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.

Save for Later — Medium

Diana Kimball has a pretty in-depth look at bookmarking and the act of saving things for later:

The Bookmark represents what we wish for. It’s the earliest indicator of intention, and the most vulnerable; by definition, the act of saving something for later means that whatever we hope for hasn’t happened yet. Bookmarks are placeholders for the future. By thumbing through them, we can start to see what might happen next.

For me, bookmarking had a very strong allure. Saving interesting sites and links, collected and connected via tags, allowed us to create our own little web directory.

Then, when the 'save for later' reading services (Instapaper and Pocket) launched, it was also instantly appealing: a way to collect articles I wanted to read in a place that was accessible anywhere and displayed in a visually appealing way. Pure gold.

The problem for me (and many other, it turns out) is I rarely went back to the sites/apps to view my archive. I would read an article here or there, or hit up Pinboard for a link I saved, but I've committed Instapaper/Pocket bankruptcy three times now and even ditched my original Delicious account with no backup.

The simple act of saving something also creates an immense burden -- whether it's digital or an analog item. Saving creates another aspect of your life you need to manage and deal with, subconsciously or otherwise. Sometimes it just doesn't seem worth it.

One thing I have been trying to do instead is catalog small tidbits of information that shape my world view or help me learn, using Day One as my journal. Not sure if this is any different, but at least there is value in the information I save, rather than potentially decent articles I may want to read or pages I may need to visit in the future.

Time and Attention

When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. — James Gleick

The Back to Work episode Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys, touched on one of my absolute favorite topics: time and attention. Specifically a new (to me) aspect, which Merlin called the Attention Stack.

Attention Stack

  1. Attention
  2. Cognition
  3. Thoughts and Feelings
  4. Decision Making

So the basic idea behind the Attention Stack is your attention defines your cognition (the ongoing process of collecting knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses), your cognition helps define your thoughts and feelings, which result in your decisions.
Continue reading "Time and Attention"

Art of Vulnerability

Yesterday morning I watched a TED talk by musician Amanda Palmer, who is famous for her work with the Dresden Dolls and raising $1.2 million on Kickstarter to fund a solo album. Her story is amazing and definitely worth the 15 minutes it takes to watch the video.
What struck me is she hit on a subject I've spent the last few posts working through: online sharing and connections.

Amanda uses the internet (she sees "random closeness and connections") to connect with and build an invested following of fans. To build those connections she uses her blog, Twitter, and YouTube to share intimate moments, failure, and her fears -- in addition to all the normal stuff you'd expect from a musician. She's completely vulnerable and open.

She's found that these connections lead to amazing acts of generosity and real life connections, which have allowed her to travel the world through couch surfing, fund her Kickstarter, and much more. The vulnerability generates trust and generosity to/from/between Amanda and her fans.

Her secret to making her art and life work: ask. She builds off this exchange of vulnerability and trust to overcome the shame of asking for help. "When we really see each other, we want to help."

The act of asking is another type of connection. Asking is vulnerable. In fact, giving is vulnerable too. Both are forms of trust. In general, our society puts a negative connotation on asking for help, taking donations, and receiving assistance. It's usually looked down upon in all but the most dire of circumstances.

Even in business we put less value on our work because we don't feel worthy or that our work isn't good enough -- whether it's freelancing for less than market value, giving away an iPhone app, starting a business based on our talents and interests ("I couldn't possibly make any money doing what I love"), or any other number of things. By putting our work out there we become vulnerable to criticism and people saying 'no', so we lessen the value of the work in response, as a protective measure.

In cases like Amanda it's easy to criticize the asking, but we (meaning the rest of us not involved in these transactions) don't see the complete exchange that is happening between the 'asker' and 'giver'. The connection the fan makes to her as a person, her music, or the inspiration. In the end, we all spend one (or more) of our currencies in any transaction/interaction/connection: time, attention, money, belongings, food, whatever we have... they all have value. So how can we judge one form of currency over the other?

To sum up a great quote from the video: 'The internet and sharing is about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.' That's a pretty stark contrast from what is typically considered success in our society -- and even celebrity -- where large groups of people 'love' you from a distance. There's no connection, no real trust in celebrity.

