The Tyranny of Convenience

Tim Wu writes on The Tyranny of Convenience in the New York Times:

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.

Convenience did deliver on some of it's promises, but in the end convenience continually shrinks the 'delay' part of delayed gratification and makes non-convenient activities, like waiting in line, unbearable. Wu:

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.

Wu describes the two stages of convenience:

  • First was convenience to make it easier to do things. Think washing machines, microwaves, convenience food, etc.
  • Part two was convenience to make it easier to be you. Think the Walkman, iPod, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

I was chatting with a friend, who is finishing up a book on his multi-year trip around the US as a traveling printer, on this idea today and he had a good point: phase two failed because convenience destroys individuality in the end. Wu nails this:

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.

This passage reminded me of this video I saw recently: This Video Shows How Everyone Snaps the Same Instagram Travel Photos showing a

“photogenic mass tourism experience” and how so many of our travel photos look exactly like other people’s.

The convenience of expression has helped degrade the internet, as I touched on in The Better Web and many other posts on this blog. It's the reason why I'm posting directly to this blog first and syndicating out, if necessary. Despite adding inconvenience to my life, owning and running my own site gives me the freedom and creativity to do whatever I want, however I want. That doesn't mean social media should be left out of the equation, but that part of the equation should be the approach taken by (for example) -- it's a social layer for independent sites. Not a walled garden.

As a parent, I feel it's important to teach my daughters the fine line on which convenience walks, when it comes to the intersection of technology, creativity, making things, individuality, etc. Technology can be a tool for good or bad, obviously, so it's important to teach things like craft, hard work, and persistence while giving them the freedom to be creative, explore, and learn.

Wu sums it up nicely:

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.