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The Danger of Convenience

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The other day I saw an ad for Google Home which, even five years ago, could have passed for their annual April Fool’s joke. (You can see it here.)

A woman is getting comfortable on a couch, as a friendly voiceover relates a supposedly-common dilemma:

“You know when you’ve got Chinese takeout on your chest, and the blanket around your feet, and then you realize the remote is on the other side of the couch? Just say ‘Hey Google, play Stranger Things!’”

I appreciate ease and convenience (and Stranger Things) as much as anyone else. We should be grateful to have access to ingenious devices that relieve us from having to do laundry in a stream, heat water by the potload over a fire, and other laborious, dangerous, and time-consuming tasks.

But when we’re also 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. Convenience tech has a way of giving ourselves a fish, so to speak, at any cost. The more we rely on technologies to stand in for our own abilities, for what our brains and bodies know how to do, the worse we get at using those brains and bodies on their own. 

We should be familiar with this idea already. We saw the rise of the automobile sap our willingness, and eventually our ability, to walk anywhere, especially after we started designing cities that don’t work without cars. The global food system, as efficient as it is, helped billions of people forget how to produce and even cook our own food. Today human beings are rapidly losing the ability to navigate a city without the aid of GPS satellites, which is to say we need a network of spaceships to do what once only required a paper map.

To be clear, these kinds of tradeoffs can be worth it. If we’re saving a huge workload, such as with laundry machines, the inevitable loss of washboard skills throughout a society might not be so terrible. But the cost of a new convenience can be much higher than that, and the rewards smaller. We should certainly be wary of what it will cost us to become unaccustomed to reaching for objects more than three feet away.

It’s easy to forget that the remote control, the same device taunting the lady in the ad from two couch-cushions distant, was a dangerously convenient invention in its own right. In the 1980s, it allowed us, quite suddenly, to consume hours of television across multiple channels without having to resort to bipedality—a much, much older development, but also a much more valuable one.

The remote made it fifty times easier to change the channel, and simultaneously fifty times harder not to watch too much TV. A whole new mode of sedentary, passive living became not only possible, but pervasive. It made the simple act of standing up and doing something else into a much more psychologically demanding feat than ever before. Convenient or not, it’s hard to say the rise of the remote control has been a wholly positive development for our species.

Now the convenience level is reaching new heights of absurdity, and it will make possible new levels of sedentariness and tech dependency. 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!

It never quite seems like it, but a new convenience device is always a tradeoff between personal ability and technological ability. As the technology makes one thing easier, the personal skills and qualities required for the old, manual way start to dull and die off. Those qualities—which include things like initiative, patience, awareness, problem-solving, and the simple willingness to use one’s body—didn’t become obsolete along with the channel knob or the written letter, they just became less well developed across the whole population.

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.

It’s not all or nothing, but to the extent that we use a device to circumvent the need for patience, or any other human quality, the less we develop that quality, and the more we need the device. Between those two capabilities—watching movies almost anywhere you like, and waiting patiently almost anywhere you like—which one would you rather lose? The internal one or the external one?

We can assume that behind almost every new technologically-endowed superpower we accept, at least one unpurchaseable skill or attribute is slowly withering, and it isn’t necessarily a quality we no longer need.

For example, new technologies have greatly reduced the need to use our bodies at work, in both blue and white collar sectors. This change has many worthwhile upsides of course, but depending on the type of work, it can leave our bodies so underused that it’s common to go right from a workplace to a gymnasium, just to add another hour of economically unproductive work—running in place on treadmills and lifting dead pieces of iron. We’re making up for a known deficiency created by otherwise helpful technologies, even though staying strong and active never lost any value—it just became easier and easier to neglect.

New inventions never simply add ease to what we’re already doing. They provide ease in one area, usually a very specific one, at the cost of slowly starving any personal skills—often broadly-applicable ones—that the old way used to keep sharp.

The easier the tasks we’re sparing ourselves, the higher we’re holding convenience over self-reliance, and the more helpless we become without our tech. Using a chainsaw to replace hours of axe work is probably a sensible tradeoff, but using voice-activated software to spare us from moving our arms is probably not.

I don’t know what I want for Christmas, but it would be great if it made me better at some fundamental human quality instead of worse. But that would make me impossible to shop for.

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Photo by Caleb Woods

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Thea November 21, 2017 at 2:17 am

Great and thought provoking piece (as usual)! I rarely comment, even though I’ve been a fan of your work through the last five years, and you are one of my inspirations. Thank you!

Thea November 21, 2017 at 2:17 am

*greatest inspirations even..

