Technologies of Mass Individualization
March 3, 2018 9:36 PM   Subscribe

The Tyranny of Convenience. "Given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, as a value, as a way of life — it is worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country. I don’t want to suggest that convenience is a force for evil. Making things easier isn’t wicked. On the contrary, it often opens up possibilities that once seemed too onerous to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries. But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear...."

"... Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us."....

"As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating. This is especially true for those who have never had to wait in lines (which may help explain the low rate at which young people vote)."
posted by storybored (79 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
There shoudn't be lines to vote. The reason they exist is purely the creation of people who are intentionally introducing irritation to push people out of voting because (surprise!) they want fewer people voting!

And I have a very hard time with "suffering is good for the soul" arguments like the one in this article.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:56 PM on March 3 [78 favorites]


This resonated with my experience reading job ads. Wher are all the jobs that require "sustained, extendd focus on one complex task"?

An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is “easy” is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for a life.
posted by ipsative at 10:14 PM on March 3 [10 favorites]


Well, from my personal perspective of being born in the 'mid-20th-century' and having developed a heart condition in the dawn of the 21st century that has slowly but effectively disabled me to the point where I can no longer imagine doing a lot of things that were no big deal 10-15 years ago, the new emphasis on Convenience (and the related Accommodation for Disability) has occurred at the exact right time for me. It's hard to believe that in spite of being in permanent debt, extremely alone and a multi-career failure, I'm enjoying life way too much. It may be Convenience (coupled with my obvious White Male Privilege). Or it may just be the serotonin uptake of the right daily antidepressant.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:30 PM on March 3 [31 favorites]


An essay after my own heart. My motto is "Slow the fuck down and do something right for a change."

(In case you don't know, this is based on Mark Zuckerberg's "Move fast and break things.")
posted by medusa at 10:35 PM on March 3 [26 favorites]




Coincidentally, this video has just been posted by Miss Cellania at Neatorama, demonstrating a collection of small modern-day INconveniences and titled "Life Is Pain".
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:37 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


According to polling, young people don't vote because they don't like the choices or they don't think it makes any difference. Cuz you'll notice that when it has an immediate, measurable effect--like, say, getting your first driver's license, an autograph from your favorite actor on a sci-fi show, or into the hottest club on Friday night--the kids will wait in line. These quasi-luddite thinkpieces make me tired.
posted by xyzzy at 11:10 PM on March 3 [47 favorites]




Do you know what the most insidious and corrupting convenience is?

Writing.

Instead of spending years training our memories, and then hours memorieing the words of our elders, we simply jot something down, and it's preserved effortlessly. Anyone can write ANYTHING with ease. It degrades the value of knowledge and learning, and keeps us from exercising ur memories. We become bloated with knowledge, indolent with the ability to let cold matter remember for us.

Which is why I say that anyone who agrees with this essay, take the fundamental step of discarding the convenience of writing, and train their minds instead. Most especially, Tim Wu and the other editorial contributors of the NYT should embrace this path.
posted by happyroach at 12:31 AM on March 4 [63 favorites]


Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper.

Tim Wu has never had to launder a load of clothes by hand.
posted by threetwentytwo at 1:11 AM on March 4 [115 favorites]


He probably washed a shirt or some gym clothes once and then put it on a drying rack.

He's never in his life washed sheets or blankets or towels or jeans or silk by hand.

Nor seen anyone else do it.
posted by sio42 at 1:47 AM on March 4 [20 favorites]


An infectious tyranny at that.
posted by filtergik at 4:15 AM on March 4


My issue with "convenience," especially when dealing with businesses as a consumer, is that the "convenience" that has been imposed seems entirely to have been built to benefit the company and not the customer, and almost always entails automating the point of contact to a fare-thee-well. Think: interminable phone trees, having to deal with an automated voice assistant that always ends up routing you to a real person anyway, etc.

Online support for some companies can be maddening. I seem to more and more encounter support that takes the form of lists of the supposedly most-common general problems/issues/questions customers have (which, unsurprisingly, always seem to shade toward promoting upsells rather than actually helping) while offering no easily accessed way to get help or information for a more specific, yet critical, problem.

"Convenience" often seems to be strictly equated with "eliminating person-to-person contact" no matter how inconvenienced your customer may be by it.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:32 AM on March 4 [25 favorites]


The comment section is closed - so I'll post in here what I was just about to post over there:

...The drive for "convenience" did not actually start in the 1950s, as Wu suggests. People have always sought some way to get out of doing the hard or annoying labor they didn't want to do. It's just that throughout much of human history, the "machine of convenience" in question was actually another human being rather than a machine - a slave, a hired servant, a housewife. These are the people who were actually doing the work and the hard struggle that many in power fancied themselves doing.

I think the current situation, where these machines of convenience are actual machines and a great many more people are freed up to pursue their own agendas as well, is a far greater one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:33 AM on March 4 [62 favorites]


Tim Wu has never had to launder a load of clothes by hand.

But based on his conviction that household appliances eliminate physical work, he does seem to have extensive experience with washing machines and vacuum cleaners in the sense that he has read other think pieces about them or maybe even watched his mother operate one.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:49 AM on March 4 [17 favorites]


I'd like to join Thorzdad in decrying the corporate use of the word. They flat-out lie most of the times they tell us they're changing something "for your convenience." I had a mortgage with ING, the online bank. It worked well, and I knew how to make their website do what I needed it to do. Then Capital One bought ING, and started inflicting "convenience" on me. It seemed like every month, there was an additional step I had to learn before I could get to the page I needed. I complained to CustoServe, but got the usual mushy excuses and meaningless apologies. Most of the changes made me have to reset my password, of course. I was really glad when I could end that relationship.

