Jordan Heath Rawlings: Look, I spend a lot of money so that I don’t have to do things myself. You probably do it, too. A large and rapidly growing chunk of our economy, literally tens of billions of dollars per year in Canada is based on the assumption that there is always something else that can be done for you to save you time if you’re willing to pay just a bit more for it. It’s being this way forever, of course, but in the past several years, we have created an entire industry that doesn’t actually sell anything except convenience, and we’re all buying it happily, for the most part. But what else are we getting in the bargain? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is the Big Story. Gayle MacDonald is a feature writer at the Globe, a male who wrote an essay about the tyranny of convenience. Hi Gail, why don’t you start by telling me the laziest thing you’ve ever used technology for?
Gayle MacDonald: Well, I think I actually put it in the story. It was most definitely… I live above Whole Foods in Toronto, and I had looked up this recipe and it called for salt, and I don’t know if you ever shopped at Whole Foods, I don’t, but anyway, it called for this salt that I’d never heard of. And I’m pretty sure it would have been there because they deal in specialty stuff, and instead of, and I think I actually made myself sound a little bit better in the article that I wrote about convenience and the tyranny of it, I, um, chose to sit on my butt, pick up my phone order the salt. It was there the next morning when I opened the door. That was kind of the first thing that made me realize that I was opting for the easy choice all the time. And then the next time was ordering patio furniture and instead of going to Home Depot or Canadian Tire, or, you know, a more “patio-ish” spot.
Jordan: Sure, where you can sit in the chairs and all that stuff,
Gayle: Try them out. Instead, I ordered it online, and it was a prerequisite that it came assembled cause, I didn’t want the hassle of doing that. So basically I was sitting in a pile of boxes taking reams of plastic off cushions, and I realized that I just didn’t like the way I had become so slothful. I wasn’t doing anything that required effort. I just wasn’t putting myself out there to actually walk and talk to people and do chores the way that I used to.
Jordan: So, yeah, the reason we wanted to talk to you is because you described it so well in your piece. So maybe you can try to define for us what is the tyranny of convenience?
Gayle: I think what it means is we’ve always been a convenience-focused society since the fifties and well, even earlier with, as banal is it sounds like the invention of canned beans. We’ve gone to canned goods than we invented the washing machine. Everything we have done has been about making our lives easier. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, it’s a very good thing. But with A.I. technology, the options now are making our choices. The matter of lifting a finger instead of actually physically washing, you know, walking to a washing machine and doing the actual labor? We’re not doing labor anymore. We’re not doing anything that requires some effort, some thinking, some, inconvenience. Everything we’re choosing and everything that’s being offered to us is about making life easier, simpler and, frankly, less rewarding.
Jordan: Is there a threshold somewhere that we crossed because to your point, I don’t think anybody would argue that the invention of the dishwasher or the washing machine was a bad thing. But there’s got to be a line somewhere where it goes from things that are freeing us up to make the most of our time, to things that are actively discouraging us from interacting with the world.
Gayle: Well, I think if you think about it, think about the technology that is available. When you take something as basic as social media and how pervasive it is. It appalls me when I’m walking home from work and I see pretty much, I would say, 95% of the people walking with their face into their phones, not looking at anybody on the street, not bothering to see which direction they’re going, they just kind of do it like they’re a bunch of drones walking down the sidewalk, and even that, it’s just, we are so programmed to be ottomans almost now. I think that’s a threshold, and it’s only people that are a little bit alarmed by the fact that menial chores, banality, things like that are actually something to embrace instead of something to shun. They’re the ones that I think you’re going to kind of lead a counter revolution, and take back some of the more boring stuff of their life and find satisfaction in it.
Jordan: That gets out what I was going to ask you next, because I can’t.. and I hope I’m I hope I’m only speaking for myself, but I don’t think that I am… I can’t find satisfaction in walking four blocks to pick up my food when it could just be brought to me or to use your example, I don’t find any satisfaction in assembling furniture. Like, I will pay. I mean, I just moved. I will pay whatever it costs to not do that. And I don’t know when my brain switched, and maybe it was just because it became an option, not to have to.
