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Tim Wu on the Tyranny of Convenience

March 3rd, 2018 · 34 comments

An Important Essay

Earlier this month, Tim Wu wrote an important 2500-word essay for the New York Times’s Sunday Review. It was titled: “The Tyranny of Convenience.”

Wu’s piece is both deep and scattered — an indication that the target of his inquiry, the role of “convenience” in shaping the culture and economy of the last century, is both crucial and under-explored.

His thesis begins with the claim that we’ve increasingly oriented our lives around convenience, which has benefits, such as reducing drudgery, but at the same time can leech individuality and character from our lives.

This basic idea is not new. Mid-century writers like Richard Yates were already quite concerned about related issues like suburban conformity.

But Wu distinguishes his analysis by identifying how consumer-oriented companies reacted to the destabilization of the 1960’s counterculture by instead focusing on making the quest for individuality itself more convenient.

Here’s Wu:

“Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor…It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves.”

The irony, Wu points out, is that this convenient individuality turns out to be “surprisingly homogenizing.”

As he elaborates:

“Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook, It is the most convenient way to keep track of your friends and family, who in theory should represent what is unique about you and your life. Yet Facebook seems to make us all the same.”

I think Wu’s on to something. These contradictions of convenience are crucial to understanding the dissatisfactions of our current moment.

Streaming music services like Spotify made the experience of listening to music you like easier than ever before in the history of this medium. In response, however, the cumbersome vinyl record surged in popularity.

Making music more convenient seems to have made it worse.

In the professional sector, email and smartphones makes communication with colleagues ubiquitous and trivial. In response, however, non-industrial productivity stagnated.

Making business communication more convenient seems to have made people worse at creating valuable things.

Wu concludes with an interesting suggestion: “So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens.”

I, for one, am in favor of this experiment.

(Photo by Fabien LE JEUNE)

34 thoughts on “Tim Wu on the Tyranny of Convenience

  1. I love the idea of experimenting on a life sans smart phone . My null hypothesis: I can’t live without a smart device. For the past three months, I have consistently been able to reject the null in favor of the alternative hypothesis: I can live just fine without a smart phone.

    Another timely article for me, as I am thinking deeply on the cost of ‘convenience’, as it relates to smart technology. Thanks Cal!

  2. Carl says:

    I’m currently writing about healthy impulsivity. In a way technology has hijacked or eroded our ability to discern and implement healthier impulses. Put another way, for example, the impulse to play with your kids versus checking Facebook.

    1. Jeff says:

      Would love to check that out when finished!

      1. Carl says:

        Sure…you could send me a connection request on Linked In. A link to that writing will be there within a week or two.

  3. Dallin says:

    I really enjoyed looking at how Facebook has just helped us minimize our mental resources, and how that has had detrimental effects on our lives.

    1. Dave says:

      Agree with you Dall I can even see the effects even on young children.

  4. tyson says:

    I love your thought! I couldn’t agree more. It continues to amaze me how crippling technology like cell phones can be when in reality its initial use was to help us to be more free. We could now travel further, communicate from longer distances faster, and really explore. Now all society does is explore social media in the comfort of their couch with rare face to face interactions.

  5. Amanda says:

    When I read this article, I was instantly reminded of an Alan Lightman essay from 10+ years ago:

    http://faculty.winthrop.edu/hinera/CRTW-Spring_2012/Prisoners_of_the_Wired_World.pdf

    While Lightman focuses more on how wasting time for many is becoming a thing of the past:

    “All around me, everywhere I go, I feel a sense of urgency, a vague fear of not keeping up with the world, a vague fear of not being plugged-in. I feel like the character K in Kafka’s The Trial, who lived in a world of ubiquitous suspicion and powerful but invisible authorities. Yet there is no real authority here, only a pervasive mentality. I struggle to understand what has happened to the world and to me, why it has happened, and what exactly has been lost.”

    it is very akin to the idea that Wu presents–we have less chance in our lives, as we have so much planned, organized and categorized. And perhaps chance is something we crave or need in our lives.

  6. Duncan Osborne says:

    Hey Cal,

    Thank you very much for all your very useful articles, they have helped me tremendously over the years.

    I was curious to know if you had read this or what you think of this line of thinking in general:
    https://infoproc.blogspot.co.uk/2007/01/brutal-just-brutal.html

    The link is to an article by Charles Murray on intelligence and IQ in academia.

    I’d be very curious to see what you have to say about this piece in particular.

  7. William says:

    I think this is a very important and interesting topic to discuss. Our quest for “freedom” to explore and communicate with the outside world has, in many ways, kept us from exploring what’s around us and communicating in meaningful ways. It’s made some of those things too easy and therefore, maybe, seem of less worth. These things can be powerful tools when we control them, not the other way around.

  8. Nate B. says:

    Wow! I didn’t realize it until I read this post but, I’ve fallen into this trap of trying to make my life too convenient. Convenience can be a good thing but, I think we today as society focus too much on making life convenient and actually end up making life harder for ourselves. We’ve handicapped ourselves with convenience. Yesterday for example, I didn’t have my phone or tablet and didn’t work on any of my of my homework assignments until later when I got them back. Why? It wasn’t like I couldn’t do any of my homework without my tablet or phone. It was just more convenient to do my homework with the help of my tablet and phone, so I put it off for a few hours. Convenience has also probably stopped me from taking risks that could have benefits, like participating in social activities that are out of my comfort zone. I could make new friends and relationships but, it’s been too inconvenient for me to participate in such things, so I haven’t.

  9. Kaz says:

    I have often fell into the trap of things being too convenient. Sometimes if things are in anyways inconvenient it seems much worse compared to everything else and I end up putting it off, or just never doing it. I think there is nothing wrong with things being more convenient but it seems to make us never want to do things that are inconvenient, because convenience is the norm. You have to push yourself to do the things that are inconvenient, but will benefit you in the long run.

