Saturday, November 22, 2014

Down With Convenience!


“I appreciate the seamless ease….”

That statement is the inspiration for this post.  It’s from a letter a friend wrote me recently.  The point isn’t that he sounds like a TV ad (from the days when ad spokesmen were earnest instead of arch). The point, rather, is that I found this simple statement oddly inflammatory.  I asked myself why.  And the answer is, I should find it inflammatory, and so should you.  Ideally, all my friends would join me in mounting a War on Convenience.  If I can’t have that, well, maybe I can influence a few readers.

A paradox

Of course I was being bombastic and hyperbolic a second ago.  Who doesn’t want convenience in his life?  But I think convenience is like alcohol:  it should be enjoyed responsibly.

Paradoxically, my worldview straddles two seemingly conflicting ideals:  I’m a great lover of efficiency, but I bristle at society’s infatuation with ease and expedience.  “Wait,” you may ask, “aren’t efficiency and convenience pretty much the same thing?”

Nope.  When I say “efficient” I mean that I can get something done exactly how I want it done in as little time as possible.  (Often this involves doing a lot of work up front, like creating macros for a software application.)  When people talk about seamless ease, they’re often referring to systems that are merely intuitive, such as a user interface that can be grasped quickly, without any need for help menus or a manual.  Some products are convenient because they remove tedious steps; other products are convenient because they rescue you from having to learn something.

I think it’s widely assumed that where user interfaces go, intuitive is best.  But this isn’t always true.  Consider the computer keyboard:  to be maximally intuitive, its keys ought to be placed in alphabetical order.  That would make it easier for the first-time user, wouldn’t it?  But of course this idea seems silly, since typing efficiency is more important than making the keyboard layout straightforward for the newcomer.

What’s even sillier is that the QWERTY layout was actually designed to be maximally inefficient, to keep early typewriters from jamming.  The Dvorak layout I use was difficult to learn, but my long-term gains in efficiency were well worth the trouble.

Low-lying fruit

The simplest argument against the embrace of convenience is that it often requires us to forsake quality.  I give you microwave popcorn:  it’s certainly easy to make, but a) it literally stinks, b) it’s more expensive than traditional popcorn, c) it tastes pretty bad, d) it’s full of salt and fat, e) it’s full of chemicals, and f) the excessive packaging is bad for the environment.  The popularity of microwave popcorn makes me embarrassed to be a member of the human race, considering that an air popper is also extremely easy to use, and cheaper, and lets you control how much salt and butter you add.

Whipped cream in an aerosol can is also really convenient, but it’s more expensive and less tasty than what you whip at home, and has the added problem of unpredictability:  it’s hard to tell when the can is low on cream (or non-dairy “kreme” as it often is), so you never know when you’ll foul up your sundae with the liquid dribble that comes at the end.  By whipping my own cream, I can choose an organic product; whip only as much as I need; control the amount of sugar; and save money.

But enough of these convenient examples.  I want to get into the more subtle ways that, through our love of convenience, we sell ourselves short without even realizing it.

The problem of control

Often, complicated systems are made more intuitive, and sometimes more efficient, through a simplification of the user interface and/or automation of repetitive operations.  A little Cessna surely has a simpler interface than a commercial airliner, though it often lacks that handy autopilot feature.

Automation is a fine idea in theory, but in practice, it’s only as good as its execution.  How accurate are product developers’ guesses about what should be automated and how?

Well, here’s a horror story.  My family was visiting some friends in their lovely, sunny home in London.  One afternoon, when our friends were out, I thought, hey, my mother-in-law is always asking for a nice photo of my wife and me.  And here we had this great lighting, so I suggested to my wife that we finally take the time to shoot a nice photo together.  My wife has a tendency to close her eyes in photos, so it took us at least a dozen tries.  Well, on the last day of our visit, our host said, “Hey, why not give us some photos of your visit from your SD card?”  Great idea!  So I took the card up to their Mac and stuck it in the card reader, expecting that I could cherry-pick the best photos of both families.  But to my surprise the operating system seized control, copied every photo off the card, and launched a little slide show, set to music.  This might have seemed really helpful to a novice computer user who hadn’t mastered file management software, but I was appalled.  The software must have chosen to show the pictures in reverse chronological order, because the first two dozen shots were of my wife and me.  We came off looking like the biggest narcissists you’ve ever seen.

Probably there’s a way to tell the Mac not to automatically grab all the photos from an SD card.  But some systems don’t give us a choice.  We consumers often put up with this lack of control because we enjoy the convenience of the overall product.  I see this problem most frequently in Internet-based systems, particularly when the revenue model is more complicated than “you pay me directly for goods or services.”  Things are automated with more than just the user’s experience in mind.

