The other day I was talking to my teenage son about how it would be to travel back in time to some bygone era. The Roman republic, say, or medieval London, or the time of the French Revolution. We were speculating about what would strike us as being different from our 21st-century way of life.
The obvious answer is the absence of the trappings of modernity. No iPhones, no airplanes, no designer sneakers, no social media, you name it. But we soon turned to the more profound changes that have less to do with what you would or wouldn’t have in such a past age, and more with fundamental differences in the fabric of society.
A Different World
Back then, for starters, there would have been far fewer elderly people around. The place would smell godawful, especially in a city. Many more people would be seriously ill, crippled or otherwise physically incapacitated. Life would be more violent and less free. Death—by natural or unnatural causes—would be everywhere. Many people would never have traveled far from their birthplace. Ideas based on magic and superstition would be much more prevalent. Persons, goods and knowledge would travel far more slowly. And so on and so forth.
This puts into relief not only how advanced our lives are today by comparison, but also how convenient our daily goings-on have become. You don’t even have to look very far back to see the difference.
When I was my son’s age, we had one phone in the house, tied to one place. Talking on the phone meant sitting still in that place for as long as it took. Back then, if I wanted to know something about oh, the solar system, I would have to… go to the library, look up a relevant book in the filing system, go find that book on its shelf, read the table of contents to find out where to look, and then sit down to read the chapter that held whatever information I was looking for.
Now I can just say, “Hey Siri, what’s the diameter of Saturn?” And hey presto, it’s 120,536 km at the equator. How convenient.
When you come to think of it, “conveniences” are everywhere, both large and small. All I need to do is look around me as I write this article. The handle on my teacup. The glasses on my nose. The watch on my wrist. The pencil case on my desk. The pencils. The pencil sharpener in the drawer. The drawer. The volume knob on my speakers. The Post-Its.
The list goes on and on. Just about everything that surrounds us is meant to make our day less cumbersome or less uncomfortable in some way. Convenience rules supreme.
It comes as no surprise, then, that convenience has a long pedigree. In a sense, it has always been at the heart of all cultural and technological advances. A plow is a better, more convenient way to till the earth. Writing is a more convenient way to disseminate information. The wheel, the windmill, the supermarket, skis, money, the bow and arrow—they all enable behavioral adaptations that make life easier, freeing up energy and time for us to spend on other things.
One way to invest that extra time and energy is to pursue further improvements that create or extend the conveniences we already have, possibly into other areas. This creates a feedback loop in which one convenience generates another, on and on, which is essential to any kind of societal progress.
What is the likelihood of a culture inventing the washing machine if it hasn’t created the wheelbarrow first? Not very great, I think.
Another way to spend our conveniently liberated time and energy is in activities that may not lead directly to additional convenience, but that add something else of value into the mix. Art, poetry, philosophy, opera… these are laudable pursuits, but they are surplus-dependent. They exist by the grace of the fact that the way in which we engage in other pursuits has become convenient and efficient enough to allow us all some free headspace.
A group of hunter-gatherers who have to forage all day just to feed themselves and their children will never get round to writing King Lear.
What’s the Downside?
So far, so good. Convenience makes our existence easier, and it lets us enjoy some of the finer pleasures of life. But is that the whole story? Can convenience go too far?
I think it can, and I think there are two concerns to think about.
The first concern is a question of degree. A little convenience in life is very welcome. It keeps us sane. It gives us the freedom to explore thoughts that reach beyond our daily concerns. But an overdose of convenience can be, paradoxically, stifling. I am reminded of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his beautiful theory of flow, which says that we are most happy if the things that keep us occupied are neither too difficult nor too easy for our skill level.
This brings us back to the question we addressed earlier: how do you spend the time and energy that is freed up by convenience? If you use it to add quality to your existence in other ways, fine. But if any part of your life becomes so free of difficulties that you can’t decide how to use that freedom, then you’ve stumbled upon another problem. Instead of convenience generating a surplus of time and energy, you now have a surplus of convenience itself—and you don’t know what to do with it.
As an aside: if you haven’t heard about “flow” before, you may want to check out the seminal book by Professor Csikszentmihalyi or, for starters, watch his TED talk:
The second concern is a question of “metabolism”. In an organism, metabolism is the biochemical process in which nutrients are first extracted from an outside source (usually food) and then converted into components that help to sustain or create living cells. In other words, it is an energetic process of breaking down and building up.
A metabolism depends on molecular interactions. You can’t metabolize a 5‑cent coin; it just comes out again on the other end, unaltered. For an organism to absorb energy from its environment, molecules must bump into and affect each other. There must be reactions, changes, chemistry—let’s call it friction.
In many ways the story of a human life, or human culture, is itself also a process of extracting, converting and sustaining. Our humanity has a metabolism of sorts, and this similarly requires friction. And there’s the catch. Because the whole point of convenience is that it diminishes friction.
Is this “friction”—all of our work, difficulties, efforts, disappointments, patience, concessions—an inalienable part of the human experience? It may well be.
Perfection? No Thank You
Try to imagine someone for whom everything went perfectly, every day of their life. No friction. No metabolism. No inconvenience. Could such a person ever really understand what it means to be you or me? Could they arrive at some practical insight they could share to improve the lives of others? I doubt it.
Perhaps that is the inherent contradiction of convenience. We are only able to make certain aspects of our lives more convenient because we have learned something from feeling the friction that was there before. That’s our mental or cultural metabolism at work. You need to experience how unpleasant it is to hold a piping hot tea cup before you can come up with the idea to put a handle on it.
Creativity, hope, delight, invention, understanding, expectation, achievement, innovation, wisdom—these are all born in some way from inconvenience. Our troubles and struggles are an invitation to learn, to invent, to improve. Not just for ourselves, but for all. And that is, conveniently, a good thing.
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Image credit: Cosmin Paduraru (source)