I've also noted the increasing uselessness of online help systems. It's just as Thorzdad says -- FAQ pages that don't address my problem, "Live Agent" functions that usually don't function, hard-to-find phone numbers that give me byzantine systems full of irrelevant options, and when I finally find a "speak to a representative" choice, there's a really long wait time. Last time that happened, I tried the "call me back" option, and it did cll me back. Then it promptly put me on hold for many minutes.

These things have nothing whatever to do with my convenience, and I wish they'd stop lying about it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:00 AM on March 4 [18 favorites]


Holy heck, yes, people have not suddenly changed in the past n years. There’s a museum in Osaka about life back before Japan opened back up to the west, and, among other things, there is basically a book shop where one of the items on display is titled, essentially, “quick and easy meals.” (There’s also woodblock prints of kabuki performers, which seem so much fancier because they’re Old and thus Important, until you find out that they were the day’s straight up equivalent of posters of your favorite band, though this is neither here nor there. I just really like this fact.)

The Good Old Days have this funny way of having always been, and never being.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:03 AM on March 4 [19 favorites]


I really wish that when people pen pieces like this, they would acknowledge that they are, in fact, are arguing against parts of human nature, not inanimate objects (phones), or concepts (convenience). Except one assumes that's just no fun, and would require a heady amount of self-awareness that might make them feel poopy.

Yes, better to rail against stuff, and things!
posted by gsh at 5:05 AM on March 4 [6 favorites]


I wouldn't say this is a uniquely American trait - it's a human one. (Perhaps even not Human - you could argue dogs and cats domesticated themselves in pursuit of a convenient life. It's probably a universal goal of life.)
There shoudn't be lines to vote. The reason they exist is purely the creation of people who are intentionally introducing irritation to push people out of voting because (surprise!) they want fewer people voting!
I live in the UK and despite similar turnout at votes to the US, I've always voted and never had to wait in a line to vote. Perhaps somewhere (or at times I haven't visited) people are queuing, but it's definitely not in the various inner-city polling stations I've been to. The distribution and staffing of polling stations is clearly a political issue.

I get the desire to say "we shouldn't embrace being lazy", but ultimately there's no obligation to do or use any of the things that make life convenient. Why is it a bad thing that people spend more time doing things they enjoy (whatever they may be) and less time doing things they hate?

I enjoy cooking, so I cook most evenings. There's probably hundreds of different pre-made food options available for rapid heating at my local supermarket, and countless more takeaways around. However, just because I enjoy cooking doesn't mean that everyone does. What's wrong with allowing people the choice of how to spend their time?
It's just that throughout much of human history, the "machine of convenience" in question was actually another human being rather than a machine - a slave, a hired servant, a housewife. These are the people who were actually doing the work and the hard struggle that many in power fancied themselves doing.
This really captures it. The average woman spends half the time on housework today that they did in the 60s. I bet if you had data going back earlier you'd find it's fallen even further. Convenience in all its forms gives everyone, not just wealthy men supported by their wives, children and servants, the ability to choose how they spend their time. If you want to do housework for 44 hours a week, go wild. You just don't have to any more.
My issue with "convenience," especially when dealing with businesses as a consumer, is that the "convenience" that has been imposed seems entirely to have been built to benefit the company and not the customer, and almost always entails automating the point of contact to a fare-thee-well. Think: interminable phone trees, having to deal with an automated voice assistant that always ends up routing you to a real person anyway, etc.
I think this isn't really convenience at all, just money saving masquerading as convenience. That's dishonesty by corporations. It's not actually surprising that new businesses offering "true" convenience are starting to replace those that just claim to.
posted by leo_r at 5:13 AM on March 4 [17 favorites]


Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

Yep, that was my first though: Jello warned us about this 30 years ago.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:28 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


But is physical work always a nightmare?

Yes, unless you specifically chose to do it rather than have it done for you by a machine.

Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it?

No, we really want to be emancipated from all of it that we do not specifically choose to do for whatever reasons make sense to us.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:30 AM on March 4 [20 favorites]


Make no mistake: Waiting in hours-long lines for voting is purely the privilege of minorities and the poor. In Republican-controlled states, any Republican-majority precincts will be generously-stocked with voting locations where citizens do not have to wait at all, and the whole process will take less time than ordering takeout from McDonald’s.

Source: Me, having voted in various precincts in North Carolina.
posted by ardgedee at 5:46 AM on March 4 [19 favorites]


It is so easy to wax poetic about work you will never have to do.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:50 AM on March 4 [42 favorites]


A problem with certain kinds of convenience is that it isn't really convenient in the grand scheme of things, it just raises expectations. For instance, as labor-saving devices for the home became available, the standards to which middle and working class housekeeping were held became steeper - it wasn't just "oh, I can get this task done faster, now I can loaf!" it was "this task should be done more often and to a higher standard".

And there are the conveniences with external costs - the packaging of disposable products, the labor abuse, the way that a lot of "convenient" services are only possible if you have a large, underemployed, precarious workforce who have no choice but to do an hour's work at low pay at the drop of a hat so that you can have a burrito in your living room at 1am, even if that type of work destroys their life and health.

