Op-Ed: The cost of saying yes to convenience
I’m not buying an Apple Watch. It’s not because I’m cheap, or a Luddite or not fully initiated into the Cult of Steve. I’m not buying one because it would make my life too easy, too convenient.
We live in the Age of Convenience. That concept lies at the heart of what Silicon Valley is selling and we are so eagerly buying. We see convenience not only as a nicety but an expectation, an entitlement. Our love of convenience is so ingrained, its inherent goodness so self-evident that we can’t imagine any other way. Why would anyone, other than a masochist, choose the hard way when there is an easier alternative?
There are, in fact, many downsides. I’m not arguing for a return to the inconvenient Paleolithic Era, but too often we fail to recognize the full cost of our convenient lives. There’s an environmental cost — think of all those convenient plastic K-cups clogging the ecosystem — as well as personal and social costs.
Convenient food, such as sliced apples and pre-cut, prewashed lettuce, is pricier. But many studies have also cited health costs, blaming the increasing convenience of processed food for the obesity epidemic in the United States.
Shopping on Amazon is wonderfully, magically convenient. Point. Click. Enjoy. Every time you order a book from the online giant, you take business away from your neighborhood bookstore, perhaps hastening its demise. And it’s one less chance for human interaction.
Yes, in theory, conveniences free up time to spend with family or on the golf course, but such optimistic predictions of a leisure bonanza are invariably wrong. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that “our grandchildren” would work about “three hours a day.” The truth is that while we are spending a bit less time at the office, we feel busier than ever. Besides, tethered to our smartphones, many of us never really leave the office.
Having it too easy degrades our capacity for compromise. We lead increasingly comfortable, atomized lives. Our cars feature separate climates for driver and passenger; our mattresses offer separate degrees of firmness. Comfortable? Sure. Convenient? Yes, but if we can’t compromise on the small stuff, like mattress firmness, how can we expect to do so for truly pressing problems?
We’d also be a lot wiser if we were to embrace difficulty rather than run from it. In the 1990s, UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork was studying how students learn and noticed that when students faced obstacles, they retained more information in the long run. The techniques vary — making learning material less organized, varying the setting, using fonts that are harder to read — but the principle is the same: When we break a sweat, we learn more. Bjork called this phenomenon “desirable difficulty.”
Or consider a 2014 study on note-taking. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, of Princeton University and UCLA, respectively, asked half the students in a college lecture to use laptop computers, and instructed the other half to use paper and pen. The laptop users took more notes, but the paper-and-pen group scored considerably higher on comprehension.
Mueller and Oppenheimer surmised that the longhand note-takers couldn’t mindlessly transcribe the lecture verbatim. They were forced to condense and synthesize the material — in other words, to think deeply about it. They benefited from desirable difficulty. Likewise, having to reach farther than your wrist to check the weather forecast isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Desirable difficulty does not mean impossible difficulty. For obstacles to be useful, they must be surmountable.)
Human beings crave boundaries, obstacles and, yes, inconvenience. Scratch the surface of our frothy lives and you see this truth laid bare. Take, for example, Buddhism. It is not the easiest religion, as anyone who has attempted to meditate for five minutes knows, yet it is immensely popular. Why? Because on some deep, intuitive level we know that we have to do hard work to attain what we’re seeking.
The late philosopher Robert Nozick’s thought experiment offers further proof of that. Imagine a contraption, an Experience Machine, that provides you with infinite, eternal happiness. Would you want to be hooked up to it? Most people answer no. Why? Isn’t happiness what we all want? Yes, but we desire an earned happiness, not just something dispensed to us. Many have chosen convenience above all else, no matter the costs — and it is a choice.
As for me, I’ve begun to incorporate desirable difficulty into my life. I’ve ditched my capsule coffee maker and replaced it with a hand-pour one. It takes much longer, is less convenient, but the coffee tastes better. It tastes better not despite the relatively arduous process but because of it.
Eric Weiner is the author of the forthcoming “The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley.”
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