The Easy Way Out

How the pursuit of convenience produces new forms of inconvenience

When Facebook recently announced Libra, the company’s global currency, it expressed the hope “to offer additional services for people and businesses, like paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit without needing to carry cash or a metro pass.”

When JetBlue came under pressure for using facial-recognition software for check-in services, it explained in a press release that “the boarding touchpoint is an area that needs innovation and we feel biometrics will change the future of air travel as we look to create a more seamless journey throughout the airport.”

If you are concerned about how Echo, Amazon’s home assistant, uses the data it collects about you, or about Amazon employees occasionally listening in on your conversations, the company mostly wants to make sure that you know about how Alexa will “make life easier” for you with a list of tips.

My convenience is often bought at someone else’s expense. Inconvenience returns in new or unanticipated forms for everyone

In each of these instances, we see the value of convenience in action as a rationale for technology: It will provide comfort and eliminate “friction,” making your life as an individual proceed more smoothly. The desirability of this can seem self-evident. Why wouldn’t we want things to be easier, more efficient, more comfortable? Think of desire paths. These improvised paths created over time by walkers that refuse to stick to less convenient routes illustrates our penchant for what is more efficient.

But when so many of our often costly “trade-offs” are framed as being for convenience’s sake, it’s worth reconsidering its self-evident character: Prioritizing convenience at the expense of other values is not simply natural or automatic — it has a history. In a recent piece for One/Zero, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” Colin Horgan argues that “it’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us, that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.” This unwanted world includes compromised privacy, micro-targeted ads, algorithmic recommendations, and YouTube radicalization. In Horgan’s view, these are the price we pay for our intrinsic desire for the convenience of weather apps, ride-hailing services, hands-free searches through digital assistants, and on-demand entertainment.

Horgan suggests that since convenience is a value “we hold personally,” it ends up “outweighing the more abstract ideas like privacy, democracy, or equality.” Convenience, however, can be a cloak veiling an undisclosed exchange not merely between me and some future society that I am robbing of “privacy” but between me and other people right now: My convenience is often bought at someone else’s expense. These hidden costs tend to exacerbate existing forms of inequality and injustice. For instance, the deployment of facial recognition might make it more convenient for some to work their way through security checkpoints while simultaneously making life far more precarious for those who are more likely to be misidentified by such software. Privacy, democracy, and equality can be experienced as abstract ideas only by those who have the luxury of taking them for granted.

Moreover, as these abstract ideals lose their hold, inconvenience returns in new or unanticipated forms for everyone. Eventually convenience stops facilitating other aims and becomes an all-controlling end in itself, equipping us with more time and tools at the expense of a sense of purpose.

Though it predates the commercial internet, sociologist Thomas F. Tierney’s 1993 work The Value of Convenience: A Genealogy of Technical Culture remains a useful exploration of how convenience shapes our technological milieu. It contextualizes convenience as more than a spontaneous and inherent proclivity for ease and comfort. In Tierney’s view, it is not “freely chosen by individuals, but is demanded by various facets of the technological order of modernity.” That is, convenience is not something we merely opt into but rather is to some degree imposed on us. The question then is how we come to embrace this value as our own, even at the expense of compromising other, seemingly more substantive ideals.

Unlike Hannah Arendt, who, in her account of modernity, argued that individuals cared primarily for the biological life of the body, Tierney believed that modern convenience reflected “a certain contempt for the body and the limits it imposes.” Modernity proposes that these barriers can be overcome through “the consumption of various technological devices.” When technologies promise convenience, Tierney argues, this is what they are promising: overcoming the body rather than carefully attending to its demands.

This perspective leads Tierney, somewhat counterintuitively, to frame convenience as a kind of asceticism rather than self-indulgence or selfishness. But this move helps put a set of quirky Silicon Valley fads into context: Jack Dorsey’s intermittent fasting and meditation retreats; Elon Musk’s sleep deprivation; Ray Kurzweil’s diet- and pill-driven drive for the singularity. The logic of meal-replacement company Soylent especially epitomizes this link between convenience, asceticism, and self-mastery. The body’s demand for nourishment is not something to be abided, much less enjoyed. It is something to be eliminated as efficiently and joylessly as possible. This attitude culminates in Silicon Valley posthumanism, which configures having a body itself as entirely inconvenient and imagines a future when human beings will lay aside bodies altogether. After all, death itself is the ultimate limit to overcome.

Convenience is not something we merely opt into but rather is to some degree imposed on us

Reflecting on death as a problem to be solved, Tierney cites astronomer Robert Jastrow’s 1981 work of futurology, The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. “At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weaknesses of moral flesh,” Jastrow writes. “Connected to cameras, instruments, and engine controls, the brain sees, feels, and responds to stimuli. It is in control of its own destiny.”

The point is not that such posthumanist fantasies will materialize. Rather it is that they amount to a reductio ad absurdum of convenience as a value: a refusal of the body’s limits to the point of doing away with a body. According to Tierney, orienting our use of technology around convenience reflects the triumph of the ascetic and even nihilistic assumptions built into it. Would we not do better to understand our limits as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning,” to borrow a phrase from Wendell Berry, rather than as obstacles to be overcome?

