In this piece, I argue that by making a convenient world, we have made less meaning in the world.
A very convenient world
The cost of convenience — the state of being able to proceed with little effort or difficulty — commitment — the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause activity — is quietly monumental. We live in a paradox of a world where we click everything and agree that nothing worthwhile comes easy.
In the 1920s, Edward Bernay, Freud’s nephew, made convenience the ethos of our society. Bernay’s, known for his belief that the mob was irrational and stupid, shifted consumers’ minds for corporate benefits by using psychology research to tap into people’s fundamental desires. America’s sentiment went from buying goods for logic base to using goods to buying goods for emotions. Emotional ties between
people, consumers and corporations were established. We associated buying a lot of unnecessary shit with democracy. The marriage between democracy and capitalism gave Corporate America the license to do whatever. Today, Jeff, and the homogeneity that is Amazon, pushes convenience to the nth degree, and industry follows closely behind. Bernay systematically deceived America. Americans systematically deceived the world. The word at the time for what he was doing was called propaganda, but because of the harm the Germans had done to the word, Bernay’s created a new phrase. Public relations. Bernay’s developed a playbook for Corporate America to onramp us onto consumerism’s hedonic treadmill, distracting us from things that require commitment — deep friendships, books, family, long-term careers. Vinay Gupta in Spiritual Colonialism puts this poetically: “This mismatch between the meaning-finding nature of human beings, and the meaning-vacuum of the system they have constructed around themselves explain why even the rich are miserable: the environment they are in has sucked away stability and meaning in a way which leaves them afraid for their kids and their souls.”
We moved into the society of the self and the era of the individual. We went from wanting enough to wanting as much as we could get. And boy, did we get a lot. In our convenient world, we enjoy life for the first time in history, without leaving the house. Pizza on Seamless, play on Fortnite, diet pills from Amazon, therapy on Zoom. Why deal with reality when you have the internet? Why surf the internet when you can exist in a VR world? Convenience means fewer hard decisions and fewer incentives to care. The model is simple: > options (< friction for using products > cognitive rewards for the usage of the product) < less time to think per decision
< interested in obligations that restrict freedom < less ability we have to commit to long-term initiatives < fulfillment > adoption on unfulfilling products. We don’t have any more brainpower and willpower to process the new information. How much greater is our cognitive load today than a 100 years ago? 1,000? 10,000? The cost is an onramp to clutter, distraction and confusion in discerning easy, convenient decisions and hard but fulfilling ones. Convenience substitutes thinking with consuming as we hyperbolic discount short term convenience against long term satisfaction.
It’s harder to find the time to process information. Reflection and its precursor, boredom, went missing in the Tik Tok era. How can anyone stop to think in a Tik Tok world? Users not consciously limiting engagement lose hours a day. Every spare moment is spent scrolling, checking for updates, likes, and comments. The algorithms have found a stream of memetic input tailored to each person to monopolize their attention. There is a feature on Tik Tok that tells people to take a break. And what about the fact that it’s exponentially easier to communicate with each other. Increasing our ability to communicate with each other means that memes can spread more easily, by definition, and increasing the capacity of memes to propagate means they have to compete with a wider range of memes for the same attention budget. This selects for more and more competitive and attention-capturing memes. The selection for competitive memes can produce very dangerous ideas that successfully spread despite being negatively correlated with humanity’s well-being. With social media and the abandonment of boredom, we stop doing things like journaling — where we stop to reflect and think through major life decisions.
Convenience versus Commitment in daily life
I now show wide-reaching examples of convenience and its consequences in day-to-day life. The examples are wide-reaching— the framework applies to just about everything.
We stay at jobs for shorter periods. Decades ago, and still, in some countries, the relationship between an employee and a company was a long-term and loyal one. Folks would spend most of their career inside a single organization. We now have less of a long time horizon and a lot less time to absorb a company’s culture. It’s easier to find a new job, so fewer incentives to optimize your current one. And with the general ease of entertainment, it’s less important to find meaning in work—# RemoteWork.
