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

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

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.

“I usually do one thing at a time ’cause my dad doesn’t like me doing two things at a time,’’ she explained. “He won’t let me watch TV while I’m going through my Instagram. I could, but my dad doesn’t like me to, so I don’t really do it. Well, I don’t do it all the time. But I could.”

That sort of multi-track life is horrifying to Bill Moore, who said he was only able to attract Sandra’s attention when they met in 1990 because she was sitting in a Santa Clara, Calif., music club with nothing else to distract her. He began discussing stories in a newspaper, a handy prop in the early ’90s that he would be far less likely to use as a conversation starter today.

Dylan is the only one of the Moore children who occasionally looks at a newspaper, and then just for sports scores. In truth, he can get them more easily on his phone’s sports app, but it makes his dad feel good to share the paper with him at the breakfast table. The kids get their news from Instagram, Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and Twitter. But mostly not at all.

Like most American newspapers, the one their father reads – the San Jose Mercury News – has experienced a steep decline in its earnings from classified ads since Craigslist came online in 1999, creating a free marketplace for just about everything. The dot-com revolution put a premium on labor-saving devices, many of which turned out to be epic failures as stand-alone businesses, but went on to become muscular smartphone apps.

The introduction of Apple’s iTunes in 2001 upended the music industry’s business model, which had been based on the sale of physical objects for nearly a century. When convenience elbowed its way into the marketplace, the friction generated by hours spent hunched over record and CD bins at chains such as Tower was removed, almost overnight. But the lifelong joy of record store junkies also was snuffed out.

There have been other losses in the name of convenience that don’t please Bill Moore, and people like him who aren’t comfortable in an online world where there is little serendipity, and before anything can be found, it must first be “searched.”

In part because it lost lucrative advertising, the paper he reads eliminated most box scores in the sports section, shrank the comics and dropped stock indexes to save money on newsprint. Bill and Randy Moore still make sentimental stops at record stores like Rasputin in Campbell, Calif., where they pore over new vinyl releases together. Vinyl records were assumed to be extinct when compact discs and audio files made “platters” seem hopelessly analog, but they have become part of a counter-insurgent move toward the “authenticity” of craft beers and slow-cooked food.

With a cellphone camera holstered in almost every pocket or purse, photography has become an irresistible way of broadcasting our lives. Nothing is too small for the spinning and weaving of social media, meaning every dazzling dinner must now be mediated first through Instagram, then a fork. A Pew Institute survey found that 82 percent of cellphone users take pictures with their phones, which suggests that an unexamined life – as opposed to one examined with an 8-megapixel sensor, and seen by thousands on Facebook – is not worth living.

Once the domain of hobbyists who sprouted zoom lenses like potato eyes, pre-convenience photography was controlled by companies such as Kodak (which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012) and Polaroid (Chapter 11 in 2001 and 2008). Expensive rolls of film produced even more expensive prints, which were tossed directly into shoe boxes and rarely seen again. That was how Bill and Sandra documented their wedding, and the memory of that friction is what still keeps them from taking even half as many pictures as their 12-year-old.

Looking at pictures of herself and her friend Tori Romine is one of Alyssa’s favorite things to do. “That’s where my dog licked my tongue,” she said, pointing to one of the 1,039 images in her iPad photo album.

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