The curse of convenience: where does it all end?

Tech advances like smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) are largely geared toward making our lives easier, ostensibly so we can focus on what’s important. But where does it all end? How long until we’re condemned to a life lived inside a VR device while an army of automated services brings all our basic needs right to our doorstep? Having recently moved to a more rural area, I’ve found joy in the everyday mundane tasks that make us human.

Convenience is the driver of so many of our decisions. Nature tends to take the path of least resistance, and as human beings, we’re no different – we instinctively seek the option that’s the easiest, most comfortable, and requires the least effort.

The tech industry knows this all too well and is constantly producing tools and services that cater to our craving for convenience. As consumers, we just lap them up. Why waste our time on everyday tasks that machines can do for us? Imagine all the things I could do with my free time! How much more productive I can be!

And in many cases, it’s true. Nobody wants to spend a couple of hours washing their clothes by hand when there’s a perfectly good washing machine nearby. But there’ll eventually come a point when the negatives outweigh the positives, and too much convenience becomes harmful to our health and well-being. In my opinion, that point is fast approaching.

The key, as always, is balance. In developed countries, at least, most of life’s most onerous tasks are already taken care of by tools, machines, automation, and paid services. You might assume that the desire for convenience would have rapidly diminished after this point. But it hasn’t.

The gilded cage

Recognizing the profitability of time-saving innovations, corporations work relentlessly to identify possible “pain points” or aspects of our lives that might be uncomfortable, challenging, or time-consuming, with the goal of eliminating them. But are uncomfortable and challenging tasks necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so. In fact, I think they’re essential for us to learn, build resistance and independence, and grow.

Take food, for example. With the explosion in delivery apps in recent years, a meal, snack, or even just a bottle of milk is a couple of taps away. And not even that, in some cases. For example, you can have your fridge identify when something is running low, and it automatically places an order for you.

Without going into the negative health effects of the processed and fast foods that are commonly found on delivery apps, the convenience of meals arriving at our doors takes us just another step away from our natural instincts.

Now, I’m not advocating that we all go out and grow our own vegetables and raise our own chickens (although that’s definitely something to be encouraged if the opportunity arises), but think of what has been lost here. Not only do we lack a connection with the source of our food, but the skills to prepare and cook it, too. We become less self-sufficient and ever more dependent on outside sources, fueled by technology, to take care of our most basic needs. When does convenience stop liberating us and start to trap us in its gilded cage?

“It’s just progress,” you might argue. “Instead of shopping and cooking, you’ve suddenly got an extra hour or two each day to use at your leisure.” That’s true: if you use the time in a way that makes you happy, healthy, or more productive. But how many of us give this free time away cheaply to our employers or by mindlessly scrolling through social media and Netflix? It can be tempting to simply swap wholesome physical tasks for dopamine-addled mental stimulation, putting a strain on our mental health.

Convenience is addictive, too. Once you’ve experienced the ease of doing a particular task, it’s very difficult to go back. Over time, even minor daily challenges become irritating as the expectation for immediate gratification grows. But when everything is easy, our levels of satisfaction and gratitude are diminished. We take things for granted. There’s no journey in life, no anticipation. Only the outcome matters, and in this way, convenience makes us spoiled.

Less convenience, more happiness?

This is how I began to feel. Just going through the motions, rarely feeling challenged – outside the gym – and filling my time making trivial decisions and choices. I wanted to accomplish something, to earn it. So I packed up everything and took a seven-month road trip across 11 countries to settle in a rural area of Greece, where modern technology has yet to reach saturation point.

More than one year in, and it’s going well. I’m learning the language at a local school: no Duolingo for me. My house is basic, with no smart appliances or robot assistants. I tend the garden, shop at the local farmers’ market, wash the dishes by hand, sweep and mop the floor, and chop wood for heating. These tasks take time, but paradoxically, I feel like I have more time than ever – I live in the moment and in the physical world rather than the virtual one, wading through an endless stream of information like I used to.

Even the simple act of collecting drinking water from the spring feels almost revolutionary. It’s like taking a small step toward leading the life we were supposed to lead. Taking the time to create, nurture, and maintain an environment for ourselves, rather than being handed everything on an (expensive) silver platter.

And I don’t mean to trivialize a lack of convenience. Like wealth, convenience is not spread fairly around the world. The many people who are forced to, for example, collect water just to survive would rightly disdain my sheltered, middle-class fetishization of the act. It’s easy to complain about having too much convenience and too many choices when a simple water pump or plumbing system could vastly improve the lives of millions of people.

The wealth paradox

Interestingly, though, there does appear to be a correlation between access to technology, especially at a young age, and declining levels of mental health. In Sapien Labs’ 2023 Mental State of the World Report, researchers set out to investigate why the average mental health scores were far lower in more developed nations such as the UK and Australia than in developing nations like Tanzania, Nigeria, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.

The researchers found three key points of particular significance, with the first being the age at which a child gets their first smartphone. Results showed that the younger children were when they got their first smartphone, the worse their mental health outcomes were in adulthood.

The impact of owning a phone at a young age was especially pronounced in the category of ‘Social Self,’ driving symptoms such as suicidal thoughts, feeling detached from reality, and feelings of aggression towards others. Children in the ‘Core Anglosphere’ (developed nations such as Australia and the UK) got smartphones at the youngest age of those studied, an average of 11 years old.

A second interesting finding involved the consumption of ultra-processed food. It showed that more frequent consumption of such food results in substantially poorer mental wellbeing at all ages, with a broad impact on symptoms of depression and emotional and cognitive control.

Researchers found that over half of those who eat ultra-processed food daily are distressed or struggling with their mental wellbeing, compared to just 18% of those who rarely or never consume it. Less developed countries tend to have lower ultra-processed food consumption, while 60-70% of consumption in Core Anglosphere countries like the United States and the United Kingdom is ultra-processed.

There was also the impact of diminished family bonds. Wealthier countries reported the lowest closeness to adult family members (23%) and the least stable and loving childhood homes (39%).

Overall, the study questions the generally accepted assumption that wealth enhances wellbeing. Access to too much technology and the convenience that comes with it appears to impact our social and family lives at the cost of our mental health. I found it an interesting read and one that confirmed my own personal observations of increased happiness in a less ‘developed’ environment.

The right balance

Now, I feel like I’ve found the right balance. And it’s come about by using fewer devices and gadgets than what might be considered the norm these days.

No, I don’t want a smart fridge or robot vacuum cleaner. I don’t need any AI assistants, and I certainly don’t have any desire to have my reality ‘augmented’ by an Apple Vision Pro. Consider me old fashioned if you will, but I feel all the better for it.

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