What is convenience? What is its place?

A pejorative assessment of our relationship with the recent era of technological advancement, the proliferation of conveniences, labels us with having a “microwave mentality”. That we have lost the skill of patience; that we cannot tolerate even something so simple as buffering in our favorite song. This affliction causes us to spend too muchfail at weight loss, and hurting relationships.

But is it simply the inability to wait? Long lines outside of an Apple store before the newest Iphone would beg to differ. Maybe it is not just impatience but a desire for ease. An actual microwave isn’t only fast, but microwaved food requires next to no preparation. Tim Wu writes in the NYT:

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.

So is it this combination of easy and fast? Buying a song or an album from iTunes or Amazon or Google is now much easier and faster than Napster or Torrent sites ever were. But now, music sales are in rapid decline as streaming options like Spotify is taking over the music industry. What makes streaming services any easier than buying music? Streaming services admittedly provide access to a much larger library up front than one would get with purchases, and one also doesn’t have to worry about being left with albums that aren’t “hip” anymore. But none of this makes streaming “easier” or “faster”. Tim offers another example of supposed convenience winning out over even personal preferences:

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.

I’m not sure exactly how much easier or faster instant coffee is.  If I clocked the amount of time it takes for me to set my coffee machine to be prepared for the next day, it would probably be under 1 minute save for the pace of filtered water filling the pot. Setting a timer for following morning means I don’t even need to wait for when I actually want that first cup. Preparing a mug of hot water and the wait and stir for Starbucks instant would take approximately the same amount of time. So what’s the difference?

I would like to submit that, at least in part, what is really captured by appeals to convenience is the abdication of intentional living. The easy slippage into the unplanned path. It’s not that using a crockpot is harder than microwaving, it just requires thinking about the next meal hours before. It’s not that buying digital music is harder than streaming, but one must think about what music one really enjoys and would most like to listen to. It’s not that brewing coffee takes longer, but one must arrange for it in advance of when one wants to drink the coffee. In other words, one must live intentionally. Wu hits on this early in the piece but fails to make it the focus:

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.

I’m not interested in providing a comprehensive definition for convenience, to do so is beyond my expertise. What I am interested in is analyzing cultural and sociological critiques (among other things). Wu suggests that convenience is stupifying and homogenizing, and proffers the idea of doing the slow and the difficult in rebellion, in part to reclaim our individuality.

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.

I would like to take issue with this characterization of cooking, thrift, exercise, and hobbies as “non-instrumental”, but that isn’t within the scope of this piece so I’ll let it go. Wu is also characterizing the “non-instrumental” as inherently inconvenient, and while I could also take issue with this, I would like to point out the implicit reason why, and it’s not the offered reasons of the risk of failure or frustration: When we engage in our passions, we do so intentionally. Third wave CBT engages this when treating many cases of depression, by helping clients identify their values, set value aligned goals, and then getting them engaged in activities that align with their values and goals. But this is not simply a rebellion against convenience; successful therapy isn’t predicated on getting people to start handwashing their clothes and mindful handwashing of dishes. Convenience can be used intentionally.

In short, bemoaning a tyranny of convenience is, I believe to misplace the blame. Convenience is provided by technological and societal evolution in so many tools, and not every tool is right for just any job. The solution to a life feeling empty is not to reduce useful convenience, but to be intentional about the conveniences used.

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