What's the Real Cost of Convenience?

CC BY 2.0. Katy Warner

Tech innovations have made our lives easier in many ways, but not always better.

Convenience comes at a cost, they say, but what that cost is differs according to whom you ask. A zero waste advocate would talk about the environmental cost of single-use plastics. A finance blogger, like Mr. Money Mustache, sees the pursuit of convenience as a drain on one's bank account. Then there's David Cain, author of the Raptitude blog, who sees our modern pursuit of convenience at all costs as turning us into worse human beings because it atrophies our brains and bodies.

In a thought-provoking article called "The Danger of Convenience," Cain argues that the more advanced technology becomes, the more absurd the ways in which it's used, making possible "new levels of sedentariness and tech dependency." Take voice-controlled Google Home, for example, which will now start playing your favorite show when you ask it to, without having to get off the couch to find the remote. Cain writes:

"When we’re employing futuristic devices to do the easiest imaginable things, we’re probably making our lives worse. How convenient do we want things to be, really? Would we eliminate all bodily movement if it were possible? If a remote control sitting on the far arm of the couch has become a dilemma we want technology to solve for us, we may be heading straight into the realm of Wall-E, or a similar dystopia."

Not all inventions are bad. Cain points to ones offering significant labor-saving advantages, like washing machines, as worthwhile: "The inevitable loss of washboard skills throughout a society might not be so terrible." And obviously many of these inventions are enormously beneficial to people with physical disabilities.

But when we use our tech developments so as not to have to move or think, perhaps it is time to question what purpose they truly serve.

"This isn’t matter of moral judgment — everyone wants a different lifestyle, and I don’t begrudge anyone theirs. But I think it’s easy to overlook the downsides of the conveniences we adopt. I can’t be the only one who wants it to be less easy to plug my mind into a screen for three hours. Bring back the clunky old knobs!"

I can think of a few ways in which tech developments have weakened our human instincts and dulled our knowledge through lack of practice. Some readers may argue with me, preferring their high-tech versions, but these are skills I miss using on a regular basis (and that I do try to keep using... at least sometimes!).


People are becoming less adept at getting around as they rely more on GPS. Navigation requires practice. It takes skill to read paper maps, to orient oneself, to learn to look for landmarks, to pay attention to the sun's position. But now, with our GPS addiction, we "need a network of spaceships to do what once only required a paper map."


The food industry has developed to the point where we are completely disconnected from the source of our ingredients and don't even need to cook if we don't feel like it. We can have hot food delivered to our door or reheated in a microwave by pressing a few buttons. It's convenient, sure, but is it really benefiting us, physically and mentally? It is rather crazy, when you stop to think about it, that the most basic of human survival skills -- making food -- has become foreign to many modern humans.


Or, one could say, moving in general. Cars are ubiquitous, public transit is crummy (in North America), and Ubers are available at one's fingertips. Why bother walking a few blocks? Unfortunately we pay the price physically for being so stubbornly sedentary.


I'll quote Cain on this one:

"We are certainly worse at simply getting through our day without being entertained, and nobody could argue that’s a good thing. In 1988, the notion of watching a movie while waiting for a bus would have been unthinkable. Today, it’s becoming increasingly unthinkable to spend any time waiting without electronic entertainment."


A commenter drew my attention to this one. While many might say handwriting is passé, the fact is, when I had no Internet connection or devices to distract me, I spent a lot more time writing in journals (both while traveling and at home) and writing letters to friends and family. I don't do that anymore, not only because I write for a living, but also because it's hard! Writing with a pen cramps my hand; it's sloppy, barely legible. Yes, we've gained the convenience of email and texts and Instagram accounts full of gorgeous travel pictures, but gone are the 'slow travel' commentaries, the meditative thoughts transcribed onto paper only because there was nothing else to do with that time.

Are there any activities that you wish we could reclaim from technological innovations?