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Illustration by John Cuneo.
Illustration: John Cuneo
I'm working on a book. I've recorded dozens of hours of interviews, with many hours more to come. Since there's no way to convert those recordings into text automatically with any kind of accuracy, should I cough up thousands of dollars to pay someone to transcribe them, or should I spend hundreds of hours of my own time doing it?

Right answer: Neither. In the old days of analog tape, when you had to fast-forward and reverse endlessly to find a particular remark in a lengthy interview, transcribing was virtually mandatory. But now, thanks to my digital voice recorder, files replace tapes, and playback software lets me jump around randomly--or even listen at high speed without hearing voices that resemble Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Nor will I spend much up-front time organizing my notes. Thanks to X1's Desktop Search software, I know that I can quickly retrieve and review data that is as messy as my desk. Like avoiding transcriptions, using indexing software exemplifies Manes's Third Law: Never commit to spending a bucketful of time or money now in return for possibly saving mere thimblefuls of time or money later.

But my law really pays off when you use it to avoid technology, not to adopt it. The classic example is the business card scanner. The effort needed to scan hundreds of cards and to proofread the results for inevitable errors is certain to take hours. Simply flipping through your stack of business cards on the rare occasion when you need an address from one is likely to take you just a few minutes.

Likewise, GPS navigation devices force you to pay a whole lot now for not much later. Get one and you have to learn how to use it--and waste time waiting for it to find its satellites. The benefit? You avoid the rare situation of being lost and having to phone somebody for directions. And you might end up getting lost in any case: On one occasion, my GPS-loving editor punched the name of my nearby San Francisco hotel into his car's system, but the best the gadget could come up with was a place bearing a similar name but located hundreds of miles away.

Ripping a large CD collection to a format like MP3 that will someday become obsolete is another great example of undue up-front effort for a dubious reward--unless the satisfaction of knowing that you can play "Chewy Chewy" wherever you go, even though you haven't listened to it in years, is worth more to you than the time you took to rip it.

This effort-reward calculation goes triple for pricey home media servers. How much will you end up paying in dollars and upgrade time when you later want a higher-definition format than your current equipment can manage? And exactly how lazy do you have to be to want to avoid carrying a CD or DVD from one room to another anyhow?

Manes's Third Law also applies when you're considering making a switch from one product to another. How much time will it take to move all your data and software? And how much time will you spend learning the ins and outs of the new system? Those penalties are a sure thing, but your hot new product carries no guarantees about the time that it is actually going to save you.

Start looking at the world of tech this way, and you'll end up craving products and services that are simple and highly automated and whose benefits are extremely Useful--like the ability to back up your data automatically to a safe place online without your having to do much of anything.

After all, isn't the whole point of technology to save you time and money, not to suck them out of you?

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