Sunday, August 01, 2004

The High Price Of Convenience

We have it far too easy in our society. When I was a young lad, there was no internet, no cell phones, no cable TV in most areas, (no VCR’s, DVD’s or Tivo either) and most businesses were closed at night and on Sundays and holidays. We had to discipline ourselves to do things when we were able to. To shop when stores were open, to wait until we got home to make a phone call, to go the library to look up information, to write and mail a letter and wait for a reply rather than using e-mail, and to watch a show when it was on rather than recording it. We had a limited number of TV stations to pick from rather than the hundreds that many of us have access to now (and there’s still nothing on that’s worth watching). Now we can do our grocery shopping in the middle of the night, and any other kind of shopping online at any time. We can make a phone call from anywhere to anywhere at any time. We can access information online 24/7. We can send someone an e-mail with the click of a mouse, or exchange instant messages with anyone across the planet.. We can record TV shows to watch later, or rent or buy movies to watch when it is convenient. My purpose here is not to suggest that these things, in and of themselves, are bad. Certainly, it is hard to argue against all of these conveniences. But is our society any better for it? I don’t really think so. Many of these services represent extra items in our budgets: anywhere from 10 to 50 dollars a month for the internet (depending on whether you have a basic no-frills dialup or satellite broadband or something in between), a similar amount for cell phone service depending on how many phones you have and how much you use them, and a minimum of 25-45 dollars a month for cable or satellite TV service. (DirecTV’s full package plus every sports subscription could probably run you over 200 dollars per month). While these items were originally viewed as luxuries, they are now commonplace in most households, even necessities, if you will. So we are spending an extra 45-145 dollars a month or more on these “necessities”. Has our income increased that much? No wonder there are so many more bankruptcies these days. In addition to the extra drain on our bank accounts, some of these services require some people to work nights, weekends and holidays. If you’re going to buy groceries at midnight, for example, someone has to be there to run the checkout. Back in the day, most people worked some version of 9-5 weekdays, though some factory workers had rotating shifts. Most people had weekends and holidays off. Holidays were for family. Sundays (or Saturdays) were for church. Other weekend time and evenings were for household chores, family and relaxation. We have much less of this time now as we are required to spend more time at work for the sake of the convenience of others. (And the bank accounts of our bosses) Yes, convenience has a high price, both in terms of money and in terms of less tangible but even more important things, such as the time we spend with our families and the time we spend just resting and relaxing. And, with all the convenience, it strikes me that many of us have less patience and less discipline than people did a generation or two ago. We expect things right here, right now. We are unwilling to wait for anything. It is a catastrophe if the cable is down, the internet won’t work, or we can’t make a cell phone call.


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