Bookmark: "The Tyranny of Convenience"

Sebastian Greger


This NYT Sunday op-ed on “The Tyranny of Convenience” by Tim Wu, policy advocate and professor at Columbia Law School, speaks to me in so many ways. It links my fascination for research on technology non-use with what I call a “constructively critical approach” to interaction design, and justifies all the countless days invested in debates on the Indieweb, on discussions about decentralisation and empowerment, on considering alternatives to mainstream solutions and working to promote the value of design ethics.

Wu outlines a comprehensive cultural history of “convenience”, and points out how it has become such a default value in society that resisting it is considered not just an edge case but outright odd:

To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.

For more about people “resisting convenience”, see my research on technology non-use – often related to choices against “convenience”, for a fascinating range of reasons.While this for sure applies for the often oversimplified assumption of all users to primarily be on the search for ultimate convenience (as defined by a tech industry only slowly awaking to the fact that their own utopias may not hold true), it also applies for common practice in many fields of design and innovation - if something has already been solved once by somebody with sufficient market penetration, a doctrine of convenience seems to dictate to use that rather than to question, challenge, and develop alternatives.

Following Wu’s argument, convenience can be seen as the source of both monoculture and monopoly. He illustrates this with the highly relatable example of the convenience of shopping at Amazon:

Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. […] Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.

And continues with a warning about the conflict between convenience and other values:

Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.

No matter do I think of recent debates about a developer-centredness in the web industry that comes at the price of inconveniencing (even endangering) the user, of the wide-spread resistance to privacy regulation as inconvenient rather than an opportunity to rethink how tech treats human beings, or of the growing risks monopolised convenience poses for entire democracies - Wu’s analysis brilliantly makes sense of it all.

The text in the New York Times ends with a call to action, I’d love to see on a wall poster:

So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest. The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity.

This, I believe, is the true task at hand today: to overcome an often dominant culture of convenience by providing solutions that may not appear quite as convenient (but could well be) but that prove their value by making ever more people aware of the importance of inconvenience, of staying in control, of the freedom to deviate.

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.

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