I think that for many kinds of "convenience", we can't really understand them as convenient under capitalism. Some conveniences we probably shouldn't have at all absent substantial technological change - like, with current technologies, even in utopia it probably doesn't make sense to have drop-of-the-hat food deliveries or Uber rather than real mass transit. In utopia, it's reasonable to say, "at current levels of technology, people with disabilities should be able to have all the individual transit and food delivery they need, but without some big changes in various technologies, people who can ride the bus and limit their food delivery needs should do so".

The problem really isn't convenience, it's extreme capitalism. In an economically egalitarian and reasonably environmentally sound society, whether radically social democratic or actually socialist, the kinds of convenience that depend on mile-high garbage dumps and desperate workers wouldn't be possible and we'd be able to use the remainder more judiciously.
posted by Frowner at 6:01 AM on March 4 [22 favorites]


This reminded me of Holbo's classic piece on Donner party conservatism, which contains a quote from Orwell (Road to Wigan Pier, natch) that says all that needs to be said about the argument presented:
“So long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap … Deliberately to revert to primitive methods, to use archaic tools, to put silly difficulties in your own way, would be a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness. It would be like solemnly sitting down to eat your dinner with stone implements. Revert to handwork in a machine age, and you are back in Ye Old Tea Shoppe or the Tudor villa with the sham beams tacked to the wall."
posted by PMdixon at 6:13 AM on March 4 [10 favorites]


The mistake some optimists made was to assume that convenience carried within itself a ideology - that just by virtue of the fact that we could do things more easily, we'd decide to share the benefits of ease rather than up the expectations, up the competition and route the profits to the 1%. Unchecked market convenience is always going to go off the rails, not because it's ipso facto bad to have things when you want them but because inequality is bad.

On an "is convenience bad for the spirit" level: It is, if it's convenience for the few. If everyone has it, it's just normal. It's the conveniences that aren't democratized that cause the rot - lives of ease for the top 10%, hard work for the rest; hearing aids and good prosthetics and medical assistance for rich people who need them, and doing without or outdated models for everyone else. And the rot is two-fold - for the rich, learning to become people who don't give a damn about ordinary humans as long as hot and cold running luxury is available, and for the poor, knowing that their lives are harder, shorter and completely invisible in the service of the rich.
posted by Frowner at 6:17 AM on March 4 [20 favorites]


Every convience has a price somewhere down the line. Its like pushing a knot down a piece of rope, at some point the knot tightens so much that there's no getting it out. Just look at the mass of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. All that plastic wrapped stuff/food was mighty convient once...
posted by WalkerWestridge at 6:44 AM on March 4 [7 favorites]


That link at the top of the article to “leer en español” was super convenient. Maybe more people would vote if they could access unbiased election coverage in their preferred language in a convenient fashion.
posted by Missense Mutation at 6:55 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


This article made me think about the idea of frustration tolerance, and I do think we as a society are encouraging that idea that everything should be easy, and I think there are downsides to that. It also seems to go along with the idea that people who succeed have "natural talent" and that others shouldn't try, or are just bad people who can't succeed. There's a narcissism in assuming that everyday frustrations are somehow beneath one.

There's of course a spectrum, and things that are inaccessible for people with disabilities should not, I think, count in the grand scheme of things as "everyday frustrations" but should be addressed, but I'm not sure that smart phone apps that send low-paid workers to do things without ever needing to interact with you is the best way of addressing that, for the system as a whole.
posted by lazuli at 6:56 AM on March 4 [6 favorites]


All that plastic wrapped stuff/food was mighty convient once...

This touched on another aspect of convenience that doesn’t get enough attention: what is convenient for some people is most assuredly not for others. Blister packs, to give one example, are certainly convenient for manufacturers and retailers, but not for consumers (or the environment).
posted by TedW at 7:06 AM on March 4 [9 favorites]


My motto is "Slow the fuck down and do something right for a change."

I've forgotten where I came by it, but expressing the same sentiment: "If you can't find the time to do something correctly, when are you ever going to find the time to do it over?"
posted by rochrobbb at 7:10 AM on March 4 [11 favorites]


So, I'm glad that this guy's life is going so great that convenience is threatening to erase the "struggles and challenges" that make us human, but as a poor queer disabled woman I have had and still have PLENTY of struggles in my life that no amount of instant meals or laundry machines will erase. Most people have plenty to struggle for and all these conveniences help them, idk, not collapse under the massive weight of it. If you aren't struggling it's convenience; if you are it's what you do to survive without being overwhelmed.

This whole article is just one big "it builds character!" argument and skirts dangerously close to the same reasons SNAP recipients can't buy hot food.
posted by brook horse at 7:20 AM on March 4 [28 favorites]


Donner party

The main thing to remember about the Donner party disaster is, it was caused by dudes who were sure they knew better than the conventional wisdom and that there was a shortcut from the normal trail.
posted by thelonius at 7:21 AM on March 4 [12 favorites]


The waiting in line to vote thing is infuriating, and it suggests to me that he doesn't understand how ordinary people's lives work. The problem with waiting in line to vote isn't that people are self-indulgent convenience-maniacs who can't deal with waiting. It's that most people (and especially most people who are targeted for long voting lines) don't lead the pampered, flexible lives of Ivy League college professors. Ordinary people have to be at work at a particular time and get in trouble if they're late. They have to pick their kids up from daycare by a particular time, and they get charged exorbitant fees if they're not there by that time. Or they pick their kids up at daycare and take them when they go to stand in line to vote, but the kids are tired and hungry after an hour, and it's humiliating to have your kid have a big public meltdown at the polling place because it's 7:00 PM and they're hungry and cranky. They park at meters and can't afford the ticket if their meter runs out, or they rely on buses that don't come very often. They have disabilities that make it hard to stand for two hours or that make them need to pee before they get to the front of the line. This isn't about some sort of vague emotional comfort with inconvenience. It's about the actual way people's lives work, and the pressures on our time.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:49 AM on March 4 [65 favorites]


My issue with "convenience," especially when dealing with businesses as a consumer, is that the "convenience" that has been imposed seems entirely to have been built to benefit the company and not the customer, and almost always entails automating the point of contact to a fare-thee-well.