Here’s an example:  the Gmail Adsense engine, which automatically produces custom ads based on my e-mail text, doesn’t exist to serve me.  Were I given the choice to opt out of Adsense, I certainly would.  I don’t even use Gmail, and yet (as detailed here) my e-mails to Gmail users nevertheless produce these tailored ads I like it or not.

But you know what’s even worse than that?  It’s when we’re unaware of how convenience is costing us.  Consider LinkedIn:  it’s very convenient, and a great idea, and I’m glad that it’s free.  But as I’ve only recently discovered, LinkedIn does what it pleases with the information I give it.  Awhile back, because my profile photo was like five years old, I put up a new one.  (The idea was anti-vanity:  I didn’t want people to think I was using an old photo just to look younger to the world.)  To my embarrassment, LinkedIn contacted my 400 contacts on my behalf:  “Dana Albert has a new profile picture!”  As in, “Dana Albert, devoted curator of his own image and his self-important notion of an Albert ‘brand,’ wants you to see his latest self-portrait!”  A few people responded, perhaps snidely, “Nice picture!”  How embarrassing.  (Yes, I am easily embarrassed.  What can I say … I’m an introvert.)

But that’s not all.  I’ve come to find out that LinkedIn evidently does something special for their newer users:  they send an update anytime one of the user’s contacts has made new connections.  Since I don’t get such updates, I’d never have known about this behavior, except a couple of friends commented.  (“Wow, I’ve see a lot of LinkedIn updates on you lately … did you lose your job or something?”)  Once I looked into it, I figured out how to change these settings, but it wasn’t easy—which means that those who thrive on convenience will probably just accept the default behavior.  (Surely I don’t need to go into the various ways Facebook has surreptitiously exploited their users’ tastes, preferences, and purchasing data.)

Are your choices my business?

“Fine,” you might say, “Go whip your own cream, and type on your weird keyboard, and shun Facebook, if that’s what floats your boat—but let me do as I please.”  In other words, you might wonder why your behavior is any business of mine.  Here’s why:  other people’s behavior often affects what choices are available to me.

Here’s how that happens.  Because I worship efficiency, I enjoy figuring out how to make a complicated process go quickly—but not everybody enjoys this process, and manufacturers know it.  New products are often targeted at teens and young adults (to build brand loyalty early), so new consumers’ habits can have an immediate influence on industry.  Streamlining a process, modern consumers believe, should be figured out by the manufacturer and baked into the product.  Thus, the focus is outward on the product, rather than inward on the user.  It’s not “How can I get better at this” but “How can this be better for me?”  The “smarter” our products get, the lazier we’re permitted to be.

(Fortunately, schools are still essentially old-school.  If it weren’t for teachers making kids learn math, do you think these kids would bother, given the ease-of-use of smartphone calculator apps?  And yet, once you’ve learned arithmetic, it’s faster to do it in your head.)

The result of this consumer/producer dynamic is that perfectly valid products are often kicked to the curb.  Consider the manual car transmission, aka stick shift:  is it straightforward?  Not very.  Is there a benefit to learning how to work a clutch?  I think so.  After all, a manual transmission offers better gas mileage, and enables me to roll-start the car if my battery is dead.  My mastery of manual shifting impresses the ladies, and enables me to rent a car in Europe.  The popularity, in this country, of automatic transmissions didn’t used to affect me, until that choice became so ubiquitous that some foreign car companies stopped exporting their stick-shift models here.  When I bought my last Volvo, I couldn’t get one with the transmission I wanted.  I had to settle for an automatic. 

(By the way, that bit about impressing the ladies?  Yeah, that was a joke.  Just seeing if you’re awake.)

Another example:  digital cameras.  What a great invention, and yet the camera industry is really suffering.  You know what the number one camera is today?  The iPhone.  It’s easy to see why:  you’re carrying your phone anyway, so why carry another device?  The problem is, phone cameras are not nearly as good as regular digital cameras—even the more humble point-and-shoot ones.  A phone camera takes inferior pictures because the lens is too small and doesn’t let in enough light for non-flash photography in low-light conditions.  Phone cameras also lack a zoom (their so-called “digital zoom” is pure malarkey—cropping masquerading as telephoto).

Look at these two photos.  The first was taken with a $200 Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera.  The second was with a Motorola Droid phone of the same vintage. 

The point-and-shoot photo is much better, and not because I got out a light meter, set the F-stop, adjusted the shutter speed, etc.  It was as easy to snap as with the phone (easier, actually, because there’s way less delay at the controls).  The only convenience I gave up was having everything in one device.