Gayle: Yeah, I get your point. But do you find satisfaction and picking up your phone and ordering something online like, does it make you happy to have food delivered to your doorstep instead of taking the time, the thought, and the preparation, in buying your groceries, actually spending the time to prepare a dish that you’ve thought about and put care into. I don’t know if you have kids or if you have a family, but do you actually get satisfaction out of feeding your kids? Giving them a great meal? Hearing them say, Dad, wow that was a great dinner, thank you so much.
Jordan: I would love to hear her say that for the record, but she’s not going to. No, I I do find that when you go to the market and buy your vegetables in the morning and spend the afternoon cooking, you take more time with your food, to taste it, to experience it. Um and you want the people around you, too.
Gayle: You forgot the word “enjoy” it.
Jordan: Yes. Yeah, You feel much better about it. And I guess what fascinated me about your piece is trying to figure out what that is actually doing to us. The process of not engaging, like it’s one thing to say like I didn’t even notice that I I ordered my uber eats and I ate it. But do we know what that is doing to us, what toll that takes?
Gayle: Well, I think I interviewed, I think she’s in the story, her name was Maggie Cassella, and she’s a stand up comedian in Toronto, and I absolutely loved what she said. So she told me how her and her partner used to love getting up in the morning. They’d have a piece of paper sitting on their counter instead of, an itemized list plugged into their phone, and they would have things to do, like pick up the dry cleaning, maybe go buy some fresh flowers at the market. Things like that, they would walk around, they would say hi to their neighbors, they would maybe stop for lunch, maybe discover a new Cafe, where they had a really great cup of coffee. And instead she said that all they do now is basically sit or lay in bed with their phones and tick off the boxes by ordering things that they might need. And they don’t do that kind of lazy day meandering, wandering around the neighborhood, where they actually meet people face to face and have a conversation. She just finds that her Saturdays and her Sundays are way more dull, and they’re not as fulfilling.
Jordan: How do we start to convince ourselves to do these things? You mentioned that there… someone’s got to start a mini revolution about reclaiming the pleasure in everyday activities. Where does that begin?
Gayle: Well, I think it, I think, really, If you look around, you already see it beginning. The artisan community, when it comes to food, you know, farm to table cuisine, there’s a big push. There’s a lot of people that are actually really making an effort now to get to local markets and do that kind of shopping, support the local, um, farmers. There’s a growing swell of individuals who care about the people that actually put in time, sweat, tears into making products or produce, or whatever it is that they’re giving to us, they’re taking the time to say, “Okay, I’m gonna make an effort to come to you” and those kind of businesses are actually flourishing. Um, this one lady, after I wrote the piece, she she sent me an email and it was really thoughtful, and she said the one thing that you didn’t think about was how all of these click bait options, I.E. anything you can click on to get delivered to you immediately, she said, they’re destroying small towns, all the tiny retailers, and mom and pop shops that used to subsist because of people being loyal to them, coming to them, they’re starting to disappear. Now it’s not just because of convenience per se. It’s also because of big box retailers. But that’s an earlier form of convenience. You know it with the big box, go there, do everything all in one fell swoop. That was just another incarnation of the, you know, the roll-out of convenience that has been chugging along for the last 100 years, that God knows what level it will get to with technology.
Jordan: Do we have any idea how quickly the “click and order and get it off the Internet” economy is growing?
Gayle: Well, I think if you consider just the amount of purchases that are done on the Web, so worldwide, for instance, almost $2.9 trillion was purchased last year. In Canada alone we’re expected double what we did in 2016 and by this year we’ll have spent $40 billion online. So it’s growing exponentially and with service is like Amazon, eBay, all of those different ones. Well even them more conventional couriers like UPS, and FedEx, et cetera. They’re all trying to find a way to go to zero emissions and make things a little bit more environmental friendly. In my piece, I didn’t want to hammer on about the environmental impact of all the easy choices we’re making. But there’s absolutely no question that everything that we’re doing when we’re relying more on airplanes, on vans to bring us things, all these things are taking a toll on the environment. Just this morning I was reading the paper, and there’s a new book out by Tatiana Schlossberg, that’s Caroline Kennedy’s daughter who was a science reporter for The New York Times, and she’s just written a book about, um, this very phenomenon, and she calls it the inconspicuous consumption. And it’s about the environmental impact that you don’t know you have, and I have not read it, but I’m going to, and it… what makes me happy, what makes me feel better is that all of these things are starting to be written. People are starting to think about all of this stuff in a much more concerted and wholesome way, I guess.
