The convenience scam

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

There was the Internet, then came the Internet Of Things (IoT) and now comes the Internet of Us (IoU).


Skinput arm buttons - C. Harrison, S. Saponas, D. Tan, D. Morris - Microsoft Research - CC

This August 2018 article from the MIT Technology review is one of the many pieces triggered by the ongoing debate around employers implanting a subcutaneous microchip in the body of their employees. This practice raises interesting ethical questions, and I see this debate as a very telling example of what I have come to call the convenience scam, or how we are sometimes offered a convenience benefit, only to be robbed of something essential.


The motives of businesses choosing this path are fairly transparent: for example, better and easier control over the movement of employees for productivity purposes or access to restricted areas, the current alternative being the cumbersome access badge. It saves money, time, increases security. Very convenient.

RFID hand - Wikimedia commons

Since there could be for employees a reluctance with the chip implant, adoption might be encouraged by underlining its many benefits, like faster access to a printer, or an easier experience at the canteen. Indeed, that would appear very convenient as well. After all, workplaces are full of these irritating asperities like having forgotten the code of the copier, or simply having to queue for lunch and discovering after the wait that there is no lasagna left. And who would not want this to be improved?


Like many people I feel that a microchip implant is too much of a price to pay for this more convenient experience. I just wondered: why exactly?


We are presented daily with something to purchase or accept, offered or justified on the basis of convenience. Convenience applies to something that facilitates our purpose, that does not impede our wants and gives us this feeling that things are going our way... Simply said, is convenient what makes our life easier.


In the world of product and experience design, convenience has acquired nobility under the name of seamless experience. Seamlessness is the total absence of friction in the way someone experiences something, it is ultimate convenience. The implicit belief in this quest is that convenience is a desirable commodity, and that what makes our  lives easier, will make them easier to live.


I’m not so sure. How do we know whether convenience is good?


For starters, convenience suggests that we can quantify happiness. For example, we can have a shorter commute, spend less money on something, have less to carry, see things we could not see before, or go places we wouldn’t otherwise go. It refers us to a utilitarian conception of life and views happiness as an endeavour to maximize utility. It means we try to provide the most convenience for the greatest amount of people. But is that a relevant way of increasing happiness?

Mobile payment - Wikimedia Commons

Convenience is eminently subjective. What works for me might not work for you, it’s a question of taste as much as it is about gender, beliefs, education or ethnicity and many other things. The relativity of convenience means that it is a bit of a gamble to say that something would provide a seamless experience for everyone.


It is rather likely that such an experience will delight the sort of crowd for whom it feels seamless and exclude the rest. If, for example, the Paris subway company decided tomorrow to do away with tickets and work with say, a digital Smartphone pass, no doubt it would offer a gigantic step forward in convenience. That is, if you own a smartphone. If you don’t you cannot travel anymore.


The major weakness of utilitarian logic is that whichever way you cut it, it breeds exclusion. More comfortable for some, unbearable for the rest. Whilst perfect equality of access to transport in Paris may be a utopia, we can strive for a more acceptable, albeit imperfect, compromise. Maybe smartphone passes and disposable magnetic cards?


So if the quantifiable improvement in the life of some is not enough to say that convenience is good, then what is?


Convenience is always presented as a net improvement all around, as something that makes everything better, and nothing worse. In reality, convenience is always a trade-off. It is hard to dispute that cars have considerably increased the convenience of our individual lives. But as a society we have now realised that the trade off was noise, pollution, sitting in traffic jams, accidents, burning fossil fuels, and climate change. Have we really improved our lives? I would not be able to answer accurately, there are too many factors, and after all, I have a car too. Because of course, convenience feels always right when it’s convenient to me…


The convenience scam happens when the trade-off is disguised as a seamless experience fairy-tale. I think we could agonize for ever to determine whether a given convenience opportunity is worth taking or not. But if we at least see it for the trade-off that it is, we give ourselves the chance to make a more free and informed choice. In particular, we may become aware of who our convenience choice may exclude and seek more inclusive solutions.


I do feel that my car contributes to global warming. And because of this I would like to change that convenience arrangement, maybe for more cycling (But then what if it rains?) or an electric car (But what if I want to drive 2,000 km?). Not everything is possible. Outside of the realm of convenience we are left with nothing but imperfect choices. And these are assuredly less than seamless.


And with that I am back to my microchip story. The Internet is a thing, and it will not acquire a soul and become more human, because a miniaturized terminal is implanted in your body. You, on the other hand will interact with the world in a more machine-like fashion if the world can react automatically to you without really knowing who you are.


There is no Internet Of Us. It only ever was and will remain an Internet of Things. The microchip is much less a way of embedding the network into your body, than a way to embed your person in the network. It does not make you more-than-human. I reckon that it makes you on the contrary more object like.


We may not immediately envisage the price to pay in more concrete terms, but just like cars versus climate change, those who take the trade will, one day.


In the end, there is no convenience. There are choices we make, trade-offs, with consequences. Things that become more possible at the cost of things becoming less possible. So in hindsight I realise that the title “The convenience scam” might be a little excessive. I could have more adequately written “The hidden cost of choice”.


But that would have been somewhat… less convenient.


T

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