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The Tyranny of Convenience

Tim Wu

Hudson Christie
Convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today. As a driver of human decisions, it may not offer the illicit thrill of Freud’s unconscious sexual desires or the mathematical elegance of the economist’s incentives. Convenience is boring. But boring is not the same thing as trivial.
In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience — that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks — has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies. This is particularly true in America, where, despite all the paeans to freedom and individuality, one sometimes wonders whether convenience is in fact the supreme value.
As Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, recently put it, “Convenience decides everything.” Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I “prefer.”) Easy is better, easiest is best.
Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.
For all its influence as a shaper of individual decisions, the greater power of convenience may arise from decisions made in aggregate, where it is doing so much to structure the modern economy. Particularly in tech-related industries, the battle for convenience is the battle for industry dominance.
Americans say they prize competition, a proliferation of choices, the little guy. Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.
Given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, as a value, as a way of life — it is worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country. I don’t want to suggest that convenience is a force for evil. Making things easier isn’t wicked. On the contrary, it often opens up possibilities that once seemed too onerous to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries.
But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.
It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule. But when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much.
Convenience as we now know it is a product of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when labor-saving devices for the home were invented and marketed. Milestones include the invention of the first “convenience foods,” such as canned pork and beans and Quaker Quick Oats; the first electric clothes-washing machines; cleaning products like Old Dutch scouring powder; and other marvels including the electric vacuum cleaner, instant cake mix and the microwave oven.
Convenience was the household version of another late-19th-century idea, industrial efficiency, and its accompanying “scientific management.” It represented the adaptation of the ethos of the factory to domestic life.
However mundane it seems now, convenience, the great liberator of humankind from labor, was a utopian ideal. By saving time and eliminating drudgery, it would create the possibility of leisure. And with leisure would come the possibility of devoting time to learning, hobbies or whatever else might really matter to us. Convenience would make available to the general population the kind of freedom for self-cultivation once available only to the aristocracy. In this way convenience would also be the great leveler.
This idea — convenience as liberation — could be intoxicating. Its headiest depictions are in the science fiction and futurist imaginings of the mid-20th century. From serious magazines like Popular Mechanics and from goofy entertainments like “The Jetsons” we learned that life in the future would be perfectly convenient. Food would be prepared with the push of a button. Moving sidewalks would do away with the annoyance of walking. Clothes would clean themselves or perhaps self-destruct after a day’s wearing. The end of the struggle for existence could at last be contemplated.
The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits. Perhaps this is why, with every advance of convenience, there have always been those who resist it. They resist out of stubbornness, yes (and because they have the luxury to do so), but also because they see a threat to their sense of who they are, to their feeling of control over things that matter to them.
By the late 1960s, the first convenience revolution had begun to sputter. The prospect of total convenience no longer seemed like society’s greatest aspiration. Convenience meant conformity. The counterculture was about people’s need to express themselves, to fulfill their individual potential, to live in harmony with nature rather than constantly seeking to overcome its nuisances. Playing the guitar was not convenient. Neither was growing one’s own vegetables or fixing one’s own motorcycle. But such things were seen to have value nevertheless — or rather, as a result. People were looking for individuality again.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the second wave of convenience technologies — the period we are living in — would co-opt this ideal. It would conveniencize individuality.
You might date the beginning of this period to the advent of the Sony Walkman in 1979. With the Walkman we can see a subtle but fundamental shift in the ideology of convenience. If the first convenience revolution promised to make life and work easier for you, the second promised to make it easier to be you. The new technologies were catalysts of selfhood. They conferred efficiency on self-expression.
Consider the man of the early 1980s, strolling down the street with his Walkman and earphones. He is enclosed in an acoustic environment of his choosing. He is enjoying, out in public, the kind of self-expression he once could experience only in his private den. A new technology is making it easier for him to show who he is, if only to himself. He struts around the world, the star of his own movie.
So alluring is this vision that it has come to dominate our existence. Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor — many of us don’t do much of that anyway. It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves. Convenience is one-click, one-stop shopping, the seamless experience of “plug and play.” The ideal is personal preference with no effort.
We are willing to pay a premium for convenience, of course — more than we often realize we are willing to pay. During the late 1990s, for example, technologies of music distribution like Napster made it possible to get music online at no cost, and lots of people availed themselves of the option. But though it remains easy to get music free, no one really does it anymore. Why? Because the introduction of the iTunes store in 2003 made buying music even more convenient than illegally downloading it. Convenient beat out free.
As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating. This is especially true for those who have never had to wait in lines (which may help explain the low rate at which young people vote).
The paradoxical truth I’m driving at is that today’s technologies of individualization are technologies of mass individualization. Customization can be surprisingly homogenizing. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook: It is the most convenient way to keep track of your friends and family, who in theory should represent what is unique about you and your life. Yet Facebook seems to make us all the same. Its format and conventions strip us of all but the most superficial expressions of individuality, such as which particular photo of a beach or mountain range we select as our background image.
I do not want to deny that making things easier can serve us in important ways, giving us many choices (of restaurants, taxi services, open-source encyclopedias) where we used to have only a few or none. But being a person is only partly about having and exercising choices. It is also about how we face up to situations that are thrust upon us, about overcoming worthy challenges and finishing difficult tasks — the struggles that help make us who we are. What happens to human experience when so many obstacles and impediments and requirements and preparations have been removed?
Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.
Convenience has to serve something greater than itself, lest it lead only to more convenience. In her 1963 classic, “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan looked at what household technologies had done for women and concluded that they had just created more demands. “Even with all the new labor-saving appliances,” she wrote, “the modern American housewife probably spends more time on housework than her grandmother.” When things become easier, we can seek to fill our time with more “easy” tasks. At some point, life’s defining struggle becomes the tyranny of tiny chores and petty decisions.
An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is “easy” is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for a life.
We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient — not always, but more of the time. Nowadays individuality has come to reside in making at least some inconvenient choices. You need not churn your own butter or hunt your own meat, but if you want to be someone, you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others. Struggle is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are.
Embracing inconvenience may sound odd, but we already do it without thinking of it as such. As if to mask the issue, we give other names to our inconvenient choices: We call them hobbies, avocations, callings, passions. These are the noninstrumental activities that help to define us. They reward us with character because they involve an encounter with meaningful resistance — with nature’s laws, with the limits of our own bodies — as in carving wood, melding raw ingredients, fixing a broken appliance, writing code, timing waves or facing the point when the runner’s legs and lungs begin to rebel against him.
Such activities take time, but they also give us time back. They expose us to the risk of frustration and failure, but they also can teach us something about the world and our place in it.
So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest. The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity.

