My wife’s debit card wasn’t working. Someone at the bank made an error when setting up her account and now the system wouldn’t recognize her PIN. She had to call the bank to get them to fix the problem. But, it was after hours. So, she called the 24-hour telebanking number. A machine answered. It offered no way to reset her PIN. This meant another call to the bank sometime the next business day.
This incident seems trivial. Things like this happen thousands of times a day, these little inconveniences of modern life. But, taken in the aggregate, these small snags constitute one of the major reasons modern life is so hard.
Every change designed to make our lives more convenient inevitably requires of us some greater level of involvement, a commitment to ongoing maintenance work that is often more taxing than simply doing without. More often than not, the demands our “conveniences” make on us come about as the result of the corporations who run things trying to wring one more dollar from their customers.
Here is another example. My Roku has begun automatically adding channels. When I turn on the television to watch Netflix, instead of getting immediate access to the channels I actually want, I have to wait while Roku tries to add Nick Jr. to my channel list. Then, I have to take more of my time to delete the unwanted channel.
These little irritations are not disturbing merely because they require us to put out a little more effort or to tolerate small inconveniences. They are disturbing because when daily life is filled with such things, when all our interactions with services we need or want are unnecessarily complicated, people develop an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
A few days ago, I wrote about that guy dragged off the United airplane. The reason that story resonated with so many is because we saw in the image of a man being dragged down the aisle of an airplane by his arms in order to prevent a reduction of corporate profits a crystallization of our own feelings.
And our feelings are largely an accurate reflection of our situation.
James Howard Kunstler is fond of pointing out how our built environment is designed beyond human scale. Everything is huge. Everything dwarfs the individual. Ride along on the interstate in any major city and his point is evident. The infrastructure is so large you can feel yourself nearly disappearing. But, it’s not only our built environment that suffers from this out-of-all-reasonable-scale problem. So does everything else.
Consider how complex the simple act of buying a pack of gum has become. Imagine you walk to the register. You can choose between standard check-out and self check-out. You choose the self check-out lane. You scan your gum. It doesn’t take. You scan it again. And again. One more time. You have to wave down the distracted attendant. He comes over and pushes a few buttons. He gets the thing scanned. Then, a screen pops up asking which of the four possible payment methods you would like to use. You swipe your debit card. It doesn’t work. The machine won’t read it. You try again. Still nothing. You wave the attendant down again. He swipes your card just as you did ten seconds ago. The same result. The machine won’t read it. He tries another three or four times. Then, he does that thing where he puts the card inside the plastic bag and the machine finally reads it. You take your receipt and finally leave the store, only to discover once you are in your car that you grabbed the wrong flavor from among the 37 varieties of gum on display.
This endless complication of daily activities in the name of “choice” and “convenience” creates the sense of powerlessness, of being swept along by forces outside oneself that many of us feel. The number of options we have in everything, like what kind of gum to buy, adds to our sense of meaninglessness. When you have 37 gum options, most are as good as any other. This is one way in which our vast number of options creates, not real choices, but simply the illusion of the power to choose.
In her famous memoir of growing up in a rural English village just before the impact of the Industrial Revolution was felt in full, Flora Thompson describes an entirely different world. She may as well have grown up on a different planet.
The life she describes, while rougher and more limited than ours in some ways, lacked the overwhelming scope and scale that characterizes our time. Imagine a life that consisted of working at home, evenings spent with friends at the pub a couple of streets away, raising children and church. Most of life happened within a mile of your home. A big day for Thompson’s family was walking a few miles to the closest town of a couple thousand people.
The advantage of living life within those sorts of limits is that most things can be controlled or influenced directly by the individual. Contact with social and political bureaucracy was rare. The scale of one’s built environment generally reflected a more human and modest vision. All of this contributed to a sense of the individual’s agency.
There’s no going back to that lifestyle on a massive scale. But, for those of us who desire to increase our sense of power, reducing the scope and scale of our lives is a must. Once again, unplugging from the American anti-culture is a first step toward increasing peace and contentment. We can’t entirely unplug, but we can do so enough to find that, in spite of all the voices urging us to adopt some new measure of “convenience”, that there is nothing more convenient than a little simplicity.