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:18 am

Thanks Thea :)

Heidi Hornlein November 21, 2017 at 2:53 am

I must confess I was attracted by the cat picture to start to read your post. (I am looking for guest bloggers for my cat story website…). Yes, you are describing very well what is happening today with the “ease” we have by devices and soon robots. We are about loosing our human faculties. Deafness is very usual among young people for the overloud consumption of music, and their physical abilities, body balance, movement-skills are deplorable in very young age as children are not allowed anymore to walk to school or play outside (and without electronic devices).
I am tempted to think that we as the majority of humans on this earth are intended to become blind, deaf and immobile for the interests of very few who succeed to bind us to the modern conveniences by not noticing the dangers.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:24 am

Haha… cat pictures really are a powerful promotional tool for 21st century writers.

I am tempted to think that we as the majority of humans on this earth are intended to become blind, deaf and immobile for the interests of very few who succeed to bind us to the modern conveniences by not noticing the dangers.

I didn’t get into this point (the article was getting too long) but a huge part of this equation is the people benefiting most from most of these devices are the few people that sell them, not the millions that use them. I was going to bring up Facebook’s latest interest: developing a way to pay in a retail store by face recognition. Obviously the point is not to save us the two seconds it takes to remove our wallets from our pockets, it’s to make us a little more impulsive with our spending, removing another bit of friction between them and another sale. Walk in, take what you want, while sensors read your face and take the money from your account. This will not be good for us.

Naomi November 21, 2017 at 3:04 am

So true. And made me think of an ad slogan we have here in the UK for an NSAID (pain relief) gel which is: ‘The joy of movement’. I often think: most people don’t seem to experience any joy from movement or they’d walk instead of driving and do exercise for fun. I have a problem gaining/retaining weight -because I do too much in the way of activity – but never talk about it to my colleagues as everyone is always on some kind of new diet – to lose weight. I want to scream at them: Just get out of your car and go to a yoga/Zumba class! Each to their own though. Live and let live, eh?!

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:25 am

Movement is probably what we’ve lost the most. We are still animals, and all of our physiology is set up to accommodate a creature that needs to move in order to eat and stay safe. But that’s not true anymore for most of the modern world, and the consequences are severe.

Geeman November 21, 2017 at 4:02 am

Great article. Sometimes, I think the pleasure that people get from newd labour saving devices is the little show they put on when telling others about them. The power of advertisers to proxy their story to the mouths of millions.
Recently, a friend waxed lyrical to me at how they can send a message from their phone to adjust their heating system. The inevitable demonstration followed with a few blinking lights on a panel was topped of with a beaming couple looking at me for validation and a flood of follow up comments on how I must get one as well.
Afterwards, when I left their place and walked home, I was strangely happy to press the small grey rubbery button on my heating thermostat enjoying the spongy resistance under my fingers and anticipating the little click as the heating fired. I then imagined my father as a young man leaving my place with a wry smile as he kicked aside the autumn leaves to cut some logs for his fire.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:28 am

That’s definitely a big part of it. I know that each time I get a new phone (every 2-3 years) I really do feel like a bit of a hotshot the first few times I pull it out in front of people. There’s a rush we get when we acquire a new power, which is quite easy to feel, but we never feel the atrophy of what it’s replacing because it’s so gradual.

HCT November 21, 2017 at 4:03 am

I encourage anyone not to use; I never use “remember password” functionality readily available on web browsers, computer operating systems, mobile devices, etc. I think it is increasingly important to forgo such convenience to exercise memory. Use it or lose it sums it up.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:35 am

I have stopped using it too. Not only does manual password typing make me more conscious of my use of social media, but I actually remember my passwords, and don’t have to do the “forgot password” song and dance every time I clear browser data.

I also forgot the small joy of typing in a password at light-speed, which only happens when you do it manually and repeatedly.

Jim November 21, 2017 at 9:42 am

Memory is going, for sure. It’s too convenient to just “look things up” when you need them. Google is just there. Wiki is just there. Your phone remembers phone numbers for you (I have made a point of memorizing some numbers for emergencies, like, you know, when your cell phone is lost/stolen/doesn’t work or you’re in jail with your “one free phone call,” which they ain’t going to let you use your cell for.

That may sound trivial, but lots of research is showing that continuing to work the brain helps fight off cognitive decline and dementia as we age. Which is why I endeavor to keep learning new things each year. Just to “exercise that muscle.” But most people think memorizing things is unimportant now.

Libby November 21, 2017 at 4:07 am

You’re making a lot of sense and I used to agree with you but I still think those things are great, because they can open up possibilities for people with disabilities. I used to ask myself who buys the pre-cut fruit and veggies in the supermarket and joke about how lazy people were that they’d pay extra, then I learned about arthritis, and just got to thinking about overworked people who have to take care of kids and feed them, etc…. or who even just want an easier time taking care of themselves.

