We are addicted to convenience, and it’s a fatal attraction both for us and the planet

By Ashish KotharionFeb. 20, 2017in Perspectives

Observe an escalator and a flight of stairs at a railway station, airport or shopping mall, and count the number of people using each. The escalator-users will far outnumber those taking the stairs, even though most may be perfectly capable of climbing it.

I recently asked 100 students at a media college in Pune how many of them lived within 4 km of the college, and how many of these cycled? The response: while a few dozen stayed in this range, not a single one bicycled or walked to college, all used cars or motorised two-wheelers.

And how many of us often email or text or WhatsApp someone in the same office, when walking over and having a face-to-face conversation will do as well?

Convenience. We are addicts of convenience. And it is a fatal attraction, both for us and for the earth.

A classic example is the remote control. Not restricted to flipping television channels or CD songs from the comfort of our couch, the remote control now enables us to control every part of our smart house, if we happen to be rich enough to own one. No getting up to answer the door, make a meal, water the plants. And as electronics and robotics advance, every bit of our work can be replaced. I guess we will still make the effort to have sex… or will virtual reality dispense with that also?

Convenience now pervades every part of our life and lifestyle. Ready-made meals popped into the microwave, and two-minute noodles for children of parents too busy to cook. Computer programmes that do the spellcheck and math for us, making us mentally careless. Photoshop that allows me to make a perfect picture after having taken it, rather than use my brain and instincts during the shot. If I’m a pilgrim to a holy Himalayan site, I no longer want to walk up (was such effort not supposed to be intrinsic to the path to salvation?). I demand motorable roads.

So what? Is it not good that we can do more with less effort? Does it not help us save time that can be devoted to other activities?

The downside

Before we get into the claimed benefits of technologies of convenience, let us look at their downside. Almost every time we choose convenience over a bit of extra effort, we lose the chance of exercise, or of social interaction, or of saving ourselves and others from pollution. Every time we choose junky fast food, we abuse our bodies. Surely, all this must contribute to the obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stress-related epidemics sweeping the urbanised world?

But convenience is also trashing the earth and disrupting community life. Unlimited motorised transport and escalators, electrical and electronic gadgets, chemicals and packaging for increased shelf-life mean carbon emissions, pollution, chemical contamination, mining. Other species and other people (whose homes happen to be above the mining deposits) are just collateral damage for a society drunk on the technologies of convenience. The more machines take over, convenience also leads to worker layoffs, unemployment, and the wasting of handmade creativity. The more virtual our exchanges become, the less we relate to actual people.

And then we think up superficial solutions to these breakdowns, what I call systemic convenience. The state and corporations invent technological and market fixes to pretend they are solving the problems. The fossil fuel industry’s clever attempts at greening – for example, planting trees to supposedly offset emissions from thermal power plants, but making little attempt to eliminate the emissions in the first place – is an obvious example. But green economy proponents, too, are culpable as they come up with ambitious targets for renewable energy, avoiding inconvenient questions about how much energy we should be consuming in the first place. Unlimited solar energy production would trash the earth (silicon, a key component of solar panels, needs to be mined), only a bit slower than fossil fuels.

This is, in turn, linked to the way in which capitalism and state-led economies trap the vast majority of people into working harder and harder. With billions of people having to work long hours (mostly in boring jobs) just to keep their heads above water, conveniences are understandably tempting; as they are when patriarchy forces women to do impossible multi-tasking.

This is not a diatribe against technology. Nor am I an apologist for the drudgery of backbreaking, undignified labour that far too many people from marginalised classes, castes, and ethnicities are condemned to. When asked about a mechanised charkha, Gandhi said he was not against machinery that reduced drudgery, but against that which displaced labour. Technological innovations that enable greater dignity of work, change conditions of exploitation and ill-health, or empower women and other marginalised sections are welcome. Special facilities for the elderly, the differently abled, and otherwise disadvantaged are imperative. Note that the origin of the term convenience is to assemble or agree, from the Latin convenire (con- “together” + venire “come”). Electric toothbrushes, however, have little to do with this.

Doing it right

How then do we ensure that convenience is really about reducing drudgery and enhancing dignity, and not about sheer laziness? This question also arises regarding consumerism, another earth-trashing phenomenon. One then gets into not only the existence of the remote control, but of the dizzying rate at which new brands of televisions and cellphones come out. One has to question not only escalators in airports, but the ubiquity of air travel itself. The West’s throwaway society (increasingly adopted by the East also) is convenience and consumerism at its extreme.

But then there must be something deep within us that gets swayed by the advertising agencies promoting all this? How do we save ourselves from ourselves?

Perhaps, we have to appeal equally strongly to something else deep within us: a sense of community, solidarity, responsibility. For the better part of human history, societies have practised self-restraint in their use of natural resources. Such rules are inconvenient, for it is surely easier to hunt and fish all year round than take a break during the breeding season. But communities knew that doing so would have resulted in a subsequent crash in animal populations, leading to much greater long-term inconvenience. Wisdom and foresight prevailed over short-term convenience. Is this so hard for modern humans to learn?

Hard, yes, but not impossible. In several European cities, one sees people of various ages and classes, including businesspersons in their three-piece suits, cycling to work. This is also (very slowly) picking up among the urban Indian middle classes. Many of these cyclists could easily have used a motorised vehicle, but they chose exercise, perhaps ecological passion, or some other motivation, over convenience. Across the industrial world are the beginnings of a counter-trend: renewed interest in hand-made products, urban gardening, manually repairing things rather than throwing them away, reliving face-to-face interactions in neighbourhood assemblies, sharing products and services free of cost, living more simply without denying oneself basic needs and comforts. Overcoming convenience is a combination of urges: creative expression, concern for those who would face the consequences of our technological choices (including unborn generations), reconnecting with people and nature, and wisdom in the ability to choose what is right.

Imagine if cyclists, craftspersons, people living simple lives, and those willing to give their time and products freely were the role models in our schools… not the celebrities whose glitzy lifestyles fill the media? Imagine if learning and education systems focused on the dignity of labour, the pleasure of doing something with one’s hands, the thrill of seeing someone else happy, the visceral feeling of being within nature? Would it then not be possible to bring out the selfless, caring streak in us while retaining our own interests, a sort of responsible individualism? Would we then not create processes of social regulation of technologies, frowning on those that increase inequities and ecological havoc? As we move towards a greater sense of planetary oneness (sharpened by the very visible signs of climate and ecological distress the earth is in), these messages may well be heard more widely. We may then face up to the fact that convenience without bounds will create an extremely inconvenient future for all of us.

First published by Scroll

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Dr Anant Phadke February 24, 2017 at 7:00 am

Dear Ashish,

While I broadly agree with you on the overall point you have made in this piece, I would like to make a couple of points to put things in a broader framework.

You have quoted Gandhiji approvingly – “Gandhi said he was not against machinery that reduced drudgery, but against that which displaced labour.”. With due respect to Gandhiji, I would like to point out that though machinery by it’s very nature displaces, reduces human labour per piece of a product, by itself it does not cause unemployment. There is a difference between displacing labour and labourer. Any enterprise can use any machinery to reduce the number of people employed or can choose otherwise. In capitalism this choice is based on whether it will increase the profit and/or control of the capitalist. The problem is with this choice of the use of machinery and not with machinery itself. I am making this rather elementary point here because unfortunately this point is generally glossed over.

You have commented that “For the better part of human history, societies have practised self-restraint in their use of natural resources.” Let us also note that these societies had a very limited capacity to play mischief with nature, were incapable of causing climate change. It is debatable whether their relations with nature were shaped by their limited capacities or by their enlightened self-restraint. We, living under 21st century capitalism and statism desperately need restraint today for obvious reasons.

Yes, convenience can be a slippery road leading to laziness and wastage of resources and adding to eco-damage. Battery operated tooth brushes is a perfect example you have mentioned. However, most gadgets we use at home – mixer, fridge, washing machine, even fans and lights etc etc. are meant to increase convenience. Which out of these we need to stop using? I think, anything that can not be accessed by all humans on this earth for generations needs to be rejected, abandoned. The rest can continue. The demarcation between necessity and luxury is not always very easy to make. Universality and sustainability should be the definite dividing line. The rest is a matter of personal likes, dislikes.

All the talk about avoiding wastage, unnecessary consumption is currently applicable to only a small fraction of the society. For the majority, there is a need to increase consumption – better houses, more food items like – locally and organically grown – dals, eggs, milk, fruits, better health care, etc. Yet the larger point of value of frugality remains because once eco-destructive, unnecessary, wasteful consumption becomes the norm then aspirations, behaviour of the deprived also starts moving in the direction of this wastage as and when more resources are available. Hence I quite agree that we should advocate, practice frugality and the three Rs- reuse, repair, recycle.“

Alex Jensen February 23, 2017 at 9:31 am

Thank you Ashish for this incisive essay. This is such an important and rich topic.

One could marshal so many examples of how the manic pursuit of individual convenience is occasioning collective inconvenience (i.e. destruction). The figures for the societal costs of air pollution are but one. Another that I recall was a study calculating the economic costs in Europe only of health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in ‘conveniences’ like “food containers, plastics, furniture, toys, carpeting and cosmetics” at between €157bn-€270bn. And that’s only health care costs, and according to the narrow economistic way of measuring cost and value! The costs of destroyed lives and ruined minds is of course incalculable.

On the issue of (non-coercive, moderate) physical labor and well-being, I am also reminded of an article I read some years ago, ‘Depressingly Easy’, which adds neuroscientific and psychological corroboration to your case:

“We nuke prepared dishes rather than growing our own food and machine-wash ready-made clothes rather than sewing and scrubbing. Such conveniences may be contributing to rising rates of depression by depriving our brains of their hard-earned rewards.”

“Did we lose something vital to our mental health when we started pushing buttons instead of plowing fields? From a neuroanatomical point of view, I believe the answer is an emphatic yes.”

It also seems clear – related to your other recent ‘Aesth-ethics’ essay – that the growing surfeit of technological conveniences increasingly alienates us from nature, also to our detriment. Florence Williams’ recent book, ‘The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative’ is all about this. I recently heard her speak, and it was fascinating. A brief review of the book is here.

Of course, on the issue of the psycho-social effects of digital ‘conveniences’ (on cognition, concentration, relationships, and well-being), whole books have been (and surely will continue to be) written. Three that stand out for me: Nicholas Carr, ‘The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains’; Richard Watson, ‘Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing Our Minds’; and Jacob Silverman, ‘Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection’. The recent documentary, ‘Screenagers’, depicts the particular harms to the youth from the increasing hegemony of digital tech. (The irony of sharing this via… the internet and a laptop computer is not lost on me!)

Regarding your point about appropriate or intermediate technology that strikes a balance between convenience and drudgery, I was reminded of the experience of organizing tourists – usually, from major metros Indian and non-Indian alike – to go to Ladakhi villages to help with farmwork, in particular the very labor-intensive harvest. Though the tradition is diminishing with mondernization/globalization, the traditional harvest in Ladakh – like so many other places – is a very communal, mutually reciprocal affair. Families and neighbors come together to pool labor and help each other. Though the work is indeed physically taxing, in a big communal group, with songs, chatter, frequent tea/chang breaks, and lots of laughter, where there is no overseer or boss dictating to anyone, the work goes quickly and the experience is enjoyable, with the simplest of technologies (a mere sickle in hand) or no technology at all (literally, hand-harvesting). The social situation – absence of conditions of exploitation, as you say – plays the key role in distinguishing this from drudgery (though, of course, that is my subjective take – it is precisely the absence of mechanical ‘conveniences’ that causes conventional developmentalists to bemoan the whole thing as unremitting drudgery by definition.) For the city-wallahs, the experience was often one of real joy and satisfaction, and exhaustion of course (part of the satisfaction?), plus of course being re-connected to real night-sky and staggering stars for the first time in their lives often, among other natural qualities that still obtain where the techno-grid has penetrated less. For many of them the impact of the experience was profound and life-changing. It was a sort of deliberate de-conveniencing process.

Interestingly, as things like the diesel-powered threshing machine come in and ‘get the job done’ – that is get the grain harvest in – much more quickly and ‘conveniently’, many old-timers bemoan the displacement of the qualities like quiet, slowness, conversation and nature-attunement (e.g. winnowing when the wind blows, drinking chang when it doesn’t), and even the change in the taste and quality of the grain. The threshing machine necessitates cash (got from jobs, usually out of village), to be paid by the hour, so the imperative is to race through the process at a furious pace. An interesting thing to observe is how quickly the threshing machine has come to dominate the village scene over the past decade, how it has a sort of momentum of its own, how social pressures to conform have made the old way increasingly marginalized and shameful, even if it is still perfectly functional. I guess a similar pattern accompanies so many other technological transitions (e.g., mobile phones, without which one can of course survive, but without which one is also increasingly condemned to social isolation to the extent that everyone else has moved to them for communication – this calls into question just how ‘sovereign’ we really are in choosing, or rejecting, technology).

Along these lines, a fascinating look at how very socially and political-economically constructed across history are notions of things like convenience, I suggest Elizabeth Shove’s book, ‘Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality’. An entire technological-industrial and marketing industry was and is involved in constantly creating and updating norms, such that there is always a new normal to sell to the public, and then a changed public demanding more upgrades in turn. What constitutes a tolerable indoor temperature is very different between contemporary mainstream USA (hint: it must be around a constant 21 degrees Celsius year-round), for example, and Ladakh. Sonam Wangchuk once captured this difference in a talk, where he said, to paraphrase: “In the West, they are willing to burn up the whole world to bring the indoor temperature to their comfort level; here (referring to his SECMOL campus) we try to use the sun to make a reasonable indoor temperature and bring our comfort level to that.””

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