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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.


Photo by Caleb Woods

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Henry Lambert November 29, 2017 at 10:30 pm
Md Nayeem November 30, 2017 at 10:18 am

We used to follow technological innovation as for getting our way easily. It has been going on science bronze age & now this is virtual era, where technologies ease our job in more convenient way, which is somehow, making us lazy & for someone, generating high values. So its our choice, how will we use our advantages…

Myfinancekits December 9, 2017 at 1:27 pm

If anyone will make any significant progress or achievement in life, he should be ready to step out from his/her comfort zone

Peggy December 10, 2017 at 8:31 pm

I resent the intrusion of electronics in my day to day life. I am very seldom in the same room as my cell phone. People around me have their phone front & center at all times. Waiting rooms and gyms and now gas stations have televisions. It is impossible to get away from TV! I think you are right that people “need to be entertained” now instead of being creative or thoughtful as a way of coping with waiting in line, for the doctor, etc. Electronic “helpers” are not only coaxing people away from creativity and activity, but actively interfering with the option for silence.

Christmas Wish List December 16, 2017 at 9:35 pm

There are use cases where hands-free commands are necessary. When driving, when holding a baby and breastfeeding, when doing intricate manual work. The biggest sales of Alexa and other devices fall with families where the parent is too busy taking care of kids to do these seemingly simple tasks. That said, it doesn’t excuse complete laziness, but in the evolution of skill, our brains are using these devices to ditch some skills and make room for other, more relevant ones for our times – learning to code, reading more to kids, spending quality time vs chores.

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