You’re completely right in everything you say about the effect on able bodied people, and yet. It’s up to us able bodied people to keep it that way as best we can.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:39 am

I think it’s important to make a distinction between devices that help a person get along in the world the way it already is, and devices that bump up the convenience needlessly and allow us to neglect abilities we already have. A wheelchair or a easy-twist medicine bottle isn’t the kind of tech we’re talking about here.

nonskanse November 21, 2017 at 10:43 am

Just because you can’t see a use for it doesn’t mean the 13% or so of people with a mobility disability don’t have a use for it. This post reads a bit ableist to me, even as I understand that we humans are often inclined to take the easiest path and eat too much because it feels nice in the moment.

An example – hands free cell phone use is probably a great tech leap if you are arthritic or missing a hand, even though the rest of us might end up using it to increase our tolerance and use of long commutes, thus decreasing our health.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:30 am

@nonskanse:

Sounds like you’ve decided to ignore the distinction that I made in the above comment and the post itself. Some things provide significant and meaningful advantage and have few downsides, some things provide superficial advantages and serious downsides. The fact that each person benefits in different ways from different devices doesn’t matter. It applies to everyone.

SG November 28, 2017 at 2:09 pm

I don’t think your comment was ignored as much as it doesn’t really signify. Because the voice remote function is available to all, those who are too lazy to reach for the remote and those who have a disability that make using a remote difficult.

And the voice remote wasn’t designed for the disabled in mind, but the point that it helps them anyway is valid. A lot of technology isn’t developed for those that get the most utility from it, yet if the rest of us didn’t support it it would never be in their reach [pun intended].

SG November 28, 2017 at 2:17 pm

I’m fine with people being lazy. What I worry about is what happens if/when something happens. Will people have the knowledge and will to do what needs to be done in the event of a natural disaster? I have gotten into a few argument about the effect of an attack on the electric grid. I have a lot of faith in our ability to recover, but there is definitely a segment of the population that wouldn’t be able to function. And the higher that percentage of the population the more likely there would be panic and all the bad consequences that would result from that mass panic.

Becky November 27, 2017 at 7:50 pm

I just recently had a conversation with my sister, who is disabled, about this very subject. She was talking about how useful it could be to not have to move to reach the remote. As David pointed out, though, there is a very real distinction between someone (for example) using the elevator because of laziness and someone using an elevator because wheelchairs don’t go up stairs. So yeah, it’s good for most people to take the stairs but it’s also good to have an elevator for the people who can’t take the stairs. I think David’s point is that most people don’t need elevators — or Alexa. I don’t think that idea runs counter to the idea that this specific technology is useful to some people. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that no one should have wheelchairs because most people can walk from one place to another and have no need for wheels.

Lois B November 21, 2017 at 4:31 am

I know what I want for Christmas. I want the day to come and go and when it does, I want to feel joy and happiness and gladness instead of disappointment, guilt and fatigue. I want to feel as though I did all the right things and that everyone is happy and glad that they are related to me or just glad they know me.
I will likely not get what I want. But that is ok because life goes on whether we get what we think we want or not.
Maybe for Christmas, I will get a paradigm shift in my thinking and I will become satisfied with life and learn to live each day with satisfaction and joy instead of relentlessly reliving (all of my mistakes from) the past or dreading (all of the stupid, useless, self defeating things I will do in) my future.
I always enjoy your posts. Thanks for everything!

Lola November 21, 2017 at 8:41 am

Haha we want the same gift maybe we’ll actually get it this year…

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:44 am

That is what we really want — to feel okay here and now. Devices can inject a bit of relief and ease and gratification, but they don’t make us any better at finding any sort of lasting or recurring peace.

In my experience the things that have helped the most in that regard are creative work, exercise, friendships, meditation, and experimenting with new routines. Those things are accessible but we can’t buy them, we have to invest our time instead.

Cara November 21, 2017 at 5:11 am

I think about this same subject often, David. Where I notice it most is:
1) in the quality of my handwriting. I look at my travel journals from 8-9 years ago, when I traveled with nothing but a cheap flip phone and internet cafes were few, far between and expensive, and the handwriting in those journals is plentiful, legible and even. Today, after years of smartphone use and writing my travel journal on a laptop that always travels with me, my handwriting is an illegible (sometimes even to me) cacophony of chicken scratches. It’s truly disconcerting. Is it a skill we will no longer need? I wonder what the next generation’s handwriting will be like?

