Is Our Love of Convenience Harming Us?
What price do we pay for being a lazy and spoiled generation? David Mountain discovers the dark side of convenience technology.
Even by the standards of the 17th century, Galileo Galilei didn’t enjoy many modern conveniences. The Italian astronomer famously spent the last eight years of his life under solitary house arrest for promoting a heliocentric model of the universe, heresy in the eyes of the all-powerful Catholic Church. Blind, frail and alone, Galileo’s only diversions were wine and science—which he seemed to enjoy with equal passion—and visits from his beloved daughter, a nun in the nearby convent of San Matteo. At times he felt as if he’d been “struck from the rolls of the living,” as he once complained to her.
So the old astronomer might be surprised to find that he’s now the namesake of the European Union’s new satellite navigation system, one of the world’s most modern conveniences. The Galileo fleet of satellites—Europe’s answer to the U.S.A.’s Global Positioning System, or GPS—is set to become fully operational next year. When that happens, the European Commission has guaranteed the world a revolution in satellite navigation technology: a “ten-fold” increase in geolocation precision, allowing real-time tracking of devices to within a meter, as opposed to the apparently insufficient five meters currently provided by GPS.
After 12 years of delays, the European Space Agency is now launching the last of the 30 Galileo satellites into orbit. Businesses are licking their lips at the commercial prospects: by tracking your phone, drone delivery will be able to reach you not just at your house, but as you walk down the street or drive to work. And that commute might be in a driverless car sooner rather than later, thanks to Galileo’s high precision geolocation.
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For the impatient shoppers and hesitant drivers among us, it all sounds very convenient. I use that word advisedly—the majority of the many tech upgrades heralded by Galileo are neither necessary nor even particularly useful. Simply convenient. To be fair, Galileo isn’t merely a mercenary enterprise. Its advanced geopositioning could improve emergency service response times and greatly aid search-and-rescue operations. But it was also launched with the explicit aim of bringing “significant returns to member-state economies,” and in this sense, the European Commission’s constellation of satellites is like any other tech enterprise. With the flotilla not even fully operational, contracts have already been signed, patents filed and over 100 million devices set up to use Galileo.
It’s often said that necessity is the mother of all invention. That might have been true in the past, when basic human needs—like access to food and clean drinking water—went routinely unmet on every continent. But what drives innovation in a world where these needs, especially in more economically developed areas, have been more or less fulfilled?
The quest for convenience
Readers beware: we’re entering the sinister domain of consumer research and business strategy—an arid, lifeless world of user analytics and customer profiling, where the phrase “frictionless shopping experience” makes sense and painful neologisms like “phygital” can be written without blushing (believe me: I actually did this for a living for a short while). Because when you peer under the glossy, bendy-glass bonnet of the tech industry, you find what really powers its pistons and pumps: not the practical engine of necessity, but the commercialized concept of convenience.
In the boardrooms and thought pods of global conglomerates, convenience, not necessity, is trumpeted as both the holy grail and gospel of the tech industry. “This year will be all about convenience,” stresses a recent article by the data firm GroundTruth. “Consumers want a digital experience that’s seamless and meets their unique needs.” The data analytics company Nielsen agrees, noting that “global consumers want convenience at every stage of shopping and brand engagement with products and services.”
As on-trend as business analysts and tech companies like to think of themselves, there’s really nothing new about this desire for convenient tech solutions. The wheel was, at least initially, simply a convenient alternative to dragging the latest monolithic monument across the ground. Writing began life merely as a convenient way for palace officials to keep track of crops, taxes and sheep sacrifices. We like ease and speed and simplicity, and we always have.
But should we? To what extent is our hankering for convenience a good thing?
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be yet another Waldenesque plea for us to reject modernity and escape to nature. Nor is it some chap-slapping homage to Teddy Roosevelt and a strenuous life free from comfort. Complaints against technology and the modern world—cathartic though they may be—tend to look a little futile in hindsight. In the second century BCE, for instance, the Roman playwright Plautus grumbled about a new convenience called “the sundial,” complaining that it robbed him of his liberty by telling him when to sleep and eat. “The town’s so full of these confounded dials,” he fumed, “cutting and hacking my days so wretchedly into small pieces!” Luddites be warned: it’s not a look that ages well.
The problem isn’t with convenience and convenient tech, per se. It would be ridiculous of me to rail against either when I regularly make use of innovations—my fridge, the internet, sat-nav—that were themselves considered conveniences just years or decades ago (and still are in many parts of the world). The issue with the modern tech industry isn’t the concept of convenience, but the sheer scale of conveniences available to us. Technology has allowed our obsession with quick and easy fixes to swell to dangerous proportions.
Spoiled for choice
The damaging effects of the convenience industry can be felt in numerous ways. Take the rise of home delivery services offered by online retailers such as Amazon and ASOS. Not so long ago, shoppers would typically drive to town, buy a few items and head back home. Now we can have individual items mailed to our door, one by one, as often as our wallets allow. This has serious, though often ignored, environmental consequences. For one thing, more deliveries mean more vehicles clogging up the roads. For another, those vehicles are more likely to be heavy duty trucks and vans with much more polluting engines than relatively fuel-efficient passenger cars. Partly as a result, emissions from Europe’s seven million trucks continue to rise, now accounting for 27% of the continent’s traffic CO2 emissions. Transport is the only sector in the European Union to see its greenhouse gas emissions rise over the past 30 years.
