The Downside of Convenience

In a sister draft, I argued in favor of reducing friction in our everyday lives. I wrote:

There are times and parts of our lives when we want to reduce/eliminate friction altogether, which are valid. For instance, you don’t want to keep thinking about how you work and the tools you use — which if you do will likely produce a drag on your system and/or your mental psyche — you just want to use them to get the most out of them. We need to find small ways to remove friction in our lives.

I also wrote about what it would be like to live in a frictionless world and if that’s really the best thing for us going forward:

Imagine a world totally devoid of friction, where doing things is effortless. You have robots and automatons doing things for you. Everything is at your command, done at the tap of your finger or the sound of your voice. With self-driving cars and robots doing things for you, that “utopian” future may not be far off. The question is: at what cost do we get all this wonderful technology? Are there downsides to this we haven’t thought through? We must remember that the promise of a frictionless world comes with a cost of convenience that we haven’t fully comprehended. I’ll be sure to explore that in a future draft.

With the advent of modern technology, there is this promise of being “efficient” in everything we do — an idea that removing friction from our lives will make everyone better off, which is a false premise to begin with. What it fails to consider is there are times we need to slow down — stop, reflect, take a step back, and simply think about things. Besides, making the effort isn’t always the problem that technology makes it out to be. Ironically, a frictionless world is making us more rigid and not freeing us up.

One of the problems is we want everything now, and when things get delayed (for whatever reason), we get upset. We take technology for granted, so much that when things don’t turn out the way we want them to even in the slightest bit, we get annoyed and act ungrateful. Let’s not forget we are not that far off from the time when we didn’t have any of these modern conveniences, let alone at our fingertips.

There is a downside to having all the conveniences of modern technology that we haven’t thought through. I heard someone say that one man’s convenience is another man’s labor. If you want something instantly, there is a cost to it that someone else has to bear. Nothing is truly free/frictionless. In other words, all this wonderful technology comes at a cost that you haven’t fully comprehended. If you are getting things at the tap of your fingers, someone somewhere is responsible for making it happen.

Here are some of the downsides to these modern conveniences that I’ve experienced. For instance, in the age of chat and text, we have forgotten what it’s like to pick up the phone and talk to others, let alone meet them face to face. Even if/when we do, we use our phones at the table as if it was normal behavior; it’s downright rude and unacceptable. Call me old-fashioned, but if you and I are having a rendezvous, I’ll expect to have your full attention and you can expect the same from me. That would include keeping phones (and all the tech) silent (if not turned off) and tucked away.

Now that smart phones have become ubiquitous, others have this implicit expectation that they can reach you anytime they want, so much so that when you don’t answer their call (for whatever reason), they will be quick to give you a hard time for it later even though you returned their call when it was convenient for you. What they forget is that your phone is for your convenience, period. What you choose to do with it or how you choose to use it is your choice, despite what others might have you believe.

It’s all a matter of perspective. For instance, you can think of your smart watch as a way to keep your phone home when you’re out and about, or you can think of it as a digital leash, if you will, always at the beck and call of others. This goes back to the accessibility versus convenience continuum.

Being available to others all the time is not a good thing. Among many things, it shows that you don’t value yourself and/or your time enough. When you don’t value your own time, you can’t expect others to value your time either. There will be a reason for others to take you for granted, but remember that we teach others how to “behave” with us. You can choose to be popular now or you can choose to be respected later; the choice is yours.

I am reminded of this quote by M. Scott Peck:

Until you value yourself, you will not value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.

Don’t let others impose their tools of choice on you. For instance, I am often asked why I don’t use Facebook or WhatsApp (as if everyone should be using it!). My usual response is you can send me a text or an email. Just because most people use a tool isn’t a good enough reason for you to be using it as well. This goes back to selecting fewer tools mindfully and getting the most use out of them.

We are less willing to try new things. At our dining table, we all might want to eat something different for dinner than what is prepared for us by our families. What we lose in the process is the quality time we spend together with them and putting our focus on the food, when it should be the reverse. This is also not to say that each member can’t have the foods they like, but maybe we should take turns with getting our favorite food cooked once in a while.

Here are some ideas in favor of embracing friction rather than seeking to reduce or eliminate it. Remember, we need to look for ways to not only embrace friction, but also to strategically create it in our daily lives:

I wrote briefly in the aforementioned draft about the times we want to embrace friction rather than look to eliminate it altogether and what that might mean for us:

Then, there are times in our lives where we want to embrace friction for self-reflection, serendipity, and personal growth. There are times when we might need solitude and then other times when we want to seek human connection.