2) Navigation — again, particularly when traveling. Just a few years ago, getting lost in the narrow streets of Kathmandu or the back alleys of Bangkok was par for the course, a useless paper map or torn-out page of a Lonely Planet guide crumpled up in my frustrated fist. Now, my smartphone’s built-in GPS shows me exactly where I am at any given moment, anywhere in the world, even with my data turned off. I no longer have to test my sense of direction or watch for visual cues like I used to, or, most unfortunately, ever get lost in a foreign place—one of the greatest joys of travel.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:47 am

I think about handwriting a lot too. It is definitely a dying art, and it’s hard to see how it will recover. My handwriting has improved a little because I do work on it, but I don’t think I’ll ever write like an adult :(

Marcin November 21, 2017 at 5:16 am

David, ironically you and other “lifestyle coaches” can also make your followers more lazy and incompetent − but not physically. Intellectually. Instead of remote controls and home speakers, you offer us ready ideas how to run our lives. I wonder if it doesn’t makes us less self-reflective, less willing to draw conclusions from our own experiences.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:53 am

Hmm… I don’t think so. If people read these ideas and just nod along and don’t change anything in their lives, they aren’t really using them for their intended purpose. In any case, an unused idea isn’t going to make anyone more lazy.

Please don’t call me a lifestyle coach, lol.

Marcin November 21, 2017 at 11:34 am

I think you misread my comment, it’s not that people of such blogs don’t follow new advice. On the contrary, they may follow it too readily just because it comes from such-and-such source. Perhaps we should search deeper into ourselves for answers instead of relying on what other people, however respected, tell us to do? I struggle with this concept in my own life and I suspect longer meditation sessions may be the solution.
What should I call you, then? A guru? ;-)

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 3:23 pm

I see. I definitely agree with more introspection, but I don’t know what more I can do to encourage it than to write about it. I hope people don’t see me as a guru — I try to write from the perspective as a fellow bumbling human trying to figure out what makes sense.

Barbara November 21, 2017 at 11:42 pm

Coaching is fine for me. I don’t do gurus, great coaches, yup.

Polina November 21, 2017 at 6:23 am

I do agree with rediculness of this new gadget. However, we are, as human beings born to progress. The rapidly digitizing world will produce a different generation, which perhaps, would find a better way to treat cancer than flush our bodies with poison. The world is moving on and I hope in near future our children would be horrified at things we did because of our lack of understanding, same as we are now horrified and some medical treatments used by Victorians.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:57 am

Yeah I like to think the overall arc is one of improvement. We do have a less violent world with less poverty than ever before. But even still, these tradeoffs are happening. We might be less repressive and scientifically ignorant than victorians, but they probably had better penmanship. A little bit of awareness of what we’re losing can mitigate some of that loss.

Carlos November 21, 2017 at 6:31 am

Totally agree! In this specific case the tradeoffs are even worse David. Why is that nobody sees that through these devices (Alexa, Siri, etc.) what companies are doing is to install eyes and ears on people’s home? At a price of only 50$!! Scary

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 9:59 am

Yeah that’s a whole new level to the scary. The actual purpose of many convenience technologies is not to do what they do for the consumer (make household things slightly easier or more fun) but what they do for the developer (collect data and optimize marketing campaigns).

Polina November 21, 2017 at 6:31 am

To add to my previous comment: I once waited 3 hours for my dangerously ill child’s medical records to be retrieved from another hospital. Wouldn’t it be great if in that situation doctor could just say: ‘computer, show me this child’s records’…

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 10:00 am

There are definitely upsides yes. The point of this post is to illuminate the downsides, which are easy to miss.

Ritchie November 21, 2017 at 9:04 pm

And isn’t just a sign that consumerism, not making lives better, is what is driving society/technology: you can sit on the sofa and ask Alexa to change the music – but AFAIK your doctor is no closer to asking for those medical records to be delivered to him electronically…

Diane November 25, 2017 at 11:40 pm

That’s because the USA maintains outdated for-profit “healthcare” without universal EHR–electronic health records.

Andy November 21, 2017 at 7:10 am

Definitely agree with this one, David. I think the over reliance on convenience also goes hand-in-hand with our societal need to be constantly “busy”. When you feel like you don’t have time for the activity that makes you better at a fundamental human quality, it’s easier to opt for the option that makes you lazier and more dependent on some external solution.

Also, you reminded me of this classic MMM about bedpans and catheters http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/09/18/is-it-convenient-would-i-enjoy-it-wrong-question/

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 10:12 am

Right, and we can even extend that need for “busyness” to our addiction to screens and entertainment. We are really losing our ability to be idle, even for a few minutes, and that is downright scary. How many kids now will never get used to looking around and the trees and cars and clouds when they’re waiting for the bus, because they always have a pocket computer that will make it unnecessary?

That might be my favorite MMM post. It’s about time I read it again!