If you haven't watched the latest episode of the X-Files for a horror riff on exactly this, you are seriously missing out.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:51 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Has Wu ever read Ruth Schwartz Cowan's More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave? More gadgets, higher expectations, increased workload for women because of greater convenience.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:53 AM on March 4 [13 favorites]


No, we really want to be emancipated from all of it that we do not specifically choose to do for whatever reasons make sense to us.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:30 AM on March 4



Eponyobvious.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:55 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


The waiting in line to vote thing is infuriating, and it suggests to me that he doesn't understand how ordinary people's lives work.

It's on the NYT editorial page, so of course if you ask the question "How does this advance the goals of their Nazi friends?," you can arrive at a kinda-plausible answer.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:11 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


I rarely think in terms of convenience. Rather, I have long subscribed to the *nix philosophy of simplicity: 10% of the time, effort and treasure solves 90% of any problem. And 90% solutions are almost always adequate. I suppose that might be a form of convenience...
posted by jim in austin at 8:16 AM on March 4 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to consider the shift from "everyone who is middle class or up has servants and rich people have huge numbers of them". In the 19th century through WWI in the UK, for instance, the displacements and changes wrought by modernity meant that even average middle class women had one or possibly two full time servants. Between WWI and WWII, employment possibilities changed dramatically and people -especially younger people - left service in droves, hence the "servant problem" that one sees referenced in novels of the period. Working conditions for the remaining servants often improved. The market in "labor saving" devices increased and rhetoric around "being ladylike" changed. (There were also many laws and public initiatives passed to try to force working people into service.)

If you read about upper middle class or upper class people after about 1850, they didn't know how to do shit - they couldn't boil water or cook an egg. People would ring for a servant to pick things up off the floor. They didn't know how to maintain their houses and had no idea of the amount and kind of labor involved, like washing the front steps every day or blacking the stove or polishing all the brass handles in the house. Even regular middle class people who worked in with servants to a certain extent wouldn't know how to clean the fireplace or black the stove. In this sense, their lives were very "convenient", and this was possible because of the intense desperation of many working people. Being in service was not, with certain rare exceptions, considered a particularly good career - many people would rather live in miserable conditions than go into service.

Between the wars, there was a rollback of this kind of "convenience". After WWII, the more essential parts of it were replaced by the welfare state - whether rich or poor, the sick and disabled both had access to baseline services, visiting nurses, etc. (Obviously rich people paid for luxury services, but it was no longer a situation where a rich invalid had help and a poor one was on their own.)

Rich people kicked and kicked and kicked, of course, but in the palmy period after the war there wasn't nearly as much they could do about it.

What I take away from all of that is that it is possible to roll back unjust "conveniences" without the world falling apart, and it's possible to provide truly necessary services to everyone - it's not a "convenience" to get your meals delivered if you're sick and you can't cook, it's not a "convenience" to have someone drive you to the library or wherever if you can't drive yourself. Those are necessary services, like the bus or street sweeping. Life was a lot less convenient for the well-off when they stopped being able to afford chauffeurs and had to learn to use the stove, but nobody died.
posted by Frowner at 8:29 AM on March 4 [29 favorites]


If Americans, especially, love convenience, maybe give us a break here, as we're otherwise expected to self-manage healthcare, childcare, tax law, retirement, and a host of other daily activities for which reasonable countries provide entire bureaucracies.
posted by nev at 8:35 AM on March 4 [35 favorites]


The waiting in line to vote thing is infuriating, and it suggests to me that he doesn't understand how ordinary people's lives work.
Going back to the voting issue, I was using Vote By Mail (which we in California call "Absentee Ballots") more than a decade before I was Officially Disabled. In fact, I decided to begin avoiding the Election Day Polling Place right after the only election I remember missing... November 1984, I was planning to vote after leaving work for the day, but I received a call at 10AM that my mother had suddenly died and I then relied on my boss's secretary to book me a quick airline flight to Phoenix to be with my father (a classic case of using another person for convenience).

Today, the latest convenience service I've become aware of is Instacart, which home delivers almost everything you can buy at the major chain grocery stores in the area. At a higher price than shelf prices... and without the benefit of the coupons I spend time clipping. The difference is more than a little greater than the cost of the Disability Bus Service that takes me from my front door to the store's front door. But then, it really isn't available to me, because my home is in the territory that is between one town and another, which I intentionally moved to several years ago... you know, for the convenience of access to both towns. But there's something about never needing to leave home to shop which feels like too much convenience... no, make that too much disability.

And nev's point is very valid... even now that I'm on Medicare, I have to deal with American medical inconveniences, most notably forms to fill out and unexpectedly high co-pays. Semi-ironically, the underfunding of the Social Security Administration has granted me the convenience of longer periods between having to go to the SS office to "update" my Disability status (and having a Primary Doctor with a lot of patients on Disability helps by having his staff know how to fill out a lot of my forms... more convenience by another person).
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:56 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


This article seems to conflate tedium with challenge. The difference is that I don’t feel a sense of growth and achievement when completing the dishwashing by hand, but I do when I master a rock climb or piece of music.