  10. Kevin Taylor says:

    I really like what you had to say about convenience. They way that you were able to look at convenience really made a lot of sense and really opened my eyes to life. It really is nice that we have so many things that make our lives convenient like TV’s, Phones, Social Media and countless more. But I feel like in a way we are becoming enslaved to things that make our lives more convenient. I feel like I would have a hard time not using my phone for a day it just makes life so much more convenient. But it also makes us lazy, socially and mentally dull. We as people need to find a good balance, use our phones sometimes but also work hard to develop talents, do things that you love to do. Do things that make you different from everyone else and im sure as we do this we will see an increase of happiness in our lives.

  11. Kelvin says:

    In my opinion as a student. i am kind of grateful for that “Convenience” because i believe one day if human start to be not convenience this world will stop growing.
    Like us, A experience provides a way for us being more convenience, so humanity are build on convenience. Who would like walk to the shop if we have a car. right?

  12. Braden says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this intriguing article. I myself have started to notice this in my own life, convenience turns life into “drudgery”. I find when I throw a TV dinner into the microwave, I eat it just to eat it, but when I properly cook my own meal from scratch, I sit down and truly enjoy it. I think convenience is crippling us, it makes us more complacent, damages our work ethic and in a way, can make life more difficult by focusing on the unimportant and useless things in life.

  13. mitch says:

    I totally agree everything now is revolving around convenience. we are lazy creatures and will do the bare minimum when we can.

  14. Merrick Newbury says:

    This reminds me a lot about another topic I read about talking about the abundance of choice in our daily lives. We often think that more choices is better, and while it’s true that more choices can be good, it also makes it a lot harder to make said choices. Take finding a career for example; there’s a million different jobs in the world that it can overwhelm, the stress of picking just one career to go into and being set along that path is scary when you never know what better jobs are out there.

  15. Spencer Parks says:

    I absolutely love this article. It is so true that when we focus on what matters most and going outside of what we are used to hearing that things work better. I Like the idea of being more open to take risks. It’s unfortionate that our society has in a way sort of stunted our growth with technology and other things that dull our capabilities

  16. Thomas says:

    I really enjoyed this post. When I reflect upon my life I come to realize that my greatest memories or moments are when I accomplished a task that was difficult. Having a life focused on avoiding the hard and looking for the easy route is a life deprived of fulfillment and meaning.

  17. Jacob Lawrence says:

    You don’t want to make anything too easy because things won’t turn out the way you want it to. It’s always important to be thoughtful about what’s best for yourself and others.

    Is it worth it to do things the easy way?

    It can be bad to do things the easy way because easy things make people less unique.

  18. David says:

    Once again, I feel validated (and less alone) in my state of unrest with the “convenience” of technology. To be clear, I believe technology–in itself–holds great value, providing opportunities mankind has never had before. That said, our downfall seems to be the inclination to default to all-things-tech for everything–across all (most) facets of our lives–which seems to drain our human desire to be intentional. I’m the guy who spins vinyl records, keeps a black address book (paper), and a daily work journal (paper). But I’m also the guy that uses digital music in the gym, and enjoys clearing email clutter from a smartphone before starting my day. Go figure.

  19. Dylan says:

    It really helped me realize that I shouldn’t always look for the convinces in life, but that I should work hard for what I truly want. Convince isn’t always bad, but there are often better things.

  20. Emily says:

    I agree and I like this a lot. I think that although Facebook and other devices like that can be good at times and can help you connect with people you know but it can also make it so you are not connecting with the people around you. You can be trying to connect with your friends and family far away but ignoring and not being there for the people right around you because you are always on Facebook or social media. I think that all the technology around us can be amazing and help our lives and many others in many ways but we need to be careful how much time we spend on them and make sure we are living in the moment and really enjoying our lives.

  21. Kaitlyn Torrez says:

    I have to agree with this article. It’s crazy to think how easily we are all connected now but I think that having everything at the touch of our fingertips has made us lazy. We have all of these resources but we haven’t used them for the right reasons/their full potential. I love this post.

  22. Louise says:

    The novel one practical idea I retained and tunnelled through from Doctor Wu: The hobby as a side chance for real non-convenient work to be tried out and performed for real. A socio-economical and individual possible evolution?
    Might read as a detail?

  23. Adrian says:

    Wu pretty much just restated what Orwell wrote in Road to Wigan Pier nearly a century ago. Nothing new, regardless of the tech focus

  24. Stonebridge says:

    On the other hand, technology freed the mind up through automation or the use of devices. That time can be used for something else, and it is not necessarily replaced with a lazy convenience. For example, you can use automation to schedule social media posts, but you can use that precious time better by creating a blog post, or artistic design, or making music. Things that technology can’t do.

  25. Carol says:

    With all the time we’re saving with all this convenience, we have even more time to what? Surf the web! We’re certainly not out having face-to-face interactions and being kind to one another.

  26. Josh says:

    Interesting Article from the NYTimes about a guy who has intentionally isolated himself from the news. It reminds me of a modern take on Walden.

    If you have time, its a great read.
    https://mobile.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/style/the-man-who-knew-too-little.html

  27. PN says:

    Amazing points. Every time you chose convenience, you’re sacrificing something else.

  28. Also, technologically oriented convenience removes the natural aspects of doing those same activities manually or within a structure. For example, when garage doors were manual, the effort was physical and numerous physical activities required for living kept people in shape. The corded landline phone required strategic planning and timing when using the phone as a kid. This fostered natural discipline and focus. As these activities become more automated, we can easily miss or lose sight of what’s lost in the transition.

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