I Want It Later! Building The Inconvenience Economy.

on October 6, 2014

As I stood in line with a giddy gaggle of high pants hipsters, each eagerly anticipating the drip, drip of their very own drip coffee from the sainted Blue Bottle, conversations were many and temporary friendships took brief flight.

I looked up from my phone and realized: we are doing it all wrong.

In nearly every aspect of our lives, from work to parenting to play to eating, we are demanding quicker, faster, now. Worse, our technologies — the very products and services we build for our own good — are forcing this upon us. Even worse: We seem to have no idea, no plan, no counter to this offensive.

Understand, I am no Luddite. I am not suggesting we limit the advance of technology (or progress). Rather, I am suggesting we figure out a way to build technologies and services that nurture our very human need to take our time, to hone our craft, to focus on our work, to block out the noise. Almost nothing we have created allows this. Almost no one in Silicon Valley even considers this. I am considered a gadfly whenever I merely suggest it.

Why have we allowed our technology to be so limiting?

Convenience and productivity are just two of the many human desires we hold dear. So where are the devices, the apps, the advances that satisfy our longing for peace, calm, reflection?

No. Turning something off is not a solution. Partly, because that’s so hard — like eating only a “single serving” of cookies. Secondly, because this requires everyone else do the same. Unplug, walk outside, stare at the stars and then count the seconds before a jet flies by, a leaf blower punctures your ears or a bright light pierces your vision.

We are demanding convenience above all else, when in fact we crave the messiness of taking our time. Yet, none of our richest corporations and none of our very best minds appear to have any solution. I doubt they are even considering this. Twitter co-founder, Ev Williams, made this clear last year when he described the Internet as “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” 

“The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience. Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease.”

I got 99 problems but convenience ain’t one.

Fat And Fast

Our very best minds — and we have encouraged this — view the next big thing as whatever it is that satisfies our present, reflexive, fleeting demand for: Now. Want. Now. Want. Now. Again, from Williams:

“Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time…identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”

Then what? Race ya till you die! There are many human desires where taking out a step does not make life better.

To be fair, Williams does make the obvious connection between our burgeoning abundance of convenience with last century’s abundance of fast, cheap calories:

“Look at the technology of agriculture taken to an extreme — where we have industrialised farms that are not good for the environment or animals or nourishment. Look at a country full of people who have had such convenient access to calories that they’re addicted, obese, and sick.”  

Despite this awareness, however, Williams doesn’t really offer a route around this. Nor does Silicon Valley. Most infuriating of all, neither do I. I keep wracking my brain to come up with a way out, to imagine technology truly supportive of all our human longings. I got nothing.

The newly heralded convenience economy is enabled by smartphones, apps, the location-based web, the cloud, and pretty much every device in our possession. It’s lighting every moment of our lives, altering our work, deconstructing our expectations, yet I am not sure it’s as liberating as we believe.

Immediate access to messaging, e-mail, media, and other online functionality through smartphones has generated a sense of entitlement to fast, simple, and efficient experiences.

Aren’t we also entitled to contemplation, craftsmanship and effort? Is pining for a thing no longer a viable thing in this new millennium? What else might we lose? Taking our time, honing our craft, embracing the goal, the journey, these are vitally important pillars of life — I presume — yet our own creations constantly work against them. Imagine pitching to a VC your idea for a service that makes people wait, that never interrupts, that takes forever to master. Are such technologies or services even imaginable by our collective, connected 21st century brains? With access to everything, at low prices, instantly, how do we deny ourselves? Should we?

The Marshmallow Test

In the 1960s, the marshmallow test validated the idea children who could push aside a minor reward — a marshmallow now — for a greater reward — many marshmallows in the near future — enjoyed greater success in life. Why then, are the products of our best companies designed to reward us all instantly?

According to the Harvard Business Review, “as adults we face a version of the marshmallow test nearly every waking minute of every day. We’re not tempted by sugary treats, but by our browser tabs, phones, tablets, and (soon) our watches—all the devices that connect us to the global delivery system for those blips of information that do to us what marshmallows do to preschoolers.”

Will we grow fat on convenience? How might that look? Explosions of uncontrollable anger when the young man at the drive thru counter takes seconds longer than the lighted sign has promised us?

When the great minds of the early 1900s constructed methods to ensure we would all never go hungry again, it’s unlikely they envisioned a world where hundreds of millions become morbidly obese. Again, from the Harvard Business Review:

“As we’ve reshaped the world around us, radically diminishing the cost and effort involved in obtaining calories, we still have the same brains we evolved thousands of years ago, and this mismatch is at the heart of why so many of us struggle to resist tempting foods that we know we shouldn’t eat.  

A similar process is at work in our response to information.

Just as with food, the problem will almost certainly not be solved by self control, which was always a lie, an easy way to blame others and ignore reality. 

Is there some Paleo diet for the mind, an Ornish diet for the spirit?

Goethe wrote, “talent is nurtured in solitude.” Can solitude exist in our world? If not, will talent vanish, killed off by the creations of our smartest humans and our mutual lust for immediacy?

I wish I could offer you some guidance but I just thought of the cleverest tweet.