Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Notes on the origins of convenience

Is it any surprise that America, a country whose core consumer value is convenience, should also be a fat, lazy country? When we prize efficiency, we are celebrating the time-saving component of convenience, but inevitably, this leads us to champion the effort-saving aspects of it as well. And we are well-trained to seek to avoid effort, since it's beaten in to us that work is a disutility, and there's no meaning for life to be found in work. Because capitalist economies generate so few meaningful jobs, it's essential that we look for life's meaning in consumption, but in order to consume as much as we are convinced we need to in order to feel fulfilled (we never feel fulfilled, no matter how much we consume) we must maximize our consumption time, consuming as much as possible as quickly as possible. Convenience plays its role here, beceomes a value insofar as it permits greater consumption/greater selfhood. In this, it mirrors efficiency on the production side -- as workers are driven to be efficient in the workplace, as the value of time increases, so must the value of leisure time, in order for it to be a meaningful counterbalance. If we work to enjoy leisure, then leisure time needs to be concentrated to the same degree as work time (this according to economist Steffan Linder). This is the origin of convenience as a valuable quality in what we consume, convenience is our means to maximizing our time spent consuming -- gives us more throughput in our lives.

In this mad rush to consume, other people are distracting, hinder consumption by encouraging social interaction instead, which might give pleasure but won't build social esteem in the hierarchy established by what Fred Hirsch calls "positional goods," those commodities that primarily confer status. In the process, in making consumption efficient for ourselves, in making it more convenient, we inevitably spend less time with each thing consumed, an attitude that becomes mutually reinforcing with the increasing disposability of all cultural product, perhaps. So shallow superficial music corresponds to a taste geared for quick digestion of cultural items as discrete disposable items. What we consume becomes far less important than how fast we can consume it (quantity trumps quality). We start to consume our own sense of ourselves consuming, we consume the expediency of our experience rather than the experience itself -- this is why convenience cannibalizes experience and its original utility.

The value of convenience then is disposability; convenience always tends toward disposability, until the experience being consumed is instantaneous. Disposability is not an unfortunate effect; it's an accomplished goal of consumerist economies. We begin to value convenience when the drive for efficiency makes the workplace feel emptier and emptier. We need to make leisure time fuller and fuller, and convenience becomes essential for that. At some point, it becomes an end in itself, itself a positional good (hence the gadget culture). The consumption/convenience ethos ultimately drives us to consume other people as disposable things (the one-night-stand culture). People become address cards in an organizer (the cultures merge).

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