Convenience is a Dangerous Crutch

Posted on December 12, 2013
Tags: technology control freedom

Tim Lavoie

Modern-day lifestyles emphasize ease, leisure and comfort. Where we once had personal stakes in finding or growing our own food, it is now too cheap, too easy, and too near for our own good. Other necessities of life are as close as the nearest tap, light switch and enclosed living space; I didn’t build my own house, and you almost certainly didn’t either. Lack of personal farming and construction skills are usually fine too, to the extent that being able to buy these things allows us to pursue other activities instead. I can generally rely on being able to have someone more expert than myself service my car, work on my taxes and trim the wooly fur on my poodle. Mostly these are services offered by different people, since we have come to agree that a certain amount of specialization is useful. I make money by providing a service, and use some of that to purchase the services of others where skills, inclination or available time differ enough to make the exchange worthwhile.

Our digital lifestyles have followed a similar path; young adults may be referred to as “digital natives” because they’ve grown up surrounded by computer technology, but they are no more familiar with the task of typing Hayes modem commands into a terminal than I am with shoeing a horse. Perhaps this is unfair, as nobody does either of these things now unless they derive some quaint personal amusement from doing so. How about building or assembling a computer, or writing a program? These are still common tasks, and certainly many people have the ability and inclination to perform them. What has changed however is that computer hardware and software are now mainly commodities that we buy or get from others. Maybe we spend some money on them, often not, as globally-sourced resources and cheap (or free!) labour can make them available for the asking. In most respects, we simply take on the role of consumer, not designer, architect, builder.

The problem lies in conflating our apparent comfort in acquiring these commodities with understanding of how they work, or understanding of the implications of technology which has been handed to us. We are consumers in the general sense rather than producers, except for those few areas where we can provide some service, skill or product to others. I can change my car’s oil (though usually don’t), but I have no education in the areas of rebuilding an engine, nor of the design, metallurgy, casting and milling that went into creating it. Digital products and services are oriented towards the consumer class too, whether we like it or not. Hardware is now often a boxed device we aren’t intended to open or fix, nor even control if its creators have a choice. Software is an abstract “app” packaged for us, ready for one-click install if there’s a warm credit card handy. Our role as a consumer is mainly passive rather than active, consisting mostly of deciding where to spend our money.

I hesitate to call this arrangement a “relationship” though, at least not at the level we’re familiar with. I know my mechanic well enough to be pretty comfortable with accepting his advice, and I know that my wife is sure to provide firm direction to her hair stylist in order to effect the desired outcome. Our consumer-level arrangement with most vendors however is corporate, distant and one-sided. Where possible, they tell us what to buy, and we might do so. While told that our call is important to them, we know how far this goes when it takes forever to reach some poor plebe working in the globally-lowest common denominator of the labour pool. Where once we only bought something outright, it is now licensed to us for piecemeal use, in order to dribble out the longest-possible tail of revenue from a given transaction. Some of the limits of this (ahem) relationship have been made glaringly apparent over the past year or so.

Google is one of those companies which took the world by storm, providing awesome on-line services for no cost at all. Innovative, responsive, and often better than what we were used to paying for, what’s not to like? Combined with a “don’t be evil” motto, they became one of the poster children of the digital age. We learned to think of them as a search engine company that made a pile of useful, neat goodies on the web, but fundamentally they’re an advertising company. As Andrew Lewis stated, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Access to showing you ads to click on is what Google’s clients pay for, and they can provide this by enticing you to use their services. Much of the time, this trade-off is pretty innocuous; I may see some ads tailored to what they’ve learned of my interests, search terms and location data. At least in aggregate form, I don’t really mind. The first area of concern though, is what happens when we come to rely on these “free” services? Next up… the gravy train has derailed.