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 future isn’t what it used to be in “Back to the Future, Part II (source)

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.

One of the last images of Saturn taken by NASA’s awesome Cassini mission

Convenience Revisited

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.

Of course we’re open! (source)

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.

Like what?

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.

Workers in the field in “The Red Vineyard” by Vincent van Gogh (1888)

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)




Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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