Tim November 21, 2017 at 7:47 am

So while I understand where you are coming I hope you can see that some movements are not always warranted and can cause a scene. I have developed a device that blows my farts away from me. It is hooked up to my google home which can recognize the sound of my farts and activates the fan. This way I don’t have to make the ridiculous arm waving motion to move the fart cloud away from my immediate area. Without technology like this I would probably not be able to sit next to my wife and watch tv or would require shoulder surgery early in life.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 10:14 am

Well you could argue that a remote control is what has made the better, old-fashioned solution seem so difficult, which is to get up and fart in another room and then come back

Erika November 21, 2017 at 7:51 am

Excellent and thought provoking article! I love what you share with us, thank you.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 10:15 am

Thanks Erika

Rocky Mitchell November 21, 2017 at 8:05 am

This is a total game changer ! It puts a much finer point on what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. I’m not interested in virtual reality….I want to Chop Wood, Carry Water.
Many thanks David

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 10:17 am

The phrase “chop wood, carry water” highlights a a major part of the problem, which is that the more we accomplish with button-pushing, the less time we spend with our attention absorbed in a physical task, and I suspect that is having severe consequences on our mental health. We live far too much in our heads, and the more we use machines to do things, the less we need to apply attention to the here and now.

Tonya November 21, 2017 at 8:30 am

I was just thinking about this the other day. I really wish when I was growing up that I had learned some of the hands on skills my grandparents knew. Gardening (although I try), sewing, canning, cooking (extensively, and from scratch)…they all seem like lost art forms. I think now things are so easy, then anything that even appears remotely hard (and I hate to pick on millennials but I’m going to) seems super challenging. Things that at some point were not at all challenging. It’s like we can’t even be uncomfortable. And I’m talking about myself now here too. It seems we are ever so close to never having to leave our house for anything anymore. Kind of sad.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 10:58 am

There is something really satisfying about using tools with our hands. I used to do a fair bit of hammering and digging at my job. Now there’s much less of it in my life, which I guess explains why I’m so excited when it snows and I get to shovel the walk.

Ethan Maurice November 21, 2017 at 8:46 am

Most people understand that all thing have both positive and negative aspects to them, a sort of yin-yang relationship. I’m unsure why, but when it comes to technology, remarkably few people ever consider what is lost for what is gained. To gain the ability to not have to move three feet to grab the remote is a minor gain, especially paling in comparison to the increase in how much harder it will be for us to break away from our entertainment. Such insight on this site, thanks for helping us see the world a bit more clearly David.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:00 am

I think the gain is just much more obvious than the loss, because it’s flashier and more sudden. “I can do THIS now?” But we often only see what we lose when we look back, or maybe never quite see it.

Lola November 21, 2017 at 8:48 am

I think about this every time I go to call someone remember a phone number I don’t remember even 5 people’s phone numbers where 10 years ago I could probably remember 30 phone numbers easily as a society we are outsmarting ourselves and it’s the Next Generation that will suffer the most.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:01 am

I have started manually dialing the phone numbers of my family and closest friends because if I ever got thrown in jail I wouldn’t know what to do with my one phone call.

Mrs. Picky Pincher November 21, 2017 at 9:07 am

Like many things in life, there’s a necessary balance between hard work and convenience. We have to allow for enough work in our lives to have meaning and to stay active. We can’t automate everything – it’s bad for our minds, bodies and budgets.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:04 am

Meaning is another element to this. We have a hard time with meaning as it is, and we historically have found quite a bit in doing things for ourselves and others. But if machines are doing them for us, what happens to that?

Silke Stadler November 21, 2017 at 9:11 am

That’s very well put and your article brought new insights for me – thank you! I find it fascinating how you observe seemingly tiny details of life and then share such deep thoughts on them.

Jeff November 21, 2017 at 9:13 am

Hi David,

Love this article. I have the same cringe every time I see an ad like the one you linked. And it’s not because I feel as though I’m immune to being that lazy, it’s because, like you alluded to, I know that this convenience will make me even more lazy and lethargic if I use the product.

You have a great skill at putting into words what I think many are thinking. Much appreciation for bringing these things to light! Often, simply awareness is enough to wake us up.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:07 am

Yeah, none of us sit outside the effect of this phenomenon. We were born taking for granted the aid of all sorts of devices, and some effect is being had on us. But we do get to make choices when it comes to new possibilities.

Bob November 21, 2017 at 9:21 am

Well, if nothing else Google Home will make us better at annunciation (Error: No results found for “Strange Thins” :P )

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:07 am

For now, but soon Google Neuro will just read our thoughts anyway

Sarah November 21, 2017 at 9:45 am

Great article. I always think about WallE every time I take advantage of a ridiculous convenience. That dystopia feels disturbingly close. Especially since research is indicating that an HOUR of deliberate exercise isn’t close enough to counteract our mostly sitting lives. I’m always shocked at a stat that the Amish average 16,000-20,000 steps per day with NO deliberate workout and I’m lucky to crack 10,000 WITH a deliberate workout that feels very challenging to squeeze in daily! Frustrating to say the least. Thanks for your always amazing insight.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:09 am

Yeah that has become a real issue for me since I stopped doing physical job. There are days when I “work really hard” until 7pm and then learn that I’ve only taken 750 steps all day. I take walks frequently, but I have to make a point of it or the body doesn’t do enough.