If a “convenience” gets me less time doing the first one and makes more available for doing the other two, that’s an unmitigated good to me.

Also, conveniences driven by capital goals of which I am a consumer are pretty different, but I feel that’s been well articulated already.
posted by Cogito at 9:21 AM on March 4 [11 favorites]


The average woman spends half the time on housework today that they did in the 60s.

So I'm trying to dispose of my mom's estate, and it includes things like her flour sifter, rolling pin, and biscuit cutter. I don't know if she'd used them in the last 20 years, but she kept them. In her last years, she couldn't have made dishes she used to cook regularly, and was glad there were easier versions.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:50 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


I think people are missing the point of this article. There are a few bad examples - lines for voting, for instance, though they do exist in major cities for citizens both rich and poor - but the core message, that we are essentially outsourcing most of the minutia of our lives, potentially to our peril, is solid. Nobody's worse off for the invention of washing machines, but we are definitely worse off for the invention of Facebook. We are definitely worse off for the growing omnipotence of Amazon. These cancers grow because they are easy and convenient, though eventually they become inescapable and mandatory. And, spoiler alert, the utopia of endless leisure, no matter what the theoretical instrument, will never come. Those in power will always, without cessation, work to manipulate the less powerful to their benefit. If they can, at the same time, make those same people feel like it is their choice, like they are somehow empowered - to the point that they rail against criticism of the very forces that have it out for them - then so much the better.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:58 AM on March 4 [14 favorites]


This didn't even occur to me when I read this a week ago and went on a rant to everyone who would listen about women still having to do a ton of housework, but after reading the discussion here, I feel like Wu really tipped his hand by bringing up lines for voting. Because there's a tendency among a lot of good liberals to nod along with arguments about how convenience is evil, how "consumer culture" or "car culture" or whatever people choose because it's easier is unvirtuous, and we should really cook everything from scratch and make everything by hand and take the bus, and so on. But who is more likely not to vote because it's "inconvenient"? Not wealthy Republicans. So maybe "convenience" isn't the right word. Maybe it's actually kind of pejorative and trivializing when we're talking about obstacles to participation in a democracy. And maybe then it's also kind of pejorative and trivializing for other aspects of people's lives.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 9:59 AM on March 4 [16 favorites]


My question is this: After the author had excluded key conveniences from his life, who appraised the subsequent improvement of his character?

Was it self-assessed? What was the ratio of inconvenience to smugness? How did his self-managed time change, and is the change expressible in seconds or options?

Wait a minute. I’m scrolling the whole screed and there’s not a single graph or footnote.

I’m starting to think this isn’t serious at all — it’s just some privileged jerk yelling at kids to stop providing fodder for the prejudices of his aging brain. Yet another face of the historically persistent geriatric delusion of culture’s accelerating decline. Oy vey. Next!
posted by Construction Concern at 10:08 AM on March 4 [9 favorites]


If you read about upper middle class or upper class people after about 1850, they didn't know how to do shit - they couldn't boil water or cook an egg.

Realistically, probably 80% of Mefites, confronted with 1850s-era equipment, would not know offhand how to boil water or cook an egg, much less do some of the more involved cleaning tasks you mention. I know I wouldn't, and I cook and clean for myself now. Which is why I can't be so enthusiastic about the horrors of convenience. Though I agree it's important to be alert to false convenience.
posted by praemunire at 10:26 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Realistically, probably 80% of Mefites, confronted with 1850s-era equipment, would not know offhand how to boil water or cook an egg

This makes me think of the Jeeves and Wooster where Wooster doesn't want anyone to know he has a manservant because he's trying to impress his friend Richard "Bingo" Little's Communist romantic interest. He ends up in the kitchen staring befuddledly as only 90's-era Hugh Laurie can at a page in a book that reads, "Tea, To Make."
posted by Ralston McTodd at 10:31 AM on March 4 [9 favorites]


A fairly lame article with a wishywashy theme. I just turned up the thermostat because I have a cold, would the inconvenient alternative, cutting down a tree, splitting the wood, hauling it into the stove be better for me/society long term? Avoiding the issue of oil heat an example of a small country that did not build out some social "convenience" infrastructure is Haiti, and all it's forests were cut down, a major contributing factor to it's current slew of crisis's. I've given a slightly wacky example but making daily tasks easy does not make me or society weaker.
posted by sammyo at 10:49 AM on March 4 [4 favorites]


I have a hard time trusting anyone whose core argument is "life is too easy and not challenging enough."
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 10:51 AM on March 4 [20 favorites]


We are definitely worse off for the growing omnipotence of Amazon. These cancers grow because they are easy and convenient

Oh god, no no no no no.

A thing I feel like I constantly need to remind people of is that not everyone has an easy and frolicksome life where they can just pop over to the store after work and get their necessities. I don't get home from my day until after the shops in my city are closed. If Amazon didn't exist I wouldn't be able to get a lot of important things that can't wait a full six days. And that's leaving aside the disability aspects.
posted by corb at 11:05 AM on March 4 [20 favorites]


Delivery groceries are not the evil part. It is consolidation of that service to one vendor -- Amazon - and integration of that vendor across multiple verticals, soon to include health care. The hoarding of power under the guise of convenience.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:10 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


A thing I feel like I constantly need to remind people of is that not everyone has an easy and frolicksome life where they can just pop over to the store after work and get their necessities. I don't get home from my day until after the shops in my city are closed. If Amazon didn't exist I wouldn't be able to get a lot of important things that can't wait a full six days. And that's leaving aside the disability aspects.

