Just say no to con­ve­nience

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Eric Weiner Eric Weiner is the au­thor of the forth­com­ing “The Geog­ra­phy of Ge­nius: A Search for the World’s Most Cre­ative Places From An­cient Athens to Sil­i­con Val­ley.”

I’m not buy­ing an Ap­ple Watch. It’s not be­cause I’m cheap, or a Lud­dite or not fully ini­ti­ated into the Cult of Steve. I’m not buy­ing one be­cause it would make my life too easy, too con­ve­nient.

We live in the Age of Con­ve­nience. That con­cept lies at the heart of what Sil­i­con Val­ley is sell­ing and we are so ea­gerly buy­ing. We see con­ve­nience not only as a nicety but an ex­pec­ta­tion, an en­ti­tle­ment. Our love of con­ve­nience is so in­grained, its in­her­ent good­ness so self-ev­i­dent that we can’t imag­ine any other way. Why would any­one, other than a masochist, choose the hard way when there is an eas­ier al­ter­na­tive?

There are, in fact, many down­sides. I’m not ar­gu­ing for a re­turn to the in­con­ve­nient Pa­le­olithic Era, but too of­ten we fail to rec­og­nize the full cost of our con­ve­nient lives. There’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal cost — think of all those con­ve­nient plas­tic K-cups clog­ging the ecosys­tem — as well as per­sonal and so­cial costs.

Con­ve­nient food, such as sliced ap­ples and pre-cut, pre­washed let­tuce, is pricier. But many stud­ies have also cited health costs, blam­ing the in­creas­ing con­ve­nience of pro­cessed food for the obe­sity epi­demic in the United States.

Shop­ping on Ama­zon is won­der­fully, mag­i­cally con­ve­nient. Point. Click. En­joy. Ev­ery time you or­der a book from the on­line gi­ant, you take busi­ness away from your neigh­bor­hood book­store, per­haps has­ten­ing its demise. And it’s one less chance for hu­man in­ter­ac­tion.

Yes, in the­ory, con­ve­niences free up time to spend with fam­ily or on the golf course, but such op­ti­mistic pre­dic­tions of a leisure bo­nanza are in­vari­ably wrong. In 1930, econ­o­mist John May­nard Keynes pre­dicted that “our grand­chil­dren” would work about “three hours a day.” The truth is that while we are spend­ing a bit less time at the of­fice, we feel busier than ever. Be­sides, teth­ered to our smartphones, many of us never re­ally leave the of­fice.

Hav­ing it too easy de­grades our ca­pac­ity for com­pro­mise. We lead in­creas­ingly com­fort­able, at­om­ized lives. Our cars fea­ture sep­a­rate cli­mates for driver and pas­sen­ger; our mat­tresses of­fer sep­a­rate de­grees of firm­ness. Com­fort­able? Sure. Con­ve­nient? Yes, but if we can’t com­pro­mise on the small stuff, like mat­tress firm­ness, how can we ex­pect to do so for truly press­ing prob­lems?

We’d also be a lot wiser if we were to em­brace dif­fi­culty rather than run from it. In the 1990s, UCLA psy­chol­o­gist Robert Bjork was study­ing how stu­dents learn and no­ticed that when stu­dents faced ob­sta­cles, they re­tained more in­for­ma­tion in the long run. The tech­niques vary — mak­ing learn­ing ma­te­rial less or­ga­nized, vary­ing the set­ting, us­ing fonts that are harder to read — but the prin­ci­ple is the same: When we break a sweat, we learn more. Bjork called this phe­nom­e­non “de­sir­able dif­fi­culty.”

Or con­sider a 2014 study on note-tak­ing. Re­searchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Op­pen­heimer, of Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and UCLA, re­spec­tively, asked half the stu­dents in a col­lege lec­ture to use lap­top com­put­ers, and in­structed the other half to use pa­per and pen. The lap­top users took more notes, but the pa­per-and-pen group scored con­sid­er­ably higher on com­pre­hen­sion.

Mueller and Op­pen­heimer sur­mised that the long­hand note-tak­ers couldn’t mind­lessly tran­scribe the lec­ture ver­ba­tim. They were forced to con­dense and syn­the­size the ma­te­rial — in other words, to think deeply about it. They ben­e­fited from de­sir­able dif­fi­culty. Like­wise, hav­ing to reach far­ther than your wrist to check the weather fore­cast isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. (De­sir­able dif­fi­culty does not mean im­pos­si­ble dif­fi­culty. For ob­sta­cles to be use­ful, they must be sur­mount­able.)

Hu­man be­ings crave bound­aries, ob­sta­cles and, yes, in­con­ve­nience. Scratch the sur­face of our frothy lives and you see this truth laid bare. Take, for ex­am­ple, Bud­dhism. It is not the eas­i­est reli­gion, as any­one who has at­tempted to med­i­tate for five min­utes knows, yet it is im­mensely popular. Why? Be­cause on some deep, in­tu­itive level we know that we have to do hard work to at­tain what we’re seek­ing.

The late philoso­pher Robert Noz­ick’s thought ex­per­i­ment of­fers fur­ther proof of that. Imag­ine a con­trap­tion, an Ex­pe­ri­ence Ma­chine, that pro­vides you with in­fi­nite, eter­nal hap­pi­ness. Would you want to be hooked up to it? Most peo­ple an­swer no. Why? Isn’t hap­pi­ness what we all want? Yes, but we de­sire an earned hap­pi­ness, not just some­thing dis­pensed to us. Many have cho­sen con­ve­nience above all else, no mat­ter the costs — and it is a choice.

As for me, I’ve be­gun to in­cor­po­rate de­sir­able dif­fi­culty into my life. I’ve ditched my cap­sule cof­fee maker and re­placed it with a hand-pour one. It takes much longer, is less con­ve­nient, but the cof­fee tastes bet­ter. It tastes bet­ter not de­spite the rel­a­tively ar­du­ous process but be­cause of it.


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