Jodie Utter November 21, 2017 at 9:46 am

I was the TV remote when I was a kid! My parents continually made me schlep to and fro the set to change the channel at their every whim. My version of walking 6 miles to school and back again, uphill both ways, in the snow.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:10 am

Haha

Yasmeen November 21, 2017 at 9:53 am

“I can’t be the only one who wants it to be less easy to plug my mind into a screen for three hours.” You’re not!! I’m so glad you’re writing about this. I wrote a similar piece on Medium a few months ago after I saw a Kickstarter for a small device that attaches to your back and vibrates when you start slouching — I was baffled. I really wonder just how far we are from living an episode of Black Mirror. Here’s the piece I wrote, in case you have time: https://medium.com/@yasmeenaltaira/your-sensory-experience-is-no-good-try-this-f8f02bb84ad8

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:15 am

Black Mirror is so great because they depict dystopias that are *right here* a year or two away, or even plausible in our present day. It’s funny that that kickstarter device seems both ridiculous and kind of appropriate.

Kit November 21, 2017 at 10:02 am

I’ve heard it suggested that the ergonomic office chair isn’t there to help us feel better but to enable us to sit still longer in front of our computers without feeling the need to get up and move around. (Time wasting!). Do you know of the biomechanist Katy Bowman? She’s written a whole book on convenience and lack of movement on society as well as individuals.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:20 am

I went from a really physical job to a very sedentary one and I sit a lot, and part of the reason is that I don’t have any signs of back, neck or wrist problems. I can sit for hours without feeling sore or uncomfortable. I feel lucky in that, but also it may also be a problem in itself, because I don’t feel as much of a reason to get up.

Don November 21, 2017 at 10:21 am

Not to mention that our youth today does not know how to tell time from an analog dial or how to write in cursive. It is far more insidious than your nice blog–look at the newly published book called “iGen,” by a psychologist about how cell texting and social media uses up all of the free time of youth, how they do not acquire social skills, and their increased suicide and depression rates.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 11:21 am

I have heard about iGen and would like to read it. Technology advances so quickly that each generation is going to have different problems, and we’re just beginning to discover them.

Max Coleman November 21, 2017 at 11:35 am

I think about this quite a bit. Two books that talk about this in detail are (1) The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, about the incompetence we’re creating due to the Internet, and (2) a book that just came out this year called Radical Technologies, about the dramatic and undertheorized effects of emerging technologies like 3D printers, virtual reality equipment, the Internet of Things, and more. I highly recommend it.

Monique November 21, 2017 at 11:49 am

David, I think this is the best piece you’ve written among the ones I’ve read. How few people, including myself, have ever considered the costs of convenience vs. the liabilities.

Clint November 21, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Wow, just wow. Great post! I’m a teacher and get to/have to? watch the continued/complete reliance on technology year after year. It seems like each group of new students (freshmen) come with less and less soft skills (talking when appropriate, talking appropriately, communicating, sitting still/paying attention, problem solving skills, etc…) I try to explain that cell phones are a tool but they can quickly become a crutch.

Rob November 21, 2017 at 1:18 pm

You might want to listen to this Sam Harris podcast where he speaks with David Krakauer: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/complexity-stupidity
It goes a bit deeper into the mental skills we are losing (like your example about map navigation) and what this means for the brain.

Astride November 21, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Interesting article. Oddly enough my biggest problem with this product is the marketing. This thing is like, the ancestor to the awesome voice-actived computers they have in Star Trek. Yknow, in ST, to make the techy parts less boring, they have characters interrogate the computer aloud and run all kinds of scenarios and calculations that way.

In Star Trek, thanks to those things, the characters hardly ever need screens to run searches or gather info. I’ve read about the Google home and one of the things it can do for instance is give you info on the weather, traffic and news when you get up. That would eliminate a lot of morning internet procrastinating for me! I could totally see how such a tool could be used to reduce harmful tech use and make self-control just a bit easier.

So yeah, I’m disappointed that instead of focusing on how a device like that can improve accessibility, help reduce screen use and free up time to focus on important things, they made an ad about not having to reach for the remote – a function that isn’t at all the main appeal of the product, imo. All that potential, reduced to the possible service of laziness. Man.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 3:27 pm

It is odd that they chose that scenario, but I’m sure it wasn’t a thoughtless decision. They are the biggest company in the world and this product is probably going to be one of the most widely-purchased Christmas gifts this year.

I hope it gets more Star Trek as things go on.

Astride November 21, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Yeah, I’m sure they figured that the average buyer wouldn’t go all starry eyed about the potential of having essentially a small voice activated AI, and would instead look for that sort of practical application.