Or the "people do, in fact, live in areas where access to a wide number of retailers is not available" aspect. There are a lot of things where, for myself, the only option to buy an item is Amazon or travel hours to a larger city.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:16 AM on March 4 [8 favorites]


There used to be mail-order catalogs for the geographically isolated. There was competition, too, with Sears & Roebuck challenged by Montgomery Ward and other, smaller companies. Now, even when I think I'm buying from an independent vendor, it often arrives in an Amazon box.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:23 AM on March 4 [8 favorites]


Also, those mail-order places took orders over the phone, which made delivery potentially as fast as today's online vendors. I don't think they ever reached that potential, because they didn't have today's picking and packing efficiencies, but the possibility was there. An increasing amount of the time, I wind up placing orders over the phone, after wasting time on a website that won't take my money. Web developers, you're putting too many widgety scripts in your product, and are on the verge of killing the golden goose with them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:34 AM on March 4


The wealthy elite are desperate to maintain the illusion that labor is the ultimate representation of human virtue. Tim Wu is even willing to get out his washboard to prove to the aspirational classes that, look, the NYTimes values labor! Even the mere suggestion of things like UBI make them itch. Millions of people without a 9-5 job to define their personality and preoccupy their stupid minds? Terrifying.
posted by laptolain at 12:58 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


The wealthy elite are desperate to maintain the illusion that labor is the ultimate representation of human virtue...Millions of people without a 9-5 job to define their personality and preoccupy their stupid minds? Terrifying.

And, yet, they endeavor to eliminate as many jobs as possible, either directly or via legislation.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:05 PM on March 4


All Tim Wu is really saying is, there's noninstrumental value in activities such as learning to play an acoustic instrument, learning a sport, and learning maths and sciences.

That's all there really is in the last 3 paragraphs. It's serving to dispel two illusions, one the illusion that people shouldn't master arts because the process is so tedious and laborious and the result could be automated by e.g. a music player; and two the illusion that people should study science because it is socially productive/useful.

The reason is that both of these are technocratic ideologies that capitalism exploits.

I think that's all the essay is really saying, and there's no need to worry about what exactly Tim Wu is saying right or wrong beyond this. I wouldn't let the angst about, e.g. "so hand laundering okay or not???", distract from the main take-away points.
posted by polymodus at 1:14 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


"With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life."

I am unconvinced. I'm pretty sure that even if my home were the platonic ideal of self-cleaning, self-servicing, never-even-have-to-think-about-it convenience, there would still be plenty of struggles and challenges in my life. Illness. Heartbreak. The utter desolation of losing someone you love because life just works that way. Streaming TV or moving sidewalks are not going to remove those struggles from my life. If automation and convenience can free up five minutes of my day that I can devote to coping, meditating, self-care, caring for others - that's a good thing.
posted by kristi at 1:15 PM on March 4 [12 favorites]


>And, yet, they endeavor to eliminate as many jobs as possible, either directly or via legislation.

Without intervention the economy will automate and eliminate jobs for a profit if it can. Rather than use political will to control the economy the elite would rather turn the lower classes against each other. Look over there, they say, the problem is that you're not working hard enough, it has nothing to do with the fact that we have all the money.
posted by laptolain at 1:16 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


All Tim Wu is really saying is, there's noninstrumental value in activities such as learning to play an acoustic instrument, learning a sport, and learning maths and sciences.

Then perhaps he could have put a bit more labor into the writing of this essay so as to make that point more clear, instead of talking about the "labor-saving convenience movement" of the 1950s - which, it must be said, has precisely nothing to do with learning to play an acoustic instrument, learning a sport, or learning maths and sciences.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:25 PM on March 4 [20 favorites]


I agree with the premise that too much convenience is bad for us... though I'd frame it more in terms of cognitive complexity than convenience. Many complex tasks are simplified by machines and it can be hard for kids to understand how actually difficult many good-paying jobs are... for example, product design doesn't mean scribbling a picture and handing it off to a robot to print... coding doesn't mean dragging and dropping commands... 6 weeks to build the robot doesn't mean that on the last day of week 6 you are physically attaching the arm without wiring, programming or testing it... you have to think through the issues that can result before even starting, you have to pay attention to the process, there can be problems with your results, you might have go back and re-do your work, etc.

Maybe teenagers have always been thus, but I teach inner city kids who spend a lot of time with apps and they are often VERY unwilling to attempt anything that seems like it will be difficult, or to persist in the face of difficulties. And part of it is that they struggle outside of school and don't get enough sleep, but I really do thing the expectation of convenience/expectation of magic technology/raised expectations for academic productivity plays a role.
posted by subdee at 1:28 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


"Mastery" is one of the frequently cited characteristics of "work that people enjoy". When convenience obviates mastery, I see his point. That's not always the case, of course.
posted by unknowncommand at 1:38 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Then perhaps he could have put a bit more labor into the writing of this essay so as to make that point more clear, instead of talking about the "labor-saving convenience movement" of the 1950s - which, it must be said, has precisely nothing to do with learning to play an acoustic instrument, learning a sport, or learning maths and sciences.

Exactly! As it is, the article comes across as praising that "it builds character" crap beloved of get-off-my-lawn types and satirized by Calvin and Hobbes. No, suffering is not good for the soul, and no, drudgery does not "build character."

Not quite as bad as those who rhapsodize about getting back to the land without a clue as to what a grind the subsistence farming lifestyle was and is, and how eager women and young people in particular were/are to escape it - but maddening nonetheless.