For Amanda and her music/art, that "enough" is around the 25,000 loyal fans who funded her million dollar Kickstarter. Ironically, that's the same number of albums her major label sold before deeming her a failure.

It's inspiring to see someone connect and build a small tribe, facilitate sharing/vulnerability/openness, and harness that into a career -- to live her life on her own terms.

Hat tip: Patrick Rhone

More on that Site and Connections

Today, Leo Babauta, over on Zen Habits, has a great (and timely) post on connection:

We socialize online, but that’s not very genuine (why I quit Facebook). We work with people, but often that’s task-oriented and not human connection-oriented. We might have family and friends in our lives, but when we are busy or distracted by the online world, those connections might fade.

So true and this hits on a theme from my More of Less post earlier this week, particularly these two points from my favorite Merlin Mann post:

  • avoid anything that feels like fake sincerity;
  • put a handful of real people near the center of everything.

It's about choosing genuine, real relationships and connections over manufactured connections and sharing. Two things Facebook has built a business on and thrived because they made it so easy to make (and re-make) connections. (Not to mention using those connections and sharing to target you with better advertising.) But is "easy" the best way to handle relationships?

Sure, some relationships and connections should be easy and simple (aka weak ties), but those aren't the relationships you want to know everything about via over sharing  They should be random and fleeting, like running into someone you used to know while shopping. Or high school/college reunions. Or any other way we used to re-connect with people who fell out of our life.

Sean Bonner's recent post reflecting on leaving Facebook hit on this:

In 2010 I wrote that Facebook made me feel like a shitty friend, in part because it was maintaining (or recreating) connections with people that under any other circumstance would have fallen out of my life. That kid I sat next to in one class in 10th grade. That girl I had a crush on for a few months in 9th grade. That guy that is friends with one of my cousins that I met one time at a wedding or something. Without Facebook normal people in these situations never would have stayed in touch, with Facebook it was nice to connect but we never really had anything to say to one another other than “oh so nice to reconnect” then just flooding each other with random status updates. 100% of those people that I had very weak ties to I lost touch with. But I also no longer feel bad about not caring about their updates, I don’t feel bad that I don’t have more to say to them, and I don’t feel bad that they aren’t a part of my life. So I’m not convinced those loses are really a bad thing.

Facebook makes it easy to re-connect these weak ties (through the friend finder, newsfeed discovery, and reciprocal friending) and guilt us into feeling like they are as important as any other relationship. In fact, by default Facebook treats these ties as if they are just as important. Yes, they give you tools to modify who and what shows up in your newsfeed and they do make an attempt to show more updates from people you interact with on Facebook, but in the end all items are treated with the same visual weight. Every post is a reminder that you are or were (as Sean puts it) a shitty friend.

Real, long term relationships take work and a ton of effort. I think Facebook gives people an excuse to not put in the effort because we see virtually everything in a person's life via status updates, photos and over sharing  There's less of a reason to reach out to people, meet for coffee, go out for drinks, or make an effort to travel to see someone. Note I said "less", not "no"... that's where the effort and work comes into the relationship.

The key with connections and relationships is to:

  • be OK with endings
  • be OK with change (people change, especially with greater distance between "knowing" and "re-knowing" someone)
  • treat weak ties like weak ties
  • and borrowing from Merlin, put a handful of real people near the center of everything.

Yes, this is hard. Yes, I need to do a much better job at this. We all do. I am up for the challenge, though.

Equally important to maintaining connections is to be open to new connections. Leo's connection post has five tips on creating genuine connections:

  1. Be open to random connections. (Even if they don't last a lifetime, they can brighten the current moment.)
  2. Make time for the important relationships.
  3. Be open to who they are. (Notice your expectations of the other person and let them go. Be curious.)
  4. Be open to what happens. (Don't focus so much on your agenda, that you ignore the organic connection.)
  5. Be open about yourself. (Be the real you, not just the "good" side. Be vulnerable.)

So great. Definitely head over and read the rest of his post.

How do you handle (creating new and maintaining old) relationships in our more social/connected world? Please share in the comments!