I do also hope stuff gets more Star Trek. For me it remains an amazing example of how human society could look if technology was really used to better ourselves and not just to indulge in our very flawed human tendencies.

I blame capitalism personally – it’s been expressed in other comments already but as long as the goal is money and not human improvement, technology won’t be harnessed for the good of people, either on an individual or social scale.

Ron November 21, 2017 at 2:41 pm

Decades ago I knew scores of phone numbers by heart. Today I don’t even know my wife’s number.

David Cain November 21, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Just make sure you memorize the one you’d call from jail!

Abhijeet Kumar November 21, 2017 at 3:49 pm

Love the April fool joke reference. In all earnestness, the world is a maze. What is easy, most visible, most common, hides/obscures what is really fulfilling and meaningful. Getting to your blog requires a sense of initiative, and self awareness. Watching that meaningless ad is effortless. Getting hooked into the meaningless is easy. But here is the thing, once you start down the path of being aware, you don’t go back.

David Cain November 22, 2017 at 8:57 am

Awareness might be the most important quality that technology erodes. Our attention is grabbed by news alerts and notifications many, many times more than even the previous generations’, and the result is that we’re living in a more and more abstract world of thinking. We’re much less in touch with moment-to-moment phenomena happening in our immediate surroundings. It’s too early to say exactly what this is doing to us in terms of mental health but it can’t be good.

Abhijeet Kumar November 22, 2017 at 1:13 pm

Our societies have the priorities biased towards materialistic existence. This is not completely meaningless, but other aspects of life are left out. As you mention, “what school never taught us”. The school systems are designed for the 9-5 work hard, have fun lifestyle. Have fun is limited to unhealthy habits. Work hard, is work hard without knowing what you are doing in the grand scheme of things.

Awareness is self-initiated. Usually you have to be the odd one out. Some struggle, and then you stumble and discover. At some stage, you realize that the system is meaningless, and is hiding what really matters in life.

Abhijeet Kumar November 22, 2017 at 1:14 pm

Technology can be used for good. It is just that the motivation and priorities of the societies are all messed up.

Abhijeet Kumar November 24, 2017 at 12:49 pm

It is useful to put it all in perspective, as we are not necessarily worse off than before. We are constantly making progress, and that is why we notice these things. So ‘messed up’ is a term to be used with discretion (if I sounded too pessimistic).

Brady November 21, 2017 at 6:58 pm

I always think of this when I use my mom’s minivan with the automatic opening doors. Suuuure, it’s nice when you have a handful of grocery bags…but c’mon. Put the bags down, open the door, put the bags in. So many products that provide solutions to problems we didn’t know we had.
Also that Wall-E scene seen is freakishly prophetic…

David Cain November 22, 2017 at 8:59 am

Right, and then something that was never (or at least seldom) a problem, like opening a door, becomes a problem. If the door is automatically opened for us 90% of the time, manually opening a door is another task that becomes more exceptional and strangely more difficult and annoying.

Kate November 22, 2017 at 7:02 am

Excellent post, I’ll be sharing around to many. I have been against adding more technology to my household in the way of wifi connected devices (thermostats, Google or Apple, etc). You hit on some excellent points on what is still of value that we are neglecting in letting these things take over. Often I’m considered to be odd by many, even though I am super tech savvy and the go-to person for help with such things. The fact that I don’t live and push back against this in my personal life is completely opposite of what my professional work is. I love that people are at least seeing that these devices aren’t enhancing life as they would hope, and hope more push back and want to be human again. Great reminder using WALL-E, I refer to that movie all the time!

David Cain November 22, 2017 at 8:59 am

It’s a good time to be odd!

Gerard November 22, 2017 at 7:15 am

I wonder if the people designing the ad campaign ever stopped to laugh at themselves… or at their perceived customer.

Matthias Calis November 22, 2017 at 9:16 am

I really value your pieces David. As a budding game developer there is some serious cognitive dissonance between the love I have for technology, and how much I despise it at the same time. You touched upon the aspect of technology I loathe the most, and that is the relentless quest for convenience.

I find it an incredibly worrying trend, perhaps even more so because I am fairly tech-aware and therefore usually in the first wave of people to find out about new gadgets and such. I don’t think it needs to be said anymore that technology brings great things too, we all know that already, it’s a moot point by now and far too often it’s an excuse to hide the very real and very ugly side-effects of technology. Everytime I am on public transport, more than three quarters of people are staring down at their glowing rectangles. Convenience is too blame here too because it’s convenient to distract oneself instead of just… being. People seem to be terrified of getting bored.

Convenience and the “appification” of society is really hollowing out people’s willpower, myself included. The dissonance comes in here because I know technology is doing all this, and the games industry is massively contributing to the problem by offering up more and more entertainment.

