The Myth of Convenience

I once suggested that the four horsemen of the digital apocalypse will be called Convenience, Security, Innovation, and Lulz. These were the values, so to speak, driving the production and enthusiastic adoption of digital technologies regardless of their more dubious qualities.

I was reminded of the line while reading Colin Horgan’s recent piece, “The Tyranny of Convenience.” Horgan rightly highlights the degree to which the value of convenience drives our choices and informs our trade-offs.

“In the ongoing and growing opposition to the seemingly dystopian world technology companies are building, convenience is often overlooked,” Horgan observes. “But it’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us, that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

Not unlike Kara Swisher in a piece from a few weeks ago, Horgan does not absolve us of responsibility for the emerging digital dystopia. Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that tech companies and structural factors play no role. That goes without saying, but, you know, I’ll say it anyway. 

I would certainly not claim that the playing field on which we make our choices about technology is always level or fair; nonetheless,  it seems to me that we have more agency than we are sometimes given credit for, which, of course, entails a measure of responsibility. Indeed, the idea that we are basically helpless in the face of some vast and inscrutable techno-corporate machinery undermines the critical reflection and action that may be required of us.

There’s a line from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life that has always stuck with me ever since I first encountered it:  “it is always good to remind ourselves that we mustn’t take people for fools.”

But if we are not fools, by and large, and we are making choices, albeit sometimes against a stacked deck, how is it that, in Horgan’s apt formulation, we find ourselves living “in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.” (Granted: “we all chose” is in need of qualification.)

“[C]onvenience is a value, and one we hold personally,” Horgan concludes. “Ultimately, this is why it keeps winning, outweighing the more abstract ideas like privacy, democracy, or equality, all of which remain merely issues for most of us.” “Convenience,” he adds, “doesn’t simply supersede privacy or democracy or equality in many of our lives. It might also destroy them.” But this, too, requires a measure of explanation.

The Self-defeating Value of Convenience

Horgan’s piece recalled to mind Thomas Tierney’s The Value of Convenience:  A Genealogy of Technical Culture. Tierney’s book is over 25 years old now, but it remains a useful exploration of the value of convenience and its role in shaping our technological milieu. His argument draws on an eclectic set of sources and ranges over the history of technology, political theory, philosophy, and the history of religion.

Tierney’s work supports Horgan’s claim that convenience is an often overlooked factor shaping our technological culture, but he also tries to understand why this might be the case. What exactly is the nature of the convenience we prize so highly, and why do we find it so valuable? Perhaps it seems unnecessary to ask such questions, as if the value of convenience were self-evident. But the questions most of us don’t think to ask are often the most important ones we could ask. When we encounter an unasked question we have also found an entry point into the network of assumptions and values that structure our thinking but go largely unnoticed.

Tierney explains early on that there are two basic questions he is asking: “First, what is the value of technology to modern individuals? And second, why do they hold this value in such high esteem that, even when faced with technological dangers and dilemmas, they hope for solutions that will enable them to maintain and develop technical culture?”

Nietzsche looms large in Tierney’s analysis, and he introduces the primary focus of the book with a passage from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“I go among this people and keep my eyes open:  they have become smaller and are becoming ever smaller:  and their doctrine of happiness and virtue is the cause.

For they are modest even in virtue—for they want ease. But only a modest virtue is compatible with ease.”

For “etymological reasons,” Tierney chooses to call this desire for ease convenience. “The value of technology in modernity,” he will argue, “is centered on technology’s ability to provide convenience.” He’s quick to add, though, that he is not interested in lamenting the smallness or mediocrity of modern individuals and their virtues. Rather, he seeks “to throw some light on, and thereby loosen, the hold which technology has on modernity. The desire for convenience seems to be an integral part of that hold—that is, an integral part of the modern self.”

Tierney is also not interested in offering a singular and definitive account of technological culture. Early on, he makes clear that the nature of technological culture is such that it requires multiple perspectives and lines of analysis, and even then it will likely elude any effort to identify its essence.

Regarding the nature of convenience, Tierney sees in the modern value a reimagining of the body’s needs as limits to be overcome. “The distinction I would like to make between ancient and modern necessity,” Tierney writes, “is that ancient necessity was primarily concerned with satisfying the demands of the body, while modern necessity is largely focused on overcoming the limits which are imposed by the body …. And by the limits of the body, I mean certain features of embodiment which are perceived as inconveniences, obstacles, or annoyances.”

Following a discussion of necessity in the context of the ancient Greek household, Tierney insists that modern necessity, just as much as ancient necessity, “is based upon the body.” However, modern attitudes towards the body differ from those of the ancient Greeks: “While the Greeks thought that the satisfaction of bodily demands required careful attention and planning throughout the household, modernity treats the body instead as the source of limits and barriers imposed upon persons. What these limits require is not planning and attention, but the consumption of various technological devices that allow people to avoid or overcome such limits.”

At points citing the work of Paul Virilio, Tierney adds a critical temporal dimension to this distinction. The demands of the body are seen “as inconveniences in that they limit or interfere with the use of time.” Technology is valuable precisely as it appears to mitigate these inconveniences. “Time-saving,” as is well known, has long been a selling point for modern household technologies.

“The need for speed,” Tierney continues, “both in conveyance and in people’s ability to satisfy the demands of the body, is a hallmark of modern necessity.” But this is a paradoxical desire: “Unlike purely spatial limits, as soon as a speed limit is overcome, another limit is simultaneously established. The need to do things and get places as quickly as possible is a need that can never be satisfied. Every advance imposes a new obstacle and creates the need for a more refined or a new form of technology.”