Convenience flows into the products we build, specifically in user retention. The rhetoric is that having multiple logins is an inconvenient experience for the user, but like Bernays and the propaganda used against, it’s a tactic for control. And so what you have is our smartest minds, building things that exist 100 times over on the internet to keep a user in a single place. Rather than what we can call coordinating bundling, which would be telling a user to say ‘hey, instead of spending two years building a tool, we’re going to just tell you about the perfectly workable tool that exists on the internet’. Since we can’t monetize the user well enough, we don’t offer it to the public but internally call it a playbook. Instead, we either have products that offer everything or products that offer one piece of the pie. We call this unbundling and bundling; check out Ben Thompson and Stratechery. He’s into it. Anyways, we either offer parts of an offering (unbundling) or the complete parts of the offering (bundling). For bundling, think Shopify, the tools to start and launch an online business, a single place for you to do it all. JustWorks does the same thing for HR. Airbnb does it for people who want to make money renting their apartments. And then, on the other end, we offer unbundling, which is one piece of the puzzle. So while Shopify helps you do everything to run an online business, Wix, Squarespace, or WordPress help you with the website, one part of it. Regardless, there is an opportunity to build deeper customer relationships by decreasing convenience and making users do more. A hand-written letter, rather than a FaceBook Advertisement. Charging more upfront and asking a customer to put more effort into qualifying themselves. This strategy is successful with religion. The ones that unsuccessfully attract and retain an active and committed membership are the least strict ones, least demanding loyalty, unwavering belief, or rigid adherence to a distinctive lifestyle.
Living in the city means more convenient access to people but less commitment to folks. In a city, you interface with neighbors less. Reputations are less linked to friends and neighbors – less social pressure. If you say hello to every person you pass by the street, it’s seen as odd vs. small towns with “greet all” standards.
Dating. We find romantic partners via online apps. What do they optimize for? Convenience. It’s easy to upload a few photos. I describe myself by answering fill-in-the-blank <20 character sentences. I like someone by moving my finger two inches. The apps are super convenient. The result is that you are less committed to the people you engage with. There is now a new cultural norm, ghosting, where romantic partners will completely cut off communications without warning. The lack of social restraints powered by the convenience of the dating app powers people to conduct behavior that wouldn’t be appropriate in person. Does this mean that I’m advocating to remove these apps? No, rather, I’m questioning whether convenience should be at the forefront of the design.
Moving on to marriage. Our divorce rate continues to increase. Arranged marriages have higher success and satisfaction rates. Why’s that? I’m no expert here, but a simple explanation is that an arranged marriage is a bigger commitment. It’s not just the two people staking social capital on the validity of the arrangement, but also the families.
Music consumption. Back in the day, when there were a limited number of musicians. When musicians we loved released an album — it was an event. When Bruce Springsteen put out ‘Born In the USA,’ The New York Times got it a month in advance. We stopped and read the review. We anticipated the album coming out. when it came out. We spent time with it; we got to know it. Today, we have a significantly more convenient but less healthy relationship with music. I’ll listen to a song 50 times, squeeze up all of the dopamine juice, and on to the next. I don’t care that much about the artist, let alone the words and supply have adjusted accordingly. Just check out this study Pudding did on the number of words rappers used for their 35,000 lyrics. The sub 3,500 crowd is a who’s who in hip hop: 21 Savage, YG, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Lil Durk. The late 3,8000 to 4,5000 takes us a step back with Scarface, Run-DMC, 2 Pc. Jadakiss, Lil Kim. You also see many rappers that have gotten less famous, Jadakiss’s, Nelly, Rick Ross, TO, Hopsin. And then, of course, the oldest artists use the most words, the Wu-Tang Clan’s of the world.
Finally, life as a whole. We’re in the process (or maybe even successful, I have no clue) at making worms live forever. Forever. At some point,wide-reaching folks might live forever. We now know that if you starve yourself, you live longer. More and more people are living longer. The longer we are on this earth, the less a day matters, the less we are committed to living our fullest. We have this saying like life tomorrow, like it’s your last day. Well, when the number of days that we have tripled in the last century, the value of the day decays and makes us less compelled to be intentional. It’s increasingly more convenient to delay things and not commit to certain actions because we just have more time.
What’s a world to do?
Bernay’s built a game that the American and increasingly global mindset plays to their benefit as an accident-like tragedy. “Hate the game, not the player. ” Why do we accept this game? Is it possible to use the same manipulative psychological tactics to reverse this problem?
One thing is for sure. We need more heroes, which is getting harder and harder. Ironically, more convenience means having a view that differs from the world, less convenience. This means that you have a huge commitment to living by your values and saying no to the convenient option of just shutting up and getting in line. At some point, different people cave in to sticking to their commitment and choosing to struggle and then sign up for convenience — acknowledging the unviability of the problem and thus creating a vicious cycle where we have fewer heroes who then attract fewer heroes. As the world becomes increasingly cutthroat with fewer idealists committed to their pursuits and we’re left with a world of people running on the fumes of meaninglessness.
Submitted by Nilo Vicioso