As with most things in live, there is a balance to be struck, but I am not sure where that balance is, and it feels hypocritical of me – since my study and future income wholly relies on tech – to be so critical of it.

Apologies for the slightly disjointed comment. Your post provoked many thoughts in me, and I very grateful for your work.

David Cain November 26, 2017 at 9:02 am

There is a balance somewhere, for sure. And like you say it’s hard to see exactly where it is, but maybe it’s not so hard to feel which side of the balance-line we’re on. I have come a long way with my smart phone usage (removing reddit and facebook was a big step) but I still find myself absently swiping through it when I should be something else. So I’ll keep adjusting towards balance.

Nancy Nelson November 22, 2017 at 10:58 am

Another thought-provoking piece David – thank you.
In addition to the physical and mental trade-offs already mentioned when opting for the convenience of tech, I’d add: understanding, connection and gratitude. Understanding: some people seem to be genuinely baffled when they push a button and the expected outcome doesn’t happen. I’m not suggesting you need to know the underpinnings of every labor-saving device you use, but it sure helps to know if the issue with your car is more likely to be an empty gas tank or a dead battery. It can save a big mess and lots of work if you know to turn off the water supply valve when your toilet is overflowing. Connection: This can be with other humans in your vicinity, or the realization that maybe you wouldn’t have to commute two hours a day to a job you don’t particularly like if you weren’t buying so much “convenience”. Helen and Scott Nearing once observed that the amount of free time a person has is inversely proportional to the number of labor-saving devices they own. And then there’s the connection to resource use and climate change. Gratitude: My highly un-scientific observation is that gratitude seems to go down with increased number of toys.
I guess they key is to make conscious tradeoffs. The right mix will vary between people, and be different for the same person at different times.

David Cain November 26, 2017 at 9:04 am

The opacity of these devices is another confounding element for sure. There was a time when you could see how machines worked — the parts were exposed. Now they’re all black-boxes and our relationships to them have become just as disconnected.

“Helen and Scott Nearing once observed that the amount of free time a person has is inversely proportional to the number of labor-saving devices they own.”

Wow, that is so true.

Mike November 23, 2017 at 4:44 am

This is why–or partly why–road-rage has been increasing. You’re at home or work or wherever, doing this and apping that, everything gets done immediately…and then you go to your vehicle and drive and get stuck in a looooong line of traffic or somebody pulls in front of you, delaying you by .03 seconds, and you go ballistic. Too much instant gratification is definitely not a good thing. This is one reason I took up guitar; I’m a beginner, but the methodical practice needed is actually a nice break from I-Phone Zombieland.

David Cain November 26, 2017 at 9:06 am

There’s a great Oatmeal cartoon that illustrates this effect. When our internet is down, we just shrug and do something else. But when it’s SLOW, we lose our minds.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/no_internet

KG November 23, 2017 at 10:45 am

Great post that gave me pause for reflection. I immediately thought of the little two-wheeled trendy conveyor that you can color coordinate with your wardrobe. Thanks!!

Carol November 24, 2017 at 9:15 am

Makes me think we humans are doing a good job of removing any reason for our existence. Which would not necessarily a bad thing.

Rebecca November 24, 2017 at 3:39 pm

And that’s without even mentioning the trade-off of having Google in your home CONSTANTLY listening to everything you say… don’t they know enough about me already?!

David Cain November 26, 2017 at 9:09 am

Yes. That is another level of danger altogether. We’ve already shown that we’re willing to give permission for Google to know where we are physically at all times, just to make our map apps more convenient. We are constantly giving up our privacy and possibly our safety for a little more convenience.

Dan November 25, 2017 at 3:29 pm

I am really surprised this piece was not pounded out on a typewriter, or even better, hand written. Then, you could make copies and mail directly to each reader. Oh wait, communicating by blogs on computers is a more efficient and effective. While we all do get trapped into getting used to new technology, I think the vast majority of advances are for the best. How you use your extra time is up to you. Read more blogs (like this one), watch TV, go for a walk, do yoga, or spend time with family and friends.

Don’t blame new technology for people making choices you may not agree with. In general, having more time and choices should be a good thing. Just, choose wisely.

David Cain November 26, 2017 at 9:05 am

The whole point of this article is that there are downsides to go with those obvious upsides. Did you miss that?

Roy Wang November 28, 2017 at 10:58 am

Thank you David, for confirming to me that I am setting me priority in the right direction, and not let myself getting sold into so-called conveniences that I don’t need other than if I get disabled. Some people can not distinguish what you were talking about from what technology should be about. It can be good for humanity and it can be bad, such as Great FireWall of China to control minds. Have a very merry Christmas, brother!

Roy November 28, 2017 at 4:29 pm

When I was chatting with my friend at his house, his Alexa would suddenly start to talk, and it was kinda annoying really. “She” is always listening!

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