It started four years ago, walking the sodden streets of London with a Japanese friend. Forced to wind around an interminable diversion at London Bridge, I moaned to him about the inconvenience of London compared to Tokyo, expecting him to empathise. Instead, he said, “What are you complaining about? A bit of inconvenience is good for you. It makes us human.”
Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what convenience means — what it is, who it’s for, and what it’s doing to us. The definition of convenience is something that saves time and/or energy, but it’s manifested in extremely diverse ways, from ready-meals to sensor-led traffic lights to longer opening hours to lifts to good service and tear-open packaging. Convenience is patently wonderful and liberating.
But it isn’t all good. Convenience saves us from making an effort, or rather, expending mental, social or physical energy, and in doing so, seems to be making us stupider, less empathetic, less patient, more unfit, and fatter. And as most things that save humans energy require energy from somewhere else (an escalator instead of the stairs; a Deliveroo instead of a walk to the supermarket) and more packaging, it’s also doing damage to the environment.
Despite that, I hear very little criticism of convenience itself. It seems as if it’s an inviolably good thing, particularly in a time when work needlessly sucks up so much of our time and you’re never more than a conversation away from the word burn-out.
Plus, how much drudgery has convenience saved women from?
Convenience certainly has its perks, many of which I wouldn’t be without. But while innovation in convenience solves some very real problems (such as lifts providing access to those using buggies or wheelchairs; household appliances and supermarkets saving busy parents time and stress), they’re often used by people who don’t suffer from the problem they were designed to solve. Most people didn’t need Uber.
I see much convenience as an unfortunate consequence of our overly burdened lifestyles, not something that will ultimately liberate us to spend time on more interesting or fulfilling pastimes. It’s a crutch that has emerged in response to late-day capitalism and its emphasis on extreme specialisation, where you are encouraged to do just one thing for X hours a day, enabling you to pay someone else to cook for you and do your shopping and clean your shirts and hang up your shelves and whatever else the gig economy offers.
The problem is that hyper-convenience results in a rough deal for workers even as it promises paradise to consumers. And most of us, in the absence of trust funds and generous parental support and other miracles, spend most of our time as a worker, not a consumer. Is it really worth spending 8 or 10 hours grinding away to serve people just to taste those two hours of ‘delight’, when someone else is working hard to please you? This reaches its most extreme and logical conclusion in the gig economy, where we order things online on a whim and allow uninsured, underpaid and exploited drivers to deliver them to our houses.
And even when they’re replaced by robots (the uncomfortably blatant implication of so many gig-economy business plans), the rest of us still have a problem: we’re becoming spoilt, impatient and lazy slobs, unable to manage the most basic of survival skills, and using up well more than our fair share of energy paying others to enact them for us.
That has repercussions for our health, too. We think that ultimate convenience will free us to spend time on things we actually want to do (such as long walks and dance classes), rather than things we have to do (like lugging heavy shopping home on foot), but it turns out that is a misjudged strategy for health. Many studies suggest now that it’s low-intensity steady state activity, such as hoovering, cutting the lawn, walking up stairs, carrying shopping and so on, that promotes balanced health and longevity, rather than sporadic intense hours at the gym and the rest of the day sitting. In other words, it’s actually all the small inconveniences in life that keep us fit, not scheduled activity. And perhaps we should embrace them, since it’s a lot easier to do unavoidable than to muster up willpower for explicitly planned activity.
Evidently, there’s a lot packed into the issue of convenience, and I’d like to unpack it a lot more. I’ve been squirreling away these thoughts for months, trying to think it through and read around it to make my argument water-tight. But now, I think it’s better to probably air my thought process as I go along, absorbing feedback and criticisms to refine my narrative, rather than try to cultivate an argument in isolation.
In the next few entries, I’d like to explore the issues of specialisation vs. generalisation, what ‘survival skills’ (should) constitute in 2018, why convenience is fueled by growth-for-growth’s sake, Japan (where convenience is taken to its longer extreme) versus the Netherlands (where inconvenience is a way of life), what forms of convenience could be considered wholly good, and the impact of convenience on our mental, social and physical health. Join me! And let me know your thoughts.