you can't rely on the market to provide hyper personal things, like your favorite type of running shoes.
when traveling where you don't speak the language, know the customs - if you can't quickly collect and integrate information you are not in good shape, even if you have the information access... so the balance of cost/benefit is probably in booking ahead
communist countries/weak capitalist markets/small cities/the countryside - basically anywhere where the market isn't large enough to anticipate and serve your needs.
extraordinary situations - where the delta between good and great is enormous or there is limited supply - my girlfriend and i did rome on this 'on demand' basis - it worked well, we had a blast - but we missed a few things were a little pre-planning & booking would have been worth the psychic cost... specifically a few museums which we discovered upon arrival we couldn't see without an advanced reservation and one restaurant we couldn't get into.
a funny and obviously flippant thought to end:
basically what i am talking about is how capitalism in the context of total information does a great job of anticipating my needs before i do, and when you bake in the carrying cost of planning ahead, you actually come out better by paying slightly more or getting slightly worse service and doing everything on demand....
i am rolling through the hierarchy of human needs on this basis... is companionship next? (oh wait, that is actually the most well established and long running of these, though the governor of nyc maybe proved that the legal and social externalities break the equation ) :)
update, the hotel bit wasn't quite as smooth as i expected. it took me three calls before a hotel, the w said they could book me. when i actually arrived they apologized profusely and said they didn't have a room for me... luckily the perfectly nice hotel across the way did (at half the price), but i will admit that i was expecting an easier time at it