Humankind has long tried to find ways to simplify our lives. It wasn’t until the 1960s when the convenience revolution took off. Domestic conveniences like the TV dinner, cake-in-a-box, and the countertop microwave oven began to emerge. In the ‘60s, these convenience technologies restructured the foundations of social and domestic life.
Educator and professor Ursula Franklin noted, “Technology built the house in which we all live.”1 Today, that house is filled with smart devices to turn off our lights, measure our breathing, track our heart rate, count our steps, monitor our stress levels, announce the weather, and lock our doors. Franklin predicted how technology would fundamentally re-order and restructure social relations and the self.
Today, people see convenience technology as an instrument of liberation and freedom for all. Convenience technologies have delivered us more shortcuts to life’s menial tasks, but they are governed by systems of corporate imperialism; they are ironically doing more to enslave than liberate us.
Amazon: The Harbinger of Convenience
Online retailers are “saviours” in today’s fast-paced way of life. As providers of convenience, they have created a new industry of imagined needs the average person would depend on in order to navigate modern life.
Since Amazon’s inception, CEO Jeff Bezos has always been overzealous about convenience. Bezos once said that books were too inconvenient to use, despite having founded the world’s biggest bookstore.
People may write an article or two criticizing Amazon’s poor working conditions,2 treatment of staff,3 federal tax avoidance,4 or its cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry,5 but any criticism is quickly buried when it’s time to buy something. Amazon’s growing revenue is proof that people don’t want to give up access to convenience – even if it means supporting a company that has a long history of taking shortcuts to make an extra buck (or billion).
Amazon’s annual net income more than tripled6 from $3 billion in 2017 to $10.1 billion in 2018— a 31% revenue increase in one year. Jeff Bezos’s net worth is around $137 billion, essentially making his riches by preying on humans’ desire for instant gratification.
Some people strive to consume as a way to improve their lives, and Amazon makes this too convenient. In our quest for instantaneity, we trade out the very things that give our lives meaning: obstacles, roadblocks, and struggles that make the reward so much more gratifying.
Is it possible to resist this rabid consumerism? Let’s consider how one would go about buying a rare book. It would take tremendous time and effort to rummage through mom and pop resellers to obtain a copy. Amazon, on the other hand, would have it shipped and delivered at the click of a button. Most people, understandably, would choose Amazon. Consumers are deprived of access to choices aside from mega corporations.
How did we get to this point of rewarding gargantuan companies instead of supporting the free market? People embrace corporate giants because they make their lives marginally more convenient. Is the convenience worth discarding values like justice, equality, and respect?
People who question these consumerism trends are often seen as cynics, as if they resist for the sake of resisting. They’re told to “get with the times.” It’s evident that technological utopians control the playing field. The first technological revolution was different in the sense that people could still opt-out. Today, that option is gone. People in most western cultures no longer have a choice to opt-out of using products from unethical companies. If they reject technology, it will inevitably impact their lives negatively.
A Predictable State of Living
The Big Four corporations—Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon—control the convenience landscape. They rely on data management and algorithms to make recommendations, anticipate desires, and predict what people will buy next. Algorithms gently nudge away independent decision-making and autonomy.
Critical thinking, autonomy and free will are all things that make us human. Without them, we become like the AI products we create: predictable, measured, calculated, and without a sense of humanity or consciousness.
The big four would not be successful if we, the consumers, didn’t embrace them. They figured out the secret formula and realized that we’d more often choose convenience over ethics.
Convenience certainly has its advantages, but if the trade-off is our sense of humanity, then we must question who’s really benefiting here.
Culture of Compliance
Today’s convenience technologies such as smartphones and GPS’s have fostered a culture of compliance, in that they become a means for ordering and structuring daily life.
While these convenience technologies have raised living standards, they have, in turn, enabled consumers to conform to their dominance. Ursula Franklin describes these technologies as being ‘prescriptive.’ According to Franklin,7 “prescriptive technologies eliminate the occasions for decision-making and judgment in general and especially for the making of principled decisions.”
In the 1800s, philosopher Michel Foucault prophesized that the human body would be used as a regime of control for efficient operations: physical activity would be measured; movements were to become efficient; and bodies would be poked and prodded, used to analyze and experiment. He warned that we, as humans, would willingly turn our bodies into human-machine hybrids. He was right. Not only do we purchase devices to simplify our lives, but we’ve allowed our physical bodies to be controlled by convenience technologies in exchange for the illusion of convenience.
We try to optimize our bodies through gadgets that promise us a better life. These methods of control have been indoctrinated in us for hundreds of years. Today we openly embrace these gadgets, even though many of them have forced us to work faster and harder, with the end result of us being more overworked and mentally anguished than we were before.
Convenience creators always boast about liberating people with their shiny, new gadgets. They spout words like ‘user-friendly’ and ‘progressive’ to win over the public. The same thing happened in the ‘60s with the emergence of industrially processed food, when they marketed it as a way to liberate women.
Every time a new gadget is released, it shapes and reconfigures the way we act. We saw it with the most unassuming of technologies like the dishwasher. Now we see it in smart devices, apps and the Internet of Things.
Our obsession with metrics has gone far beyond embracing convenience. We are now in the throes of creating the optimal human being by monitoring our heart rate, counting our steps, posting modified pictures of ourselves, adjusting our macros, tracking our mindfulness, customizing our workouts, self-diagnosing, and bowing down to the almighty algorithm. In order to live our best life, we must be precise, calculated, and methodical. The promised liberation of convenience has turned into enslavement. We should caution against blindly seeking liberation in technology. If not, we are at risk of losing our humanity.