Tim Wu on the Tyranny of Convenience

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)

Blog – Cal Newport

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