Convenience is a paradoxical desire: “The need to do things and get places as quickly as possible is a need that can never be satisfied,” Tierney argues. “Every advance imposes a new obstacle and creates the need for a more refined or a new form of technology.” We might think here of financial markets determination to shave milliseconds off of transaction times, or, more prosaically, how easy it is to become accustomed to Amazon’s ever shrinking delivery times culminating in the aspiration implicit in “Amazon Prime Now.”

Because it chiefly concerns means and purports to be neutral about ends, convenience is well suited to the liberal order, which is premised on championing the individual’s right to choose their own goals. Convenience is thus not about where you are going or what you are doing, but making the journey more expedient and more comfortable. What is advertised is convenience for convenience’s sake. Rarely are we encouraged to ask whether convenience fits the end we are pursuing or if its promise of leisure is ever fulfilled. The point is simply to keep going, ever faster and more efficiently.

Constant motion in whatever direction, of course, is no “end” at all. It is fruitless to save time if you don’t know what — or, for that matter, who — you are saving it for. Tierney cites Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s classic 1983 study of time-saving household technologies, More Work for Mother, which demonstrated how the adoption of early 20th-century technologies like washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers rarely translated straightforwardly into more leisure time for American women. These time-saving technologies reconfigured roles within the family and restructured expectations in such a way that housewives often ended up taking on more rather than less work. Here’s how she summarized her findings:

Some of the work was made easier, but its volume increased: sheets and underwear were changed more frequently, so there was more laundry to be done; diets became more varied, so cooking was more complex; houses grew larger, so there were more surfaces to be cleaned. Additionally, some of the work that, when done by hand had been done by servants, came to be done by the housewife herself when done by machine …. Finally, some of the work that had previously been allocated to commercial agencies actually returned to the domain of the housewife — laundry, rug cleaning, drapery cleaning, floor polishing — as new appliances were invented to make the work feasible for the average housewife.

Cowan’s analysis speaks specifically to a particular time and demographic, but these patterns recur whenever new technologies enter into a social or institutional ecosystem. Gains for some turn out to be losses for others, roles are reconfigured, new tasks are generated, cooperative structures may be displaced, and so on. In other words, the fulfillment of the promise of convenience tends to be complicated, and even the ostensible beneficiaries may lose more than they gain.

In his 1992 book, Technopoly, Neil Postman observed that the “winners” in the technological society are wont to tell the “losers” that “their lives will be conducted more efficiently,” which is to say more conveniently. “But discreetly,” he quickly adds, “they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.” Postman presciently asks, “To what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? … Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to a mere numerical object.”

The system grants convenience and asks only that we be re-made in its image

Because convenience is oriented toward efficiency, it does not produce leisure. Instead, it often intensifies the demand for productivity, making us accountable for more output. So the needs served by technologies of conveniences are not, strictly speaking, the needs of consumers. Building on the work of Marxist scholars of Taylorism and Fordism, Tierney notes that saving time at home became increasingly necessary as the workplace became more exacting in its demands: “The needs of modern workers for various time- and labor-saving commodities … can convincingly be interpreted as needs of the production process.”

For Tierney, what appears to consumers as convenience is, from the point of view of producers — “the leaders of technological progress, the scientists and technicians” — a desire to dominate nature. Admittedly, “the domination of nature” may sound archaic applied to digital technology. But as C.S. Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, “power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Digital tools, once lauded as tools of liberation, now appear at least as likely to be tools of oppression. If they once appeared to some as democratic tools, they now reveal themselves to be what Lewis Mumford called “authoritarian technics,” centralized systems of power and control.

Mumford, writing in 1964, understood the role convenience played in their adoption. “The bargain we are being asked to ratify,” Mumford observed, “takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage …: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education.” But there was one condition, he believed: “that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires.”

Horgan worries that “convenience doesn’t simply supersede privacy or democracy or equality in many of our lives. It might also destroy them.” The immense wealth and power accumulated by the leading technology companies over the past two decades seems to bear that out. And by and large, they have achieved this position by offering convenience: the convenience of shopping from home, the convenience of effortlessly keeping up with friends and family, the convenience of instantaneous access to information and entertainment.

It’s less clear, however, that we have chosen convenience on its merits. Perhaps that’s what we tell ourselves to keep from acknowledging that we’ve taken a bribe. But Mumford was right, it is a bribe, however magnificent. The system grants convenience and asks only that we be remade in its image. To update the terms, Amazon offers us the convenience of same-day shipping so that we may become the kind of people who can’t imagine living without Amazon. The bribe works. It’s compelling, as even Mumford noted.

Rejecting such convenience on its own, of course, will not be enough to make everything right again. That may very well play into the same illusion that sustains the myth of convenience: that personal agency can be exercised without external costs or social consequences. Instead we might recognize convenience as a peculiar siren song that would make us believe that tying ourselves to the mast will be its own reward.

L. M. Sacasas is an independent scholar based in central Florida. He writes at his website, The Frailest Thing, and publishes The Convivial Society newsletter.