Living

“Convenience as we now know it is a product of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when labor-saving devices for the home were invented and marketed”

Convenience as we now know it is a product of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when labor-saving devices for the home were invented and marketed. Milestones include the invention of the first “convenience foods,” such as canned pork and beans and Quaker Quick Oats; the first electric clothes-washing machines; cleaning products like Old Dutch scouring powder; and other marvels including the electric vacuum cleaner, instant cake mix and the microwave oven.

Convenience was the household version of another late-19th-century idea, industrial efficiency, and its accompanying “scientific management.” It represented the adaptation of the ethos of the factory to domestic life.

However mundane it seems now, convenience, the great liberator of humankind from labor, was a utopian ideal. By saving time and eliminating drudgery, it would create the possibility of leisure. And with leisure would come the possibility of devoting time to learning, hobbies or whatever else might really matter to us. Convenience would make available to the general population the kind of freedom for self-cultivation once available only to the aristocracy. In this way convenience would also be the great leveler.

This idea — convenience as liberation — could be intoxicating. Its headiest depictions are in the science fiction and futurist imaginings of the mid-20th century. From serious magazines like Popular Mechanics and from goofy entertainments like “The Jetsons” we learned that life in the future would be perfectly convenient. Food would be prepared with the push of a button. Moving sidewalks would do away with the annoyance of walking. Clothes would clean themselves or perhaps self-destruct after a day’s wearing. The end of the struggle for existence could at last be contemplated.

The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits. Perhaps this is why, with every advance of convenience, there have always been those who resist it. They resist out of stubbornness, yes (and because they have the luxury to do so), but also because they see a threat to their sense of who they are, to their feeling of control over things that matter to them.

By the late 1960s, the first convenience revolution had begun to sputter. The prospect of total convenience no longer seemed like society’s greatest aspiration. Convenience meant conformity. The counterculture was about people’s need to express themselves, to fulfill their individual potential, to live in harmony with nature rather than constantly seeking to overcome its nuisances. Playing the guitar was not convenient. Neither was growing one’s own vegetables or fixing one’s own motorcycle. But such things were seen to have value nevertheless — or rather, as a result. People were looking for individuality again.

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the second wave of convenience technologies — the period we are living in — would co-opt this ideal. It would conveniencize individuality.

Tim Wu, “The Tyranny of Convenience”, The New York Times (18 February 2018), SR4.