We are prone to thinking of convenience as an expansion of our capabilities: We become more efficient at identifying and fulfilling our needs, therefore we fulfill more of them, and therefore we are more happy. By this logic, convenience maximizes a quantity of satisfaction. But actually convenience is a reduction—it alters our wants and needs to only things fulfilled expediently, coarsening our desires and leading us to neglect needs requiring a more complex effort to fulfill. Those complex needs provide much a greater quality of happiness, satisfaction that resists quantification because the effort to pursue them can’t be separated from their reward. Like meaningful work, these activities are their own reward, and they gain nothing in satisfaction by being made more efficient or convenient. Convenience turns qualitative experiences into quantitative ones; that’s its function. It provides consumers with a rationalization for why all experience is becoming commodified.
Quantifying happiness and maximizing convenience go together, complementary strategies for forwarding an ideal of happiness that suits not individuals but corporations,entities that make a profit from efficiency. It is in the interest of corporations that we elide their interest in efficiency with our own interest in happiness. Our personal well-being becomes a product, something we are trying to manufacture like a commodity through the most efficient means possible. We think of our well-being as the sum of desires, all basically ephemeral, fleeting and trivial, rather then as the investigation and development of the intensity of a single will. Better to love someone deeply and inconveniently than to buy a series of consumer goods that ultimately add up to nothing.
As a utility, convenience is parasitic, it claims as its own some of the pleasure originally afforded by what has been now made convenient. The result is that the orginal activity loses that much of its ability to give pleasure, while convenience has become that much more central to one’s existence. In this way the iPod becomes more important than whatever you happen to play on it. Music is diminished by whatever joy you take in its delievery system (the novelty of having so many music choices at your disposal makes all those choices more meaningless, and makes the substance of those choices that much less important). So the speed of life, and its attendent stress, continually increases, all in the name of pleasure.
// Notes from the Road
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