It brings to mind a line from Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic: “The ‘end’ or ‘goal’ is to keep going. Americans, as F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded, believe in the green light.” The green light, constant motion in whatever direction, acceleration—these are, of course, no ‘ends’ at all. They are what you have left when you have lost sight of any true ends. It is fruitless to save time if you don’t know why exactly your are saving it for.

There’s something rather pernicious about this. It seems clear that despite the continual adoption of technologies that promise to save time or make things more convenient, we do not, in fact, feel as if we have more time at all. There are a number of factors that may explain this dynamic. As Neil Postman noted around the same time that Tierney was writing his book, the “winners” in the technological society are wont to tell the “losers” that “their lives will be conducted more efficiently,” which is to say more conveniently. “But discreetly,” he quickly adds, “they neglect to say from whose point of view the efficiency is warranted or what might be its costs.” Tierney himself admits that what he has to say is likely to be met “with a degree of self-preserving … denial” because he will argue that “a certain value is not freely chosen by individuals, but is demanded by various facets of the technological order of modernity.” Which is why, as Horgan put it, “we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.”

Convenience, Asceticism, and Death

Tierney notes that others have focused on the domination of nature as the guiding value of modern technology. However, he makes a useful distinction between the value that animates the producers of technology and the value that animates the consumers of technology. The domination of nature, according to Tierney, “has been the value which guides the cutting edge of technology; it is the value pursued by the leaders of technological progress, the scientists and technicians.” Convenience, however, “is the value of the masses, of those who consume the products of technical culture.”

Admittedly, there is something about “the domination of nature” that seems somewhat archaic or passé. One doesn’t imagine Bill Gates or Jack Dorsey, say, waking in the morning, taking in a whiff of the morning air, and declaring, “I love the smell of Francis Bacon in the morning!”

However, there are a couple of interesting paths to take from here. One is presented to us by the evergreen mid-twentieth observation by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man that “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” If you seek to conquer nature, you will eventually run into the realization that humanity is just another part of nature and, thus, the last realm to be conquered.

“Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man,” Lewis writes. “The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.”

“The battle will indeed be won,” Lewis reiterates, “But who, precisely, will have won it?”

Well, again: “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

This does seem rather more familiar now than the older language about the domination of nature. For whatever else we may say of digital technology and its purveyors, it certainly appears as if a vast, often unseen machinery is being built in order to realize dreams of what Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann have called “engineered determinism.” The world, as I’ve noted before, is becoming our very own giant, personalized Skinner Box, and we assent to it, in no small measure, because of the promise of convenience.

So while Tierney’s claim that the technological elite are operating under the banner of the conquest of nature may have initially seemed somewhat dated, we need only observe that, in certain cases, it has simply morphed into its next phase. Which, to be clear, is not to say that this is the only motive at work among those who produce the technology most of us consume. But there’s another angle that’s worth considering, and with this we segue into something of the heart of Tierney’s claims.

In Tierney’s understanding, “the consumption of convenience in modernity reflects a certain contempt for the body and the limits it imposes.” This, in his view, lends to convenience a discernible ascetic quality. “[T]he fetishistic attitudes toward technology and the rampant consumption of ‘conveniences’ which characterize modernity are a form of asceticism,” Tierney explains.

This is an intriguing observation to revisit in light of the various accounts of the rather interesting practices that occasionally emanate out of Silicon Valley. Examples that come readily to mind include Jack Dorsey’s practice of intermittent fasting and his meditation retreats, Elon Musk’s sleep deprivation, and Ray Kurzweil’s diet- and pill-driven effort to live long enough to witness the singularity. Soylent obviously qualifies as a case in point, especially in light of its creator’s motivations for concocting the meal-replacement drink. Ultimately, of course, the apotheosis of this strand of body-denying asceticism lies in the aspirations of the posthumanists, so many of whom demonstrate a not even thinly veiled contempt for our bodily limits and whose eschatological visions often entail a radical re-configuration of our bodies or else a laying aside of them altogether. What this entails, of course, is a radical reimagining of death itself as a limit to be overcome.

Tierney already anticipated as much in the early 90s. He hints early on at how the value of convenience was becoming a leading factor on the production side of technology. His closing chapter is a reflection on this theorizing of the death simply as a problem to be solved. In it, he cites the astronomer Robert Jastrow’s 1981 work of futurology, The Enchanted Loom:  Mind in the Universe. “At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weaknesses of moral flesh,” Jastrow writes, 

Connected to cameras, instruments, and engine controls, the brain sees, feels, and responds to stimuli. It is in control of its own destiny. The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind. The union of mind and machine has created a new form of existence, as well designed for life in the future as man is designed for life on the African savanna.

It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever.”

Tierney includes an interesting footnote on this passage. He says that he first learned about it in an article by David Lavery, who described being on a panel on “Computers, Robots, and You” alongside what he called a “body-snatcher,” presumably someone who exhibited a disdain of the body and welcomed the day he would be rid of it. When Lavery expressed a reluctance to abandon his body, the “body-snatcher” called him a “carbon chauvinist.” (Lavery’s article, paywalled, appeared in The Hudson Review in 1986.)

The point, of course, is not these posthumanist fantasies—or (post-)Christian fan fiction as I’ve put it elsewhere—will necessarily materialize, rather it is that they are symptomatic of a set of values that do a lot of work in the conception and development of perfectly ordinary technology that many of us use everyday.

It is worth asking ourselves to what degree we have ordered our use of technology around the value of convenience. It is worth considering why exactly we value convenience or whether we have received the benefits that we expected. It’s worth considering what assumptions about the body structure our desire for convenience and whether or not we ought to reevaluate these assumptions. Would we not do better to understand our limits as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning,” to borrow a felicitous phrase from Wendell Berry, rather than as obstacles to be overcome?

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