How Convenient (by Paul W. Smith)
Things don’t always turn out as promised. If you’ve ever waited in a long line at a fast food restaurant or searched all over for a convenience store, you know what I mean.
While it’s true that technology often woos us with bright shiny objects that make us feel special, it also portends to be a key enabler for “progress”, seeking to make our lives more convenient. Being only human, we often take these conveniences for granted.
In 1994, when we were living in Santa Barbara with our two young children, my wife and I were awakened one day in the predawn hours by an unmistakable shaking of our home. My thought was that if the epicenter were very far away, this was probably a big one. We later learned that the 6.7 magnitude quake was centered near Northridge, California. The damage in the San Fernando Valley was significant, but we were fortunate to suffer only the loss of electrical power, and the inconvenience of having to boil our water for a few days.
Not one to give up my morning coffee, I flexed my survivalist muscles, located a small percolator, and filled it with water. I confidently set it on the gas stove which was still working. It wasn’t until I had the bag of coffee beans in one hand, and the electric grinder in the other, that the dire nature of my situation suddenly overcame me. (Note to self: keep some pre-ground coffee on hand so this never, ever happens again).
Rewinding human history through the last couple of centuries reveals an abundance of pivotal developments that have made our lives more convenient. In 1829, the Tremont Hotel in Boston became the first building to feature indoor plumbing. The convenience of not having to hike around outdoors to collect water or take care of business cannot be overstated. Note that at the time, transportation to the Tremont was still by horse-drawn carriage, which was considered the pinnacle of convenience until the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century.
Convenience is something we quickly get used to, and then toss into the bin of unexciting things that aren’t worthy of our attention. Convenience may forever lurk underneath our radar, but it drives our choices much more than we realize.
Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, once described the Internet as nothing more than “an engine of convenience.” At its most elementary level, it is merely a tool which connects everyone and everything anytime. Evan’s advice for getting rich is simple – tune the engine to solve fundamental human problems faster and easier than anyone else. From hailing an Uber to swiping right, our obsession with the Easy Button is the hallmark of our society. This is not always a good thing.
Convenience can lead us to avoid our true preferences (BBQing our own burgers vs. grabbing a Big Mac), and it can make perfectly reasonable choices seem foolish (walking a mile to the market vs. driving a car). We say we value competition and the little guy, but convenience has destroyed the quaint local bookstore and replaced it with the near monopoly of Amazon. Convenience is a soporific drug that imprisons us in the comfort zone, without the struggles and difficulties that ultimately give meaning to life.
Convenience also dictates conformity, which the counter-culture movement of the 60’s rebelled against. Success came to those who recognized this and created technology that could conveniently differentiate us as individuals. Along came the personal playlist, the Facebook page and the Instagram account. Expressing ourselves creatively has never been more convenient.
Convenience is relentless – it attacks us in our most vulnerable places. One of our primal fears since the beginning of time is that of missing out on something important. We feel compelled to always have the latest stuff and worry that we are wasting more effort than someone with the proper “conveniences”. Perhaps nowhere is FOMO more apparent than in the tiny red dots (called “badges”) on our smartphone apps that relentlessly scream for our attention.
In many ways, convenience has destroyed our appreciation for the journey of life, leaving us to care only about the outcomes and how to get there quicker. Life has been transformed into a montage of myriad tiny tasks and trivial decisions. Pop in a coffee pod, check your email, clear off all your app badges and update your software. Check your digital calendar and maybe there will be time for some thoughtful work on a meaningful project. How convenient.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40
years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.