If the camera industry were healthier, I’d have even better products available to me, and at lower prices (due to economies of scale).  Alas, the market for standalone cameras has been strangled by the ubiquity of camera phones—the more convenient choice.

Whom does convenience benefit the most?

Sometimes the person who seems like the most direct beneficiary of convenience-oriented technologies actually isn’t.  Consider the grocery store UPC reader:  it’s very intuitive, and thus perfect for bringing new cashiers up to speed quickly.  It’s also more efficient, but this benefit does not accrue to the cashier, who is paid by the hour.  The system’s efficiency doesn’t mean the cashier gets a raise; it means he or she is easier to replace, and the store can get by with fewer checkout stations.

Now let’s move beyond human consumers and consider other consumers, like cattle.  Being kept in a small stall in a feedlot is certainly convenient for the cow, in terms of her basic need for sustenance.  Of course this diet causes all kinds of trouble for the poor animal, but her well-being was never the point.  The convenience of the feedlot mainly benefits the meat packer.  Since this arrangement translates into lowered operating costs, which can be passed along to the human consumer, it looks like a win-win.  So it is with cheap, high-margin products like soft drinks and sugary cereal.  Needless to say, in the long term this convenience isn’t benefiting the human consumers, either.  The countless Americans who buy junk food and frequent fast food chains are basically backing in to their own feedlot stalls.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies grasp that there’s big money to be made in drugs that treat lifestyle ailments, and doctors prescribe these drugs because doing so is so much easier than trying to get people to exercise and eat well.  Consumers participate in this lowest-price, lowest-effort economic model without an appreciation for its real costs.  The companies at the top in this economy are the direct beneficiaries of our rampant convenience addiction; by indulging it, they introduce a variety of societal ills.  In this regard, convenience is like secondhand smoke.

Convenience and parenting

If you’re a parent who has made it this far into my essay, I doubt you’re the kind who feeds his kid soft drinks, sugary cereal, and fast food.  But addiction to convenience is also present in the most upscale of products.  I’m talking about PCs, smartphones, tablet computers, and Netflix.

It’s more convenient to park kids in front of the TV or PC than to try to get them to help with dinner or with setting the table.  It’s easier to let a kid use his iPad in a restaurant, while his food gets cold, than to teach him how to behave like a grown-up.  So kids and their parents become co-dependents in a family dynamic that ultimately favors no one.

I won’t lie and say I never give in to such temptations.  But when I do, I don’t pretend I’m being a good dad.  “Shall we sit our kids down in front of a video and let them rot their brains out, just to get them out of our hair?” I’ll ask my wife.  And I’ll say to my kids, “Would you like to put in a video and let your brain be automatically extracted?”  This raises awareness and may help us fend off bad habits.

Do modern kids have the mental space required to daydream?  I’d guess a lot of them don’t.  So when my kids complain that they’re bored, I say, “Good.  It’s good to be bored.”  Necessity being the mother of invention, boredom is a good problem for the mind to solve.  Solving this problem with a library book, a blank piece of paper, or some random household detritus doesn’t do much for the economy, but the economy is not my problem.

“But wait,” you may protest, “Computers can be very educational!”  Yes, they can, but that doesn’t mean just any computer-based activity is intrinsically useful.  Too many parents pretend their Internet-addicted kid might become the next Mark Zuckerberg—because this fiction is more convenient than fighting with the kid about limits on his or her screen time.

My wife and I are all about limits.  This is why we don’t have cable, our kids don’t have phones or tablets, and their PC time is closely monitored and rationed.

“Okay, fine,” you might say, “You’ve identified some troublesome trends, but how are the habits of other families any of your business?”  Well, where the hell are my daughters going to find husbands?  My kids won’t settle for a passive, inert, pasty, video-addled mouth-breather who doesn’t read.  Meanwhile, the boys out there won’t settle for out-of-touch, pop-culturally illiterate nerds who don’t even text.  Sure, there are some boys out there whose parents are just as socially unconventional as my wife and me, but it’s a small pool.

Call to action

If you disagree with all of this, that’s fine—and I thank you for at least reading it.

On the other hand, if you agree with me, you may wonder what I propose to do about this rampant convenience addiction.  The answer is simple (though not easy).  Next time you appreciate the convenience of something, ask yourself if that convenience came at any great cost to you:  to your privacy, to your health, to your family, or to the environment.  Then ask yourself if it’s worth it.  I’ll keep on doing the same.

And at a minimum, if you find yourself using the phrase “seamless ease,” please don’t say it like it’s a good thing.

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