The Inconvenient Truth About Convenience

CC BY 2.0. Guillermo Fernandes -- Order a sandwich on your phone and Uber Eats will deliver it to your door in minutes.

Sometimes a bit of struggle is a good thing.

Tim Wu calls convenience "the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today." Writing for the New York Times, Wu delves into why and how everything in modern life -- from food prep to music downloads to online shopping to hopping in a taxi -- has been made as easy as possible, and what kind of effect this has on us as humans.

Wu's article describes two separate cultural waves of convenience. The first occurred in the early 20th century, as labor-saving devices were invented for the home, many adapted from industrial settings. People embraced these devices, thinking it would liberate them from labor and create the possibility of leisure for the first time. The second wave happened in the early 1980s, as personal technology kicked off with the invention of the Sony Walkman and has grown into the uber-connected, smartphone-driven world we now inhabit. He writes:

"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."

Now we live in a world in which convenience reigns as the most powerful force. If you don't believe that, stop for a moment to question your own habits. Do you throw clothes in the dryer instead of hanging them out? Do you buy takeout coffee on the run because you haven't got the time to make your own? Do you put your kids in the car and drive them to school because you're running late? Even when we know what is best, the vast majority of people still do what is easiest.

Ever since I read Wu's thought-provoking article earlier this week, I've been mulling it over. It felt particularly relevant, since I just finished reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic Farmer Boy to my kids, which recounts a hard mid-19th-century farming life in upstate New York that is the antithesis of convenience. Everything takes an immense amount of work, and all tasks are interconnected and necessary for survival. I've realized that there are a number of ways in which convenience undermines humanity. These include:

The devaluation of work: Mundane work used to be seen as a matter of pride and purpose, but now is often labeled as drudgery. It brings to mind a passage from Farmer Boy, in which Father refuses to rent a thresher that could do a season's threshing in three days because he can't imagine not spending his winter nights flailing grain by hand. Choosing manual work for work's sake would be unthinkable now. Efficiency, rather, is viewed as king.

Getting spoiled: Wu uses the example of buying tickets online being the norm. Many younger people cannot fathom the idea of standing in line for anything; hence, the lower voter turnout. I think that convenience also distorts many people's concepts of what's required to make something. It removes us from the source of, say, growing and making our own food, baking bread, sewing clothes, and more inclined to waste. It also makes us reluctant to work when we need to, because we haven't learned how to appreciate what Father would have called "an honest day's work."

Our health: The rise of convenience foods has led to poor nutrition and failing health. Because we don't have to make food from scratch anymore, there is far less incentive to do so. When Almanzo and his siblings want ice cream, they have to haul an ice block from the icehouse, milk a cow for cream, make a custard, wait for it to chill, then churn the whole batch by hand.

Making us too goal-oriented: As Wu says, convenience is all destination and no journey, and this causes people to miss out on valuable experiences along the way.

"Today's cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience... 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."

A homogenizing force: I hadn't thought of this before, but Wu points out that, paradoxically, "today’s technologies of individualization are technologies of mass individualization." He uses the example of Facebook:

"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."

And then there's the environment, which Wu doesn't mention, but immediately came to my mind: Think of the scourge of single-use plastics and how the expectation to shop and eat quickly or on the go has resulted in oceans that are full of non-biodegradable, toxin-leaching plastics. As I've written before, people's reluctance to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle is largely due to the fact that it's inconvenient.

I am no Luddite. I love my iPhone, couldn't live without a washing machine, and still use my car occasionally. I wouldn't want to wait for a cobbler to visit in order to get new boots, or for the tin peddler to arrive for a new baking pan. I appreciate being able to buy things as needed, to communicate with people with ease, to turn on my stove with the flick of a button, rather than building a fire.

But I also don't want my life to be so convenient that I lose track of what really matters, what value there is in work, and how performing these tasks might bring me and my family a deep sense of purpose. Nor do I want to take advantage of certain conveniences that are destructive to the planet. So I will continue to haul my baskets of wet laundry out to the back deck to hang. I will keep riding my bicycle as often as possible and hauling those glass jars to the bulk food store. I'll do my best to teach my kids that "nothing worth having comes easy."