Jordan: Who do you think or where do you think I guess, we first documented how far we’d come in the race for convenience and how much it could cost us? When did we start to realize just how far we were going?
Gayle: I don’t think we’ve realized it yet. I don’t think that most people even give it a second thought. I was shocked at the response at the story I wrote about convenience had
Jordan: What was the response?
Gayle: It was overwhelming. It was bizarre, really, because it was a topic that nobody had thought about. That said, there are some, there are people who are far more learned than I am who are starting to write fascinating essays in places like The New York Times, in The Atlantic, all these publications that are starting to examine the tyranny of convenience and how we need to start thinking about the choices we make instead of always opting for something that is almost a mindless thing to do. We should maybe start making our lives a little bit more difficult, and by that I mean, maybe we should not order from uber eats. And maybe we should actually walk two blocks and go to the grocery store. And maybe we should take an hour and make a meal for our family. Well, maybe they stand around and actually talk to you. And you have a conversation with your child about her day, her homework. I’m sure you do that anyway, but wouldn’t it be nice if she just kind of hung out with you while you showed her how to make a dish that otherwise she would never know how to make because you just order it in?
Jordan: One of the things that stopped me in my tracks from your piece the same way you’ve gotten that response is I think we’ve talked about all the individual aspects of what you describe on this podcast. We’ve certainly talked about social media addiction and what it does to us. We’ve definitely talked about packaging waste and what the proliferation of plastics have done to the planet, and we’ve talked about how we don’t connect in person anymore, like we’ve done episodes on all those topics. But we’ve never put it together to figure out what’s at the root of it and to realize that your motivations for doing all those things that aren’t good for you are simply convenience. And laziness is a tough thing to grapple with. And I think it’s it’s a hard sell to convince people to go backwards.
Gayle: That’s a really good point. I don’t think that anybody is advocating to go backwards. I don’t think that’s it at all. I think it is, instead of moving forward at such a breakneck speed, always putting yourself first, always making sure that you’re choosing to do things that require the least amount of energy and effort on your part. I think that all people are trying to say is every once in a while, put the brakes on, take some time, grab a hobby. This wonderful writer, his name is Tim Wu. He’s a lawyer at Columbia, he said when you think about it, hobbies are really a waste of time. Why would you build a model car when you can go out and buy one? Well, the point is you build the model car because you get satisfaction of using your brain and actually figuring out how to put it together.
Jordan: Give me an example of something you’ve done since you wrote this piece that you wouldn’t have done before you wrote it.
Gayle: Well, one thing I am doing, but I didn’t do it today to get here, because I was in a hurry and I have to go somewhere after work, but I have been. I live at a busy intersection in Toronto, and I have been walking to the ROM, Royal Ontario Museum, picking up one of the Citi bikes, biking it on one of the multiple bike lanes that are in this city now and doing it to work, and coming home the same way. That’s one thing I did not do before. The other thing that I am actively doing, is I am looking for the farmer’s markets. I am trying to find those smaller vendors who need my dollars versus, you know, a Loblaws or Whole Foods or Sobeys who really doesn’t. I’m trying to do those kind of things, and the other thing that I am actively doing now is I’m trying to grow my own vegetables. I live in a condo. I have started a vegetable garden on the balcony and I get so much joy out of going out there and watching, you know, the tomato start to grow. Um, I guess the main thing I’ve done is I’ve just kind of slowed down a bit and just done a few more things the old fashioned way.
Jordan: Thanks Gayle. Gayle MacDonald, feature writer at the Globe and Mail. That was the Big Story. For more from us, you can find us all in one convenient location at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpm. Once again, don’t even have to do anything but use your phone. And of course, you can subscribe, for free, on your phone, wherever you get podcasts. Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, we deliver. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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