The Tyranny of Convenience

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Columbia law professor Tim Wu is worried about what he calls "the tyranny of convenience"—very worried, in fact. He believes that "convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today." Leaving aside the caveat that roughly a billion people still spend most of their day gathering water and firewood, Wu is surely onto something. We catch glimpses of it when we fret about our dependency on smart phones, or when we switch on the seat-warmers in our SUVs, or when we ponder the irony of curing couch-potato obesity with vast rows of stationary, TV-equipped cardio machines.

Professor Wu dates the convenience revolution from the 1950s, when Jetsons-styled dreams of fast food, moving sidewalks and disposable commodities first came into view. The Sixties ethos of nonconformity stunted this first formation, he argues, only to usher in a second and more durable version in the 1970s—a paradigm shift symbolized by the Sony Walkman. "If the first convenience revolution promised to make life and work easier for you, the second promised to make it easier to be you," Wu observes. "The new technologies were catalysts of selfhood. They conferred efficiency on self-expression." Like many of us, Wu agonizes about the impact of Amazon, Facebook, iTunes and the habits of selfish gratification they appear to reinforce. But his disappointingly tepid prescriptive advice—that we "reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens"—remains that of the committed hobbyist. Build your own birdhouse, bake from scratch, get a push mower. "Embrace the inconvenient," he urges us.

The flaw in Wu's formulation is historical. We might think of the 1950s as the epochal moment in the history of labour-saving efficiency. But, in fact, the modernist philosophical critique of the tyranny of convenience came much earlier—and it neither underestimated nor misunderstood the threat.

One of the most brilliant but also accessible texts in the genre is E.M. Forster's short story The Machine Stopswhich was published in 1909 and drew on the even earlier prophetic fiction of H.G. Wells. In Forster's day, roughly a third of the labor force in the West worked on farms, and another third were industrial workers. His was not an era, in other words, in which armies of sedentary service workers spent their days moving numbers around on screens. Yet Forster could plainly see what was coming. His protagonist in The Machine Stops, Vashti, spends her days and nights alone in an austere room wired with technological wonders. "There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world." Vashti communicates with her family and friends using a technology recognizable to us as Skype. "The round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her." A public intellectual, Vashti tries to evoke European society before it was enveloped by communications technology—a futile endeavor because the primal force animating her own life is a paralyzing fear of the outside world. "She had studied the civilization that had immediately preceded her own—the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people." When her son asks her to travel by airship to see him in person, she recoils at the idea.

We are rightly dazzled, more than a century later, by E.M. Forster's technological prescience. But even more prophetic was his reckoning of the profound social and psychological impoverishment that would occur en route from the gritty reality of his own world, that of Edwardian Britain, to the virtual reality of Vashti's. For twenty-first-century readers, the most chilling line in The Machine Stops is also the most familiar."Vashti was seized with the terrors of direct experience." Forster's fable illuminates, in short, what Professor Wu has perceived only through a glass darkly. The true tyranny of convenience lies in its capacity to alter our experience of the world so completely that we can neither comprehend what has been lost in achieving it, nor imagine how we could survive without it.