And I can't help but notice that so many of those who go on about how chores build character, what we've lost by convenience, yak yak yak, are men of privilege - who, traditionally, had women and/or servants do the scut work. (Thoreau's mom did his laundry!)

If you want to say "put in the effort to learn mastery of a craft," say so and don't bring neo-Luddism into it.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:44 PM on March 4 [13 favorites]


All Tim Wu is really saying is, there's noninstrumental value in activities such as learning to play an acoustic instrument, learning a sport, and learning maths and sciences.
That's great, but it sort of contradicts the rest of what he's saying. It's hard to learn a sport or instrument if you're spending two hours each way on the bus out to Walmart to get stuff that he thinks you shouldn't be ordering from Amazon. Ideally, "convenience" should allow you to choose to work at things that mean something to you, rather than spending all your time working at things that you have to do just to survive. I scrub my bathtub because I want a clean bathtub and nobody else is going to do it, but I don't think there's any virtue in doing it, and I would like to do it as efficiently as possible so I have time to do other things.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:44 PM on March 4 [11 favorites]


As far as "what's wrong with making the things I hate more convenient so I can spend more time doing the things I like", aside from the fact that increased convenience doesn't actually result in more free time for the working class, there's also the fact that a lot of difficult tasks ARE fun, once you get into them.

That's what it means to be in "flow" zone, right? So you can learn to play an instrument, learn to program, learn to sew your own clothes and those things are fun, once you get into them. But if you are used to thinking that easy=good and hard=bad, you'll never even get the chance to find out if you would have enjoyed these other, harder but maybe more ultimately rewarding things.
posted by subdee at 1:55 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


I can only speak for myself, and not for the entire "working class," but I have actually done some of those things (learned to code, taken a university stats class) while holding down a full-time job recently, and anecdotally, things like Trader Joe's frozen meals have made it a whole lot easier. There are only so many hours in a day, and every hour I spend on mundane household labor like the stuff he's talking about is an hour that I can't spend doing my stats homework. I still have to do the mundane household labor, but "convenience" gives me the time to do anything else.

(And now, funnily enough, break time is over, and I have to put in a load of laundry and get back to my stats homework.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:06 PM on March 4 [14 favorites]


aside from the fact that increased convenience doesn't actually result in more free time for the working class

Maybe that's true for some nebulous statistical working class but I can tell you as a working class person with plenty of working class anecdotes that with my free 4 hours a day I'd rather be playing video games than sewing new shirts for myself. I guess that makes me a dumb unambitious flow-lacking poor person though.
posted by laptolain at 2:09 PM on March 4 [14 favorites]


aside from the fact that increased convenience doesn't actually result in more free time for the working class

But it should and that's the entire reason why Mr Privilege's argument is bull. When I was (to harp on a theme) washing loads of washing by hand it took easily two or three hours and, most importantly, physical labour that exceeded anything else I ever did, including 8 hours farm work a day.

Also, its almost impossible to underestimate (and its barely studied at all, really) how massively tiring it is to be poor, and that's something that someone in the economic position of Mr Wu his entire life will never, ever understand.
posted by threetwentytwo at 2:16 PM on March 4 [12 favorites]


I remember shopping for books before Amazon and before big Borders or Barnes & Noble stores. It was all small mall bookstores. It sucked, if your tastes weren’t mainstream. I can’t hate Amazon, because I have no desire to go back to that.
posted by Anne Neville at 2:52 PM on March 4 [8 favorites]


Your average servant from circa 1850 would probably have trouble figuring out modern kitchen appliances, too. It’s hard to learn to use appliances that are far from what you’re used to. The skills needed for daily life change, and not knowing how to do something you’ve never had to do before doesn’t mean you’re lazy or corrupt or whatever.
posted by Anne Neville at 2:57 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Average mefites not knowing how to use 1850s kitchen appliances has absolutely nothing to do with the question of convenience. The point about the 1850s was that because of injustice, wealthy people were able to remain dead ignorant of even the most basic tasks while also expecting a very high level of convenience and expecting to be able to pay an army of workers a pittance to pick up their dropped handkerchiefs, black the stoves, polish the boots, etc. It is impossible to envision a just society where one small class of people has so much money that they can afford to be totally ignorant of even the most rudimentary skills of daily life, or where that class of people has so much power that they can keep wages down enough to be totally ignorant, etc. The point isn't that it's moral or immoral to be able to polish brass or make a meringue or use a mangle, the point is that it's immoral to want a life where your convenience - genuine convenience, not "I have a health condition which makes cleaning hard, so I need help" - is based on inequality.

The problem with the rich of 1850 was not literally that they walked into the kitchen and could not intuit how to black the stove; it's that their lives were predicated on the poverty and suffering of the actual stove-blackers.
posted by Frowner at 3:09 PM on March 4 [10 favorites]


The point about the 1850s was that because of injustice, wealthy people were able to remain dead ignorant of even the most basic tasks

And my point is that the most "basic" task in 1850 was considerably more involved than it is today. Not being able to boil water sounds ridiculous to someone who knows you have only to put the water in a pot and turn on the burner. It's so easy we have to worry about little kids accidentally turning the stove on. For an 1850s cast-iron stove, you'd actually have to build the fire first!

