The downsides of convenience

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The modern society wants us to be productive, to optimise, to fit more into a day. Slowing down is thought of as a weakness, something to look down upon.

Consider a Monday conversation at the office, where your colleague asks what you did over the weekend. The reaction is to rattle off a list, to recall each activity, to talk about the quantity of things we did. The more the better; otherwise your weekend must have been a waste.

A key to fitting in more is choosing convenience. Convenience is sold as the solution to help with our busy lives, and it comes in many shapes and forms.

It is more convenient to:

  • Buy a bottle of water rather than remember to fill one up at home
  • Buy a disposable cup rather than take your cup to a cafe
  • Buy disposable birthday presents rather than give nothing and be a social outcast
  • Buy disposable tableware for a party or picnic rather than clean up afterwards
  • Buy groceries at a local major supermarket chain rather than going to the farmers’ market
  • Buy pre-packaged school snacks for the kids rather than cutting your own
  • Buy takeaway rather than cook your own meal
  • Buy things on credit rather than save up for them
  • Buy your food rather than grow it
  • Drive the kids to school rather than ride or walk
  • Get reminded about an appointment rather than having to remember it yourself
  • Give spoken orders to Alexa, Google or Siri rather than get up and type them into a computer
  • Give the kids a screen rather than spend one-on-one time with them
  • Go somewhere as directed by your smartphone rather than studying the map yourself
  • Leave your share bike where you happen to be rather than take it to the nearest dock
  • Listen to an audiobook rather than read the book yourself
  • Look up an answer on Google rather than trying to remember it
  • Not think about the consequences of your purchase rather than investigate them
  • Not think about where your food comes from than to investigate it
  • Pay to get your car washed rather than wash it yourself
  • Put everything into landfill rather than separate and recycle carefully
  • Reorder what you ordered last time rather than think up a new choice
  • Run the dishwasher rather than do dishes by hand
  • Sit back and do nothing rather than get up from the couch when the Netflix autoplay timer comes up
  • Skim through the headlines online rather than dedicate time to read a physical book
  • Take free plastic bags at the shop rather than remember to take in a reusable one
  • Throw away and buy new rather than mend and repair
  • Use a calculator rather than do the sums in your mind
  • Use a translator rather than learn another language
  • Use an escalator rather than take the stairs

The examples are endless.

The modern society depends on specialisation. We don’t want people who are jacks of all trades, we want people who are good at a particular thing. It’s not looked down upon to not know how to do a variety of things, in fact it is encouraged. The more you can outsource the better – for the economy. You do only what you are good at, and pay others to take care of the rest, conveniently.

Convenience is outsourcing tasks we want done but cannot or choose not to do ourselves. Just like other forms of outsourcing, convenience can be dangerous. However, going with the more convenient option, either consciously or on autopilot, has several downsides:

Convenience stops us from questioning whether we really need something in the first place. You know the chocolate bars at the supermarket checkout? Nothing in a store is left to chance; everything, including the chocolate bars, is strategically placed. These products and their placement appeal to our lizard brain when we are in a rush, with our guard lowered. Convenience makes it easy to cave in to temptation.

Convenience creates dependency, by design. The ease by which you can ‘switch off’ by watching Netflix is not a coincidence. Each time you take Uber, it’s more likely that you will take it again. The business of takeaway coffee is built on repeat buyers, not one-off customers. Companies go to extreme lengths to create products and services that you depend on, for commercial gain.

Convenience externalises part of our brain and ability to another party. Take the example of satellite navigation. It is very convenient and reliable; however, it also means that most of us are now worse at reading maps and navigating a terrain unaided, compared to our parents’ generation. We are also worse at recovering when the system of guidance breaks down.

Convenience stops us from having to plan. It also relies on this, creating a vicious cycle of short-sightedness. Who wants to think about packing snacks for the sporting event when you can just buy them? Who wants to carry their own cup when you can just get a disposable cup ‘for free’? Who wants to pack a book for the flight when you can just buy one at the airport? And who wants to arrange complicated public transport to the airport, with all the luggage, when you can just drive and park next to the gate for an extra fee?

Convenience is marketed as a time saver, which is true. However, we rarely stop to question what we are using this newly saved time for. Often this time is spent to take up other manufactured needs, which are then fulfilled using another newly created convenience. And the cycle continues – only faster this time.

Convenience can be dehumanising. Think about the way you interact with voice interfaces like Alexa, Siri or Google Home: you are generally asking but telling them what you want. There are few pleasantries. Interacting with automated systems this way, whilst convenient, teaches us a master-servant dynamic that reduces the empathy that is essential for real human interaction.

Convenience is normalised quickly. What was a magical innovation yesterday is a built-in expectation today. It’s the new normal, and you will be considered strange if you don’t take full advantage of it. Convenience reduces us to automatons, repeating learned patterns of behaviour, without questioning them. Not only that: if our new expectation are not met by a product or a service, we get upset. Just run a search for ‘first world problems’ for thousands of examples.

With convenience, we focus only on the surface benefit: Did I get what I paid for, the easiest way possible? Only the what is important, the how or why it was created or delivered doesn’t really matter. The supply chain behind the product or the service becomes invisible, a black box. It is easy to have hidden costs and externalities when no one is looking. And we generally prefer not to look.

Convenience is manufactured.
Convenience comes with hidden costs.
Convenience comes with vested interests.
Convenience is not free, and often not just.
Convenience is not a good master.
Convenience is dangerous.
Convenience is addictive.

Be wary of convenience.

Author: Jussi

I would like to ensure that there remains a liveable world for our kids to enjoy – I'm @jopas on Twitter –