Anne-Marie Hislop Chicago
I suppose it would be lovely if, freed from the drudgery of chores and tasks, people took on new intellectual learning or pursued hobbies with gusto. My concern is that many will simply default to staring at some screen. While things like housework may not be thrilling, they are a form of movement and mild exercise - sitting in front of a screen is not physically active and only occasionally mentally stimulating.

I am pushing 70, so this is not to be my world too many decades into the future, but I often wonder what skills people will enjoy using as machines do more and more for them. I learned to "touch type" in high school. To this day I still enjoy being able to type well and quickly, but am well aware that my very smartphone engaged nieces and nephews use what we used to call 'hunt and peck' on keyboards. They are good at it, but I doubt they see it as a skill they enjoy using. I enjoy bread-making - the traditional way - yet to many bread making happens in a machine with no skill required. I enjoy driving most of the time, but driver-less cars are on the horizon.

Maybe I'm a curmudgeon, but it seems that we are headed toward a world where there will be less opportunity to do much more than sit and allow machines to do it all. How boring!

Lillian Palmer Bethlehem, PA

I'm a ceramic artist, and teach it as well. I've wrestled with this question in the context of my medium for as long as I've been doing it, 23 years now. Why spend years learning how to wheel throw, and all the time it makes to make dishes, when I can walk into a thrift store or retail store and see factory-produced goods stacked to the ceiling, sold for pennies? I've come to believe that working with our hands is a need rather than a want. It's a way of engaging and interacting with the world and with others that satisfies a very deep and old part of ourselves.

With a out of context quote from Friedan, Wu blithely ignores the freedoms opened to women through convenience technology.

As an expectant mother, I am acutely aware that, without a wide array conveniences - labor saving devices, internet and teleconferencing, prepared food, deliveries, etc. - my pregnancy would spell the permanent end of my participation in the labor force, the intellectual life, and the wider community.

It’s no accident that there were very few mothers outside the home until the past few decades.

Being from a traditional culture in a developing country, I am one generation away from the frightening volume of work alotted to women in the absence of technology. Manual cooking and cleaning is BACKBREAKING, and forces women to a monotonous, isolating existence.

Grandma over 80 Canada
The author must live in a city! For 50 years I lived in a small mid-19th century house in a rural community in which everybody had a vegetable garden. Most obviously, convenience was locally manifest in the modernization of dairy farms. I was very glad that my chest freezer freed me from canning, although one neighbour still cans everything from moose-meat to green tomato relish. We had no furnace and were comfortable in a restricted space, but were grateful for electric water pumps, one from the 4,000 gallon soft-water cistern and the other from a low-yield well. The internal combustion engine greatly lowered the percentage we lived in the mid-19th century, but we lived enough in the past to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden from the first spring salads to the last sprout at Christmas. Now I'm in an old age home, and happy to flush every time--am embracing convenience--tho' still am challenged choosing the least phony food--am even (very rightly) suspicious of the boiled eggs! I reflect that it's February, I've been here since July, and still haven't turned on the heat, tho' was grateful for the A/C last August.

Sue Philadelphia
My grandmother spent her days cooking, cleaning, sewing clothes, caring for other etc. with no time for anything else. She had to choose if she wanted to be a wife/mother or wanted a job (she worked outside the home prior to marriage), as it was not possible to have both. I very much appreciate how convenience has made it possible for me to have a family and a career. Perhaps it's easier to wax nostalgic about the old days if you are a man.

David R New York

The column fails to address the most significant activity of human existence: having children. Despite all the recent innovations to facilitate raising a child, the activity of being a parent, done in the right way, is still terrifically "inconvenient."