I'm actually not sure it's too useful to talk about the use of the labor of others in the past as a convenience device. If "convenience" means "sparing me the labor to get something," yes. If it means "getting things quickly, cheaply, with very short lead-itimes without the labor," no. Premodern households were unwieldy beasts.
posted by praemunire at 4:44 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


This piece is problematic but there's a kernel of truth. Even just in the last 10 years, the basics of daily life have gotten much easier -- I can order cheap and high-quality clothes that last a lot longer than the stupid stuff from the mall, my car is approximately a thousand times more safe and reliable, I no longer worry about getting lost while I'm traveling, I no longer worry about getting stuck somewhere without a ride home. But some things are still hard -- like Euclid said, there's no royal road to geometry, you still have to work incredibly hard to learn things and make new things.

And some things have actually gotten much more competitive. Like Harry Potter said, the other side can do magic too. If you're applying to college or a job, many of the other students also had the same tools, so you have to work just as hard to stand out. Even pre-school admissions have gotten cutthroat -- as parents have spent less time keeping the house clean, they've spent more time obsessing over making the perfect toddlers.

I do think a lot of people extrapolate the convenience of daily life and wrongly assume that other things should be equally easy. The percentage of my coworkers who have spent 2 hours making a Squarespace web site and think they are suddenly going to be millionaire startup owners for their idea is rapidly approaching 100%. If I have a robot that can recognize my voice living in my house, then of course my app idea for revolutionizing the truck bed liner industry will be an easy win.

Convenience in some ways is like inflation. The basics of life are easier, so we have more time. So every activity that takes time seems easier. But everyone else has that extra time too, so we're back where we started. I think that's what the essay is driving at, although it doesn't really get its point across.
posted by miyabo at 8:31 PM on March 4 [4 favorites]


If we want people to slow down and work on their higher selves through the beauty of caring for things manually, we probably need to:

- create urban, surburban, and rural spaces that give people access to adequate and efficient transportation, and provides housing close to where they work, are educated, and create community
- provide at least a living wage within the confines of 40 hours a week of work
- ramp down the "winner takes all" society so that people like me don't feel like they have to push their family's time and energy a little bit to position their kids adequately in skills
- related: provide education that is valuable and useful, since a lot of what we teach right now teaches kids that what they do is not very aligned with outcomes
- provide social supports like healthcare and education at costs that do not require people to rush around madly trying to pay off debt for 23432342 years

As a sandwiched member of Gen-X rushing between getting my MIL to her blood lab, my kids to school and activities, and working more than 45 hrs a week even though I took a career step backwards which sometimes worries me financially...bite me, dude.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:07 AM on March 5 [8 favorites]


Convenience in some ways is like inflation. The basics of life are easier, so we have more time. So every activity that takes time seems easier. But everyone else has that extra time too, so we're back where we started.
I don't think I buy that. A lot of what he discusses is domestic labor. People weren't all doing that work equally in the past. We don't all have equal access to modern conveniences. (Do you have a clothes washer and drier in your home? If not, can you afford drop-off service at the laundromat, or do you spend your Saturday mornings hanging out there while your clothes wash? Do you pay someone to clean your house? Do you have a dishwasher? Those are all conveniences that are available to only some people.) And we don't all do the work equally now, because women still perform the lion's share of domestic labor in mixed-gender couples. There is a ton of gender and class stuff going on with "convenience," which he doesn't really acknowledge or grapple with. Or rather, I think he's basically presuming an audience of people like him, who don't have a lot of inconvenience in their lives right now, and that's just not true for most people or even for most NYT readers.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:43 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I also would want to learn to cook, work on more coding projects, and play the guitar in between taking care of a home vegetable garden. How do I have the energy to do all that outside a 60-hour high pressure job? Maybe I'm violating the Protestant work ethic by watching YouTube at the end of the day but I'm certainly not violating the basic human nature of wanting to chill the hell out after 12 hours of work.

How many people had hobbies and passions they tended to outside of the daily work activities in the "inconvenient" years he refers to? Why does he not differentiate inconvenience without choice (waiting in line, sewing garments) and with choice (hobbies)? Should it not be a goal to remove inconveniences without choice to make time to spend on hobbies? Do people spend more time on hobbies now than they did in his inconvenient world of 1800?

What is good about having to wait in line to vote? Why just take that as a given then point fingers at us for not voting? How about fixing the inconvenience and taking pain points out of inconvenient activities?

What I mean to say is, perhaps we don't value our downtime today any more than we did centuries ago. Hunter gatherers had more free time than we do. Somehow if I'm not struggling against nature/learning curves I'm not doing good for myself. And his error is the foundational assumption that life's meaning is about struggling and overcoming. If your entire position relies on that definition of meaning, you ought to back it up.
posted by hexaflexagon at 1:58 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


I tried to read the article yesterday and found it appallingly silly. When I was a kid, there was a wringer washer in a corner of the basement. Feel free to go back to that inconvenience. The wringer washer was harder on clothes and on my Mom. True, the proliferation of washing machines and cheap overseas manufacturing means that a lot of people own a lot of clothes. Many young people, especially, wear clothes once, twice at the most. Clothes are not put away after wearing, they go in the laundry. I make a lot of food from scratch because it's cheaper, more nutritious, and tastes better. A convenient replacement for high-quality dairy-free food is fairly expensive. Like anybody with common sense, I balance cost, convenience, and quality.

(I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I “prefer.”) WTF? Making coffee is pretty darn easy. The author uses instant despite not preferring it, because of convenience, but maybe washing clothes by hand would be a Thing? This article is confused, and I still think it's silly, and not one woman I know would or could have written it. Actually, I'll go a step further and call it artisanally silly, because I am snitting.

No, it's not a verb, and I don't care. It was convenient
posted by theora55 at 7:06 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


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