December 1, 2013

The cost of convenience

We’ve got the whole world in the palms of our hands now, but what are we giving up?

By Bruce Newman
San Jose Mercury News

As he rose to his feet from a knuckle-dragging crouch, primitive cave man wrapped his newly evolved opposable thumbs around the handy tools of his time – a club or spear – and instantly his life got easier. Two million years later, we have ascended from the apes to the apps. With a fierce, prehensile hold on the bedrock tool of our time, 21st-century man wraps his life around a most modern convenience – the smartphone – and begins his day, thumbs flying.

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The Moore family, from left, Bill, Dylan, 13, Randy, 18, Sandra and Alyssa, 12, talk about how they use their smartphones, tablets and computers at their home in San Jose, Calif. “We spend a lot of time convincing Bill that it’s easier this way,” said his wife.

Photos by LiPo Ching/San Jose Mercury News

click image to enlarge

Bill Moore runs his business from the garage of his home. He calls himself a “digital dinosaur” but recently he opened a PayPal account.

These portals in the palm of our hands are passports to a nearly friction-free online world, where long lines are banished with a few keystrokes, where Bach and the Beatles (and Wiki bios about both) wait to be summoned from our pockets, and where global positioning satellites descend from the cloud with maps that get us where we’re going.

That kind of convenience was the inevitable destination of the technological revolution all along. The upheaval has reordered our lives around easier, faster and more impersonal ways of doing almost everything. We’ve been swept up in a global “service economy” that values bandwidth over balance, and distributes entire industries into new categories of digitally enabled winners and brick-and-mortar losers: the click and the dead.

It also has upended the relationship between digital natives, who find all this convenience so natural, and their graying elders, warily embracing technology’s possibilities, while missing quaint, analog modalities like face-to-face conversation. “It seems to be more complicated in so many ways,” said Bill Moore, 58. “We’re able to accomplish things more quickly, which means the expectation level of what you should accomplish goes up.”

As the Moore family wakes up in the morning, eyes blink open and screens blink on in every room of their San Jose, Calif., home. Randy, 18, sleeps with his iPhone, the stored narrative arc of pictures and text messages orbiting his slumber like a 16-gigabyte dream. In the bunkbed above him, Dylan, 14, doesn’t know where his mobile phone is, and doesn’t care. But they would have to get up pretty early to keep up with 12-year-old sister Alyssa, who sleeps with her iPhone under her pillow. “In case there’s a fire,” she reasons, “that’s the first thing I can grab.”

Or even if there’s not a fire. When her father comes to wake her, he often finds her in bed, phone already in hand – thumbs flying. “Which is somewhat disturbing to me,” he said.

He has been pulled along by his family – sometimes reluctantly, often kicking and screaming – into a world of e-commerce, e-vites and just enough convenience that he has surrendered. “We spend a lot of time convincing Bill that it’s easier this way,” said his wife, Sandra, 44, holding up her iPhone.

By 7 a.m. on most days, Bill has already answered emails and texts from employees at his construction business. He used to have to drive all over the San Francisco Bay Area to deliver design plans to prospective customers; now he texts them, and usually gets an annotated response within minutes.

He describes himself as a “digital dinosaur,” but recently he opened a PayPal account to accommodate a young customer. “It was crazy simple,” he said. “I almost felt like patting myself on the back.”

He recently discovered it was possible to buy nail guns, compressors and even jackhammers from Amazon, saving time-consuming trips to local hardware stores, but also, inconveniently, starving local businesses of revenue.

In its infancy, the technology of convenience wasn’t all that slick. Text messages were composed on cellphones as big as a brick, and you had to press the number keys until the desired letter began flashing. But with more than half of all Americans using smartphones – at the Moore home, that number rises to 100 percent – and fewer than one in 10 homes still tethered to a landline, the technology of convenience may have arrived at a tipping point. And families like the Moores represent its fulcrum, with two children who are digital natives, and an older cohort who is adapting to a simplicity that sometimes seems to come with great difficulty.

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