And it is by far the most important and potentially rewarding activity, and test of our mettle, most of us will ever face.

Nora M New England
I hang my clothes outdoors on a line. I love standing the sun and fresh air as I hang them out. I love the smell of them when I bring them in. The linens are nearly without wrinkles. The sun bleaches the whites. Everything last longer as well. It is a pleasure!

We cook our meals. (Yes, I work.) We are in excellent health, normal weight. We know what ingredients are in the food. We avoid preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors, and added fats, sugar, and salt. I can cook a French dinner in thirty minutes that is as delicious as any we find in a restaurant. We eat together, no smartphone on the table or person. We talk! We enjoy each other's company.

We don't own a t.v. I think our computers are troubling. I am considering getting off the internet. It is a time waster. It robs us of the direct experience of living.

We desire a real life. Chasing "convenience" gets in the way of that. Fancy that!

Jessica NM
I am a curmudgeon at 47, one who accepts the difficulty of doing the inconvenient for an experience of deeper feeling and value. I was raised by another curmudgeon, who was the third owner of an old car that had a hole rusted through the floor and vinyl drapes used as 'new' upholstery, and who, when my brothers and I begged him to get a new car, would say "do you want a new car or do you want to go to college?" We said car. He paid for the 4 of us to go to college - all of it. The tyranny of convenience; of the walkman, and prepared meals and new cars and Amazon, is that we lose the connection to the experience of what we are doing, and to other people. Road trips in that car are now family lore that connect us to those trips and to each other. I don't think the hippies wanted individuality, they wanted to connect to the food they ate, and to the clothes they wore, rather than be a part of a convenient but dehumanized system. While convenience has helped us in many ways - the role of women, for one - it also produces a feeling of ennui, of disconnect that is growing, especially seen in younger people, and making them yearn more and more for the days of deeper, connected experience, where you went to a record store for hours to touch and look at albums, among other people, and then played those on a turn-table.

Carl Feind McComb, MS
Excellent, but incomplete. As a cardiologist, I see the dangers of convenience 12 hours a day. Most immediately our embrace of convenience has led us to basically stop cooking. Why cook when you can stop at KFC on the way home? This is a direct contributor to our epidemic of chronic, "metabolic" diseases (obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks and the rest) that is keeping me busy and consuming the rest of our economy... good article, now I have to walk to work

Kumar Ranganathan Bangalore, India

There is an even larger price we pay for convenience. We simply have not evolved over millions of years to live a "convenient" life. Our genetic endowment, in fact, prepares us for a life of struggle and hardship. When we now, suddenly live a life of convenience, we are actually acting against what evolution has prepared us for. The result is a myriad of illnesses - physical and mental - that we must compensate for with even more expensive and technology-intensive conveniences. We have forgotten that we are not immune to the laws of evolutionary biology.

S. Bruce Mould Kennerdell, PA

My mother (90) and I have correspond. 2 or 3 hand written letters a month. She lives an hour away. We both have phones. But we write letters in cursive. This changes the communication - and the mind. We think differently in cursive. It takes time. It is not convenient, but worthy of saving in ribboned bundles. We write who we are; we are who writes. Where are the men and women of letters? This is the polar opposite of the convenience of a tweet.
Last night I disassembled a Bernina 1260 sewing machine, a 20 year old top-of-the-line model worth hundreds (if working). I poked, and looked and prodded until I found the problem. Fixed. Saved from the landfill. And I felt like a magician, a wizard, a veritable god! I've never repaired a sewing machine before, but I have swapped out defective components in laptop computers. Who does such things, writes in cursive, repairs modern electronics, washes the floor on hands and knees?
Some have talked about identity through enmity. We are based on who our enemies are. We are that which we struggle against. Think Robert Redford's character in 'Jeremiah Johnson'. I struggle against winter. One of my self images is that I am that guy standing on top of an eight foot high pile of pole wood with a running chainsaw - grinning. (The 8 foot two-man hand saw hangs in a place of honor on the wall.) Am I not a (small) god?- a god of the inconvenient. Some day it will kill me, but I will have lived and become all I have overcome.

JustThinkin Texas

Convenience and choice are both too often taken out of any context.

We have recently been told about the paradox of choice, where too much choice (at the orange juice section of the grocery store or other situations of insignificant choices) can immobilize us literally, which is not to say that some choices are important and are nice to have.

Same goes for convenience. Some conveniences are beneficial -- you do not learn much or become a better person by washing your clothing (and you can use a washing machine efficiently). And some conveniences are just a marketing fabrication.

Underlying a good relationship with both of these is the need for a full education -- not only a vocational education. Only by developing ourselves fully, understanding our past and to what extent we are products of it, understanding the basics of chemistry and physics, appreciating the revelations of literature, absorbing the lessons of economics (of Piketty and Krugman as well as of Hayek and Friedman) can we actually make good choices and select appropriate conveniences for our lives -- think of what psychologists have taught us about how our decisions can be nudged this way or that.

Without a solid foundation in being human we will become those robots we all fear. This tyranny of convenience or of choice must be countered with a robust education for all. that is what will actually make us complete and fulfilled.

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