We're in the midst of a convenience crisis
Apps and online shopping have made life easier, Gayle MacDonald writes, but at a cost of the joy of doing things with our hands
By GAYLE MACDONALD
Saturday, August 17, 2019 Print Edition, Page P10
I was struck the other day by how lazy I've become. Not in the traditional sense of the word. I work. I have kids, a husband and a decent social life. But lazy in the sense that I seem to make decisions based, first and foremost, on the path of least resistance.
For instance, I found a new recipe recently for roasted lemon chicken that called for French grey sea salt - an ingredient I didn't have, and frankly, had never heard of. But rather than walk one block to the grocery store, I clicked on Amazon Prime and "sel gris" from the coast of Brittany appeared on my doorstep the next day.
The pattern repeated itself when we needed new patio furniture. It never occurred to me to get in the car and visit a few stores. Instead, I compared prices online, from the comfort of my couch, and chose a four-piece, rattan set from Wayfair. It arrived, already assembled (a prerequisite, of course), in three days.
As I surveyed the mountain of packaging from the ever-growing pile of online deliveries - everything from bedside lamps to a yoga mat, a backpack for one of the kids to a pair of Stan Smith sneakers for me - I realized I've become hard-wired to look for the most convenient way of doing absolutely everything.
And it made me made me wonder, am I the only one?
My 23-year-old son, Dylan, who is still in university, confesses he and his roommates have ordered - as single items - batteries, paper towels and even toilet paper from Amazon. They also have what he calls a "trash crisis" at his house from all the packaging that arrives through Foodora, DoorDash and UberEats. "We have a McDonald's 500 metres from our house and sometimes we call UberEats," he tells me. "It's ridiculous."
Others would call it slothful or irresponsible. There is no question, however, that this tendency for many of us to choose convenience - sometimes over basic common sense - is an issue.
Former U.S. presidential hopeful Al Gore called his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth for good reason. It's because our reliance on fossil-fuel driven "conveniences," such as cars and plastics, have landed us in a fine environmental mess.
But on a more esoteric level, there's another convenience-driven quandary. What if we become so accustomed to computers and other AIdriven technologies doing everything for us that we forget the joy of doing things slowly, meticulously and with our own two hands?
Toronto's Maggie Cassella, a standup comedian and television producer, says she knows her unhealthy relationship with modern-day conveniences - particularly Amazon Prime, which guarantees two-day delivery to over 100 million subscribers worldwide - has set her on a slippery slope.
"I can justify that I need it in order to send my elderly parents their prescriptions in the States," Casella says.
"But I constantly feel guilty each time I click on it because of the CO2 emissions my orders, alone, are generating.
"It's definitely a lovehate thing. On one hand, it saves me time, but on the other hand it's made me lazy. My girlfriend and I used to enjoy going out Saturday mornings to run errands. We'd get immense satisfaction checking things off our list, wandering around, stopping for lunch and sharing some laughs. We don't do any of that anymore. We've substituted it with being in front of a screen, and ordering everything online, instead of being with each other."
She's not alone. Consumers worldwide purchased almost US$2.9-trillion on the web in 2018, up from US$2.4trillion the previous year, according to Digital Commerce 360, a Chicagobased company that studies e-commerce. This year, Canadians are expected to spend US$39-billion - double what we did in 2016.
More worrisome, Casella says, is that her reliance on convenience has affected her quality of life. "By eliminating all these socalled tedious tasks, like running errands, I've eliminated the opportunity to stumble across something unexpected or serendipitous, create a wonderful new memory or even meet a new neighbour. Technology is wonderful in so many ways, but it's also a bit dangerous because it can be isolating."
Perhaps Casella is right to be worried, given loneliness - a close cousin of isolation - seems to be on the rise, with the U.S. SurgeonGeneral recently warning it's an "epidemic" in United States and Britain appointing its first "minister of loneliness."
In a New York Times piece a year ago, Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, described the tyranny of convenience as "the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today.
"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."
Wu says that convenience, as a liberating force, has many benefits (top of mind would be things such as washing machines, dishwashers, vacuums etc.). But as "an ideal, as a value and as a way of life," convenience worries him because it has a "complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Ideals such as the desire to lead a life of meaning and authenticity.
"Think of it this way: Convenience is like driving up the mountain instead of climbing it. You get to the same place but you lose something along the way. Character-building requires overcoming obstacles and knowing defeat. It doesn't come from doing everything the easy way."
Wu chooses to do many things in his life the old-fashioned way, like drive stick shift, cook with charcoal and catch fish on a fly rod. But in countless other areas of his life, he succumbs to convenience. "I use the subway, I stream movies and I need my electric coffee grinder," he says with a laugh. "When you really ask yourself what guides your decisions on a day-to-day basis, it's hard to deny convenience is this overwhelmingly powerful force. It often feels like the decider of everything.
"I choose to make meals from scratch. It's a lot more work, and it's not always tastier, but there's value and meaning in it."
Canadian anthropologist and culture guru Grant McCracken calls these conveniences worthy, but he is cautious of their intrusions in our daily routines. "The industrial revolution declared war on space and time ... and right through the second half of the 20th century, this war had no skeptics.
Convenience was king," he says. "But in the last few decades, we have seen a counter-revolution. We saw the arrival of slow food, meditation, mindfulness, artisanal economies and a more measured approach to life by many people. All of which is better for humans and better for the planet."
As for me, I've made a promise to myself to curtail my obsession with efficiency and become a little more unstructured. I've cut my online purchases in half. I've committed to riding my bike to work. I handwash the dishes when it's just my husband and I sharing a meal. And recently, I even used a paper map to get to a friend's farm instead of Google.
I got lost, but I found a lovely café, with great coffee and freshly baked cinnamon buns to die for.
Amazon and other online companies that offer speedy delivery of items have made things more convenient for shoppers, but some experts worry about its social and environmental impacts.
PATRICK SEMANSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS; JENNY KANE/ASSOCIATED PRESS