It’s not just the environment that suffers from such innovations. The surge in food delivery apps, like London-based Just Eat, is allowing a growing number of us unlimited access to highly processed foods, all without the inconvenience of leaving our house. Not only are the most popular takeaway foods loaded with saturated fats (and sugar and sodium and pretty much everything else we know we shouldn’t indulge in), they’re also served in larger portions than what we would tend to cook for ourselves. All of which is contributing to Europe’s millennials—the most frequent users of food apps—shaping up to be the most overweight generation in Europe since records began.
The companies shipping us our food and fashion, by the way, are able to amass disconcerting amounts of data on us by appealing to our love of convenience. Almost two thirds of consumers are willing to hand over personal data to tech firms in exchange for benefits such as special offers and exclusive deals. We routinely give apps permission to track our whereabouts, search history and even our physical movements (Tinder has yet to fully explain why it requires access to your phone’s accelerometer and gyroscope data), all for the sake of personalized content or website membership. Galileo’s improved satellite navigation will only improve the spying capabilities of the tech industry. We’ve come to accept Big Brother, not out of fear and ignorance, as Orwell predicted, but because it’s just so convenient.
The pursuit of unhappiness
On top of all this, however, is a more intrinsic problem with the array of convenient solutions provided by technology: it doesn’t appear to make us any happier. Why haven’t the endless slew of conveniences promising “effortless living” over the past few decades made any noticeable dents in the rising rates of stress and anxiety in Europe and elsewhere? Why is it that, with all the “time saving” gadgets and gizmos and life coaching apps, more people than ever feel time-starved, overstretched, and burned out?
In order to better understand these seeming contradictions we need to take a closer look at the convenience industry. First of all, let’s be grown-ups and accept that tech giants like Google and Apple aren’t here to make our lives easier. They exist to make money, and—if the latest tax evasion fines imposed on them by the European Union are any indication—they’re rather good at it.
But if they’re purely for profit, why should these businesses be so concerned about tackling life’s inconveniences? Simple: the language of convenience and inconvenience provides the perfect tool for boosting these companies’ revenue streams. Its subjective, mercurial nature allows them to invent inconveniences which they can then solve, and to an extent that’s not possible with the more rigid language of necessity. Did anyone really consider the lack of a “closet operating system” an inconvenience until the fashion app Finery told them it was? Or, for that matter, that GPS’s five meter accuracy was inconvenient until Galileo made us think so? And so the problems that our “tech solutions” solve are often not the ones we wanted to solve in the first place, but new ones conjured up by the tech companies themselves. You may still come home from work every day too exhausted to read or cook—but hey!—your phone is now bendy. That’s what you wanted, right?
Not only do conveniences often fail to solve our problems, but they create new ones in their wake. Consider how quickly conveniences come to be seen as necessities, and how rapidly they embed themselves in our lives. In the dim and distant days of 2008, only one third of U.K. adults claimed to use the internet on a daily basis; today, two thirds of those same adults regard the internet as “an essential part of their life.” As our daily routines become increasingly cluttered with convenience-turned-necessities, it becomes harder to disentangle ourselves from the dangers of digital burnout. The convenience of hyperconnectivity means that we can never switch off from our emails and messages. We struggle to maintain a separation between work and home now that our boss can always contact us. We fret over cultivating a polished social media image for fear that a careless post will dent our reputation or scupper our career. The weight of convenience we’ve piled up around ourselves is beginning to crush us.
There’s nothing particularly new about these concerns. Two hundred and fifty years before anyone had heard the term “digital detox,” the economist and philosopher Adam Smith wrote that “trinkets and baubles … may save [their owner] from some smaller inconveniences,” but “leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow.” The sole difference between then and now is that, back in the 18th century, only the very wealthy, and thus the very few, could afford either trinkets or baubles. Today that number has skyrocketed—and with it the anxiety, fear and sorrow associated with the desire for convenient solutions to our problems.
There’s no reason to think the convenience industry will slow down any time soon. Since companies are free to invent new inconveniences, there will always be new problems to solve. The market can never saturate; the long-promised dawn of effortless living will never break. So how do we improve our troublesome relationship with convenience?
Appropriately enough, there’s no convenient solution to these problems. We, as consumers, are going to have to reassess our infatuation with convenience and our hatred of inconvenience. After all, tech companies won’t stop selling us unhealthy and unsustainable solutions to our problems as long as we keep buying them.
The desire for an easier, simpler life is inherent in us, and it has driven the countless innovations which make our lives so much more comfortable than those of our ancestors. But we can’t therefore expect that everything must always get easier. We can’t demand convenience at every hour of every day. Our insatiable appetites for simplicity and expediency are damaging us and the world around us. Consider convenience a little like fast food: feel free to treat yourself once in a while, but gorging on it all day every day is going to be bad for you and the planet.
None of this needs to be a bad thing for the tech industry, by the way. There are plenty of genuine problems they could be profitably solving if they weren’t wasting time trying to sell us wireless earphones and robotic window cleaners. I wrote earlier that many of our fundamental human needs have now been met. That’s true, but for how much longer? Resource shortages, demographic imbalance and, most pressingly, rapid climate deterioration will unleash new and old needs upon us, wherever we live in the world: the need to feed a ballooning global population; the need to adapt our economies to Europe’s aging demographic; the need to survive climate change.
It’s these emerging necessities, not fabricated inconveniences, at which humanity’s technological skills ought to be aimed. The Galileo satellites, for all their dizzying technical wizardry, join a long line of innovations that have failed to grasp this by focusing on the short-term rewards of the convenience economy rather than the long-term needs of a crowded planet.
If tech firms truly want to act responsibly, it’s time they started being a little more inconvenient.
This article appears in Are We Europe #5: Code of Conscience