When I moved to Berlin a few months ago, I didn’t anticipate everything that would get in the way of carrying out my daily life. The moment I left California, I lost the ease with which I moved through the world by way of knowing a place so well. Instead, I found language barriers, cultural differences, unfamiliar brands, and the general challenges of learning a new city, all of which make it hard to do simple things like buy groceries and household items or even little luxuries like a new book.
So I did what everyone confronted with inconvenience does these days: I turned to Amazon.
There are a million reasons to be mad at myself for these (and other) wrought acts of convenience. Amazon supports reprehensible worker conditions, evades taxes, contributes to widespread environmental degradation, and has a penchant for world domination. Meanwhile, it’s not exactly breaking news that the programs defining our modern era — Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google, Twitter, etc. — have turned into companies trading the most intimate details of our personal lives for major profit. And don’t get me started on Uber, DoorDash, and all the others.
Of course, it’s not just me. In developed nations, convenience is prized over almost everything else, and with good reason — we’re busy and getting busier, and time is money. But my recent capacity for compromise has got me thinking: What do we give up when we compromise our principles and privacy for convenience?
Some 82 percent of Americans report being concerned about online privacy these days, according to data from the GDMA and Acxiom, but 62 percent believe that sharing personal data is just part of the modern economy. It’s a resignation that reflects my own quick clicking on consent banners — the vast majority of us simply feel like engaging with the digital realm today all but requires that we give up pieces of ourselves, whether we like it or not.
This resignation comes at a huge benefit to companies cashing in on our bits of info. Companies in the United States spent just over $19 billion on consumer data in 2018, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Acxiom, one of the largest data dealers, made $917 million in revenue from our data between April 2017 and March 2018. And just last month, Facebook came under fire yet again for giving access to user data to some 150 companies, including Sony, Microsoft, Amazon, and Netflix, which reportedly pilfered our messages, posts, and friend lists to better attract our attention and dollars.
As much as we may hate this in theory, it’s working. As law professor Tim Wu wrote for the New York Times, “the battle for convenience is the battle for industry dominance.”
“The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon,” Wu says. “Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.”
It’s so much easier to buy into the promise these companies are selling — that my time is precious and they can help me save some of it.
In other words, our mindless compromise fortifies a brand of capitalism that we, in turn, become dependent upon. As the likes of Amazon, Uber, TaskRabbit and Instacart grow, our economy is being completely restructured. Brick-and-mortar business is dying, so much so that we’re actually envisioning a future where all our grocery shopping is done online (presumably through Amazon), and old-school service providers like handymen are being replaced by low-skill workers bidding for a gig building your Ikea crib. The endgame of this, of course, is the proliferation of the gig economy — as convenience culture absorbs viable industry, jobs are lost, labor is devalued, and the “side hustle” becomes the only hustle. And what are these gigs? Delivering packages for Amazon. Giving rides through Uber. Building cribs via TaskRabbit.
We can’t be bothered to change our privacy settings or to create new accounts for every new site instead of buying into the ease of the “Sign in with Facebook” button. As Wu writes, “[O]ur taste for convenience begets more convenience.” And our chance of preserving some pre-internet-of-things lifestyle fades with it.
There are even darker ways of looking at this. While data can be used to tailor specific product offerings to consumers, it can also be used to deny us things. Consider how a health care company might use the information acquired from your Fitbit, or even your Instacart and DoorDash deliveries. And then there’s the idea that in a triage situation, A.I.-powered devices could filter through our personal data to decide, say, who