Discover more from Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
What is undone?
The cost of convenience
This evening I found myself at the closest convenience store to my apartment, one of four that are within five minutes walk, all of which are open 24-7. How necessary such a situation is, well, that is besides the point, each is slightly closer for someone. Never mind the costs of keeping these places permanently staffed, lit and at the right temperature, just as long as the onigiri and beers are always available. But increasingly, convenience stores are no longer convenient enough, now we have apps.
As I lined up waiting to be served, I watched the following interaction. A female staff member was busy preparing a delivery order summoned by someone through an app. I recognise her, she is perhaps in her mid/late 50s, and also works at a nearby supermarket. All I know about her is she is friendly, she struggles to maintain the strict stiffness that is expected of people working at such stores. I see her rushing to prepare the order. The delivery rider is hovering nearby, intently watching her actions, hoping the process will somehow speed up. Whereas clicking a button on a delivery app takes only a second, responding to that demand inevitably takes longer. The order is 3 coffees. From a convenience store. At 7.30pm. This coffee is not especially good at any time of the day, why someone feels the need to have it delivered to them on a Friday night I do not know. The woman moves as fast as she can. The delivery rider continues to follow her movements. A customer is surprised that there is now a line to be served, as there is only one other staff member to deal with those waiting. The order is completed and packed up. The woman immediately moves to the register to the serve the next person. The rider quickly takes the package and heads outside to pack it before riding to those people who wanted their convenient and not particularly tasty coffee on a Friday night. I make my purchase and depart. The line moves forward, the rider departs in haste.
All of this is very commonplace, just less and less in a common place. A person presses a button and issues a demand. It travels from smartphone to server, quickly reaching another smartphone and tablet, issuing commands to the rider and the convenience store employee, both presumably earning slightly over ¥1,000 per hour ($7) for their work. Do we really need to have convenience store coffees delivered to our door? How can 24-7 convenience stores no longer be convenient enough? Does all of this make for a good and healthy world?
The easy retort is to say that this is the world we live in, it is good because we can, the possible is the desirable. Convenience as a value system. This is surely contributing to the increasingly impoverished and thinning lifeworld we inhabit together. Turning to my interlocutor, Pete Chambers:
It's still a great world, for those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it: but how long can this go on for like this?
Implicit in the above discussion is the mediating role of technology: what it does and undoes. This framing I take from Neil Postman, whose prescient insights have been rattling around my mind of late. To take a lecture he delivered in 1998, Postman proposed five things to know about technological change:
First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price.
Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners.
Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on.
Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates.
And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.
Convenience is not free. Indeed, the cost is likely far greater than we can presently reckon. Here it valuable to follow Postman in foregrounding the costs: what is lost, what is altered and changed, what is hidden, and who loses, or perhaps, what we lose together.
Turning to his 1992 book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Postman observed:
New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.
One of the challenges we daily face is being presented with technologies and with social structures that are offered as inevitable. It is difficult to stay alive to the costs and the choices present in our lives, but it feels increasingly important to place that at the front of our minds.
For those interested in more, this lecture by Postman from 1993 is quite remarkable.