From the Editor: Resisting the siren song of convenience
By HEATHER WRIGHT — Recently in this space, I posited a handful of questions about what the future could hold for Hyattsville and the surrounding area. I considered if Amazon’s new headquarters (HQ2) would come to Prince George’s County. It did not take long to receive a definitive “no,” in answer, as Amazon narrowed their HQ2 contenders in January to 20 finalists, three of which are in the D.C. metro area: D.C., Northern Virginia and Montgomery County. Prince George’s County is not among the chosen.
Even before hearing about this rejection, I was ambivalent about HQ2’s coming to the DMV area, despite the promised jobs and jolt to the area’s economy. And I remain ambivalent. I’m not sure that I need more of Amazon in my life. Yes, I’m happy that Robert Harper can use Amazon’s platform to sell books and other wares, despite closing his brick-and-mortar store in January. However, if it weren’t for Amazon and the ease of online ordering, brick-and-mortar bookstores like Robert Harper Books would still be a viable option.
Amazon and its ubiquitous curvy arrow (or partial smile) have brilliantly tapped modern America’s unending quest for convenience. I, for example, went from placing one order of two books from them in 2000 to placing 61 orders of innumerable books, kitchen utensils, crafting supplies — you name it — in 2015. Our family subscribes to Amazon Prime and recently took on an Amazon credit card. Amazon seems to have as its role model the behemoth monopoly Buy n Large, depicted in Pixar’s “Wall-E” as the one remaining corporation that provides for all of humanity’s material wants and needs.
Yet Amazon is merely responding to the modern world’s demand for convenience; they’re just doing it better and bigger than anyone else. In a New York Times article “The Tyranny of Convenience,” Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, muses that convenience (“more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks”) has emerged as one of the most powerful forces shaping the lives and economies of those in developed nations. He continues, “This is particularly true in America, where, despite all the paeans to freedom and individuality, one sometimes wonders whether convenience is in fact the supreme value.”
Wu gives an Amazonian example to demonstrate the contrast between Americans’ professed values and their actual behavior: “Americans say they prize competition, a proliferation of choices, the little guy. Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.”
Convenience is not bad in and of itself. I like my laundry machine and online banking and one-click ordering very much, thank you. But I don’t want convenience to be a supreme value — in religious parlance, an idol. I don’t want my children to learn that life is all about finding the quickest, easiest path and that struggle and hardship are to be avoided at all costs. And I certainly don’t want to one-click away any more of my favorite brick-and-mortar stores.
How, then, to counteract the lure and darker sides of convenience? How to keep convenience a value, but not a supreme one?
The recent evolution of American middle-class attitudes towards food may serve as an example. For a time, the pendulum swung far over to convenience as a preeminent value in how Americans regarded eating. Think TV dinners, processed food, preservatives, Spam. More recently, it seems that convenience is just one of many values people consider in choosing foods, along with taste, freshness, cost, nutrition, environmental considerations and local sourcing. Many of us are thinking, and thinking hard, about our food choices. The pendulum is swinging back.
And we can extend that type of reflection into other areas of our lives and right-size our reliance on convenience. Some religious practices actively resist our pursuit of convenience. Praying five times a day, attending religious services, meditating, observing Lent and many other rituals remind adherents that there is a higher calling on their time and a deeper meaning to life than just doing things quickly. Expressions of these practices, such as mindfulness, yoga and fasting, are embedded in many secular lives, as well.
Then there is taking our reflection further by serving and loving our neighbor — running errands for someone recovering from surgery, serving at a soup kitchen, writing a letter to a grieving widow. Such acts may seem like the opposite of convenient, but there may be no more meaningful or fulfilling use of the time we’ve been given.
If I value community and supporting the little guy, I can shop locally. I can visit Franklins for games and gifts before browsing Amazon’s selection. I can shop for clothes at Takoma Park’s Amano boutique and sift through Value Village’s offerings instead of clicking “shopping cart” at Zappos.com. I can meander through some of the many area farmers markets to check off items on my grocery list.
Previewing the Pyramid Atlantic Book Arts Fair opened my eyes to ways of moving beyond easy convenience: working with my hands and exploring the joys and struggles of creating art. At the Book Arts Fair, there were demonstrations on how to make book covers, fold a book out of one large piece of paper, and tool with gold leaf. No one embarks on these endeavors to save time, but rather to bring beauty and meaning into one’s time.
Wu sounds the call to embrace inconvenience and reminds us, “We call them hobbies, avocations, callings, passions. These are the noninstrumental activities that help to define us. They reward us with character because they involve an encounter with meaningful resistance — with nature’s laws, with the limits of our own bodies — as in carving wood, melding raw ingredients, fixing a broken appliance, writing code, timing waves or facing the point when the runner’s legs and lungs begin to rebel against him.”
Hyattsville is the kind of community that makes it easy (dare I say, convenient) to develop and practice hobbies and skills, to embrace what Wu calls inconvenience. You can learn to sew and make clothes at Three Little Birds Co. or paint and repurpose furniture at Tanglewood Works. Explore capoeira at Espaço Cultural Samba Trovão or papermaking at Pyramid Atlantic. You can bike the Anacostia River Trail or tend a garden at Hyatt Park Community Gardens.
Sometimes the best way to resist the siren song of convenience is to learn a different tune.