Editorial: Struggle in the age of convenience

  • As coins slide down before her eyes, a German woman uses a new long distance dial telephone for public booths, July 17,1957.(AP Photo)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Last month, Monitor contributor Jean Stimmell wrote in these pages, “Ditch the digital devices for face-to-face encounters with our neighbors, dig gardens in the dirt, cut firewood, buy locally, raise barns and Cain together while we still have time.” In this past Sunday’s New York Times, Columbia law professor Tim Wu issued a similar call: “We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient – not always, but more of the time. Nowadays individuality has come to reside in making at least some inconvenient choices. You need not churn your own butter or hunt your own meat, but if you want to be someone, you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others.”

“Struggle,” Wu writes, “is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are.”

What Stimmell and Wu are referencing is not merely a generational issue. While many millennials and post-millennials seem especially fond of devices, the obsession with convenience is not theirs alone. There are septuagenarians and octogenarians who prefer their interactions with other human beings to be hosted by Facebook, and more than a few of them consider it anachronistic to wait in line for anything. If you believe Wu is talking about someone else when he says “you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others,” think for a moment about the kinds of problems that can derail your day: the internet is down, the dishwasher is broken, the Bluetooth in your car keeps disconnecting, there are only three aisles open at the grocery store, it’s been 15 minutes and your teenager hasn’t responded to a text message, you forgot to charge your phone and the battery is at 2 percent.

There aren’t many innocents in the world of ease.

The solution seems simple enough, especially for those who already enjoy landscaping, cutting firewood, building furniture or meeting new people. Just put your device in a drawer, walk outside, and reconnect with the earth and the people who inhabit it.

But a hassle-free life of convenience, once tasted, is difficult to abandon. Who wants to return to a pre-internet world of payphones and snail mail? Who wants to hand wash their clothes and sit in front of a 10-inch black-and-white television? So if behavioral time travel isn’t the solution to technology-driven conformity and the digital abyss, what is?

Wu believes the answer may lie in our memories: “We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest.”

Most people have had those experiences – adults and children alike – but sometimes the accompanying sense of satisfaction registers merely as relief that a task has been completed, as if the act of undertaking something difficult, whether it ends in success or not, had nothing to do with it. But the struggle matters; it is the zest of existence.

The world’s creators know that to be true. They are the artists and craftspeople, architects and software designers. They are the homeowners who create sweat equity and the volunteers who build communities. They are the kids who construct tree houses and the adults who grow gardens. They are the ones who do for the doing itself.

A return to the wilderness is not a realistic cure for digital age malaise, but the embrace of struggle in its many forms just may be. And don’t worry – all the people who live in your phone will still be there when you get back.