Sure, it’s convenient to text our friends and family when we want, but is that the best way to communicate and keep in touch with people we care about? Nothing replaces the good ol’ fashioned way of spending time together with someone (sans tech). Sure, it might be challenging to make it happen (because we are all so “busy”), but if our friends/families are important enough to us, then isn’t it worth making time for them in our calendars rather than connecting with them online or (worse) through social media?

When things don’t turn out as expected (such as our food not getting delivered on time), we need to be patient. We need to find out (and understand) the other person’s (or company’s) perspective before we can respond appropriately. I was reminded of this when I waited for an overdue package for a month before I got it. It would have been easy for someone in my place to lose their temper and react to the shipping company, but what good would that have done? If anything, it would have made things worse. All I did was share with them the information they needed and kept following up. Sometimes, things take time for reasons out of your control (which you need to accept), in which case you have to focus on things you can do and hope for the best, all whilst keeping your emotions in check.

We often complain about trivial things rather than being grateful for all the amazing things in our lives. When our flight gets delayed, we sit and complain. We don’t get our package on time (even though we ordered something on priority shipping), so we get mad. Our wireless internet service is down. We complain. Lights out at home? We panic. You get the idea.

Instead of ordering food using an app, why not pick up the phone and talk to a real person to order your food? Or better yet, why not take a walk down to that place and pick up the food yourself? Rather than using a smart watch to stay “connected”, why not wear a mechanical watch and enjoy the pleasure of being disconnected? If you’re going on a weekend trip, why not leave the phone at home and enjoy the company of those around you? We need to improve our relationship with how we use technology not just for our own sake, but also for those around us. Come to think of it, all of these instances go back to slowing down.

Choose to do nothing while waiting in line. Rather than whipping out your phone in line at the coffee shop, talk to someone next to you, or just be present. Wait at the grocery store patiently without looking for the fastest lane. If you take a car to run an errand, ride a bike instead. If you bike to the nearby grocery store, take a walk instead and enjoy being present in nature.

If you get bored, then that’s great. We don’t remember what it’s like to get bored anymore because we’re so used to stimulating the reward circuits in our brain all the time with new information.

Here are some other ideas for embracing friction:

  • Write hand-written letters to a loved one.
  • Read a (physical) book.
  • Take a hike.
  • Go to the coffee shop with only a paper notebook and a pen.
  • Quit the internet for a month and reflect on what you learn from it.
  • Leave your phone (and/or smartwatch) at home when going on a weekend trip.
  • Climb a mountain.
  • Drive your car with the radio turned off.
  • Go near a stream and listen to yourself.
  • Pick the slower option when possible (be it shipping while ordering online or what have you).

Sure, we can use all these wonderful devices and/or web-based services, but remember the tradeoff — you implicitly choose to give up your privacy in some way by sharing your personal information with these services. For instance, I enjoy watching YouTube videos with my account logged in. Since I like the recommendations, it helps me discover new content that I may otherwise not stumble upon. On the other hand, I stopped using Google for doing web searches for a while now and haven’t looked back since. Of course, you have to figure out that line between keeping your information private versus having it convenient for access. As with most things, it’s not entirely black and white, but you get to choose. For instance, if you choose to sign up with a new online service, always sign up with your email (rather than using Facebook or Google as login), as their business model relies on you (the product) for advertising.

We think that these modern conveniences that technology grants us gives us the ability to be everywhere and do everything. We look down at our inability to do more and more things and feel frustrated. It’s not a sign of weakness, but it’s something you should be proud of because that’s one of the things that makes us human. As I wrote in a previous draft, efficiency doesn’t work well with humans. We tend to forget that we have limits to our capacity. We can only do so much. When we take on more commitments, we bite more than we can chew, and then we feel frustrated. Why do we do this? We create our own realities through the choices we make.

All of this technology is great except when it isn’t. Just because we have access to all this technology doesn’t mean that it always works in our favor. Nothing is ever free or frictionless.

The promise of technology has always been to make us more efficient in every way possible. Sometimes it pays to be less efficient — to do less things, be more present with ourselves and with others, and to slow the heck down. It’s the thing that makes us human after all. We must not lose it.

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