Comments by Alex Jensen on the Addicted to Convenience piece by AK
Here is what Alex Jensen wrote about this piece on the Vikalp Sangam e-group:
“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 ( http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/06/health-costs-hormone-disrupting-chemicals-150bn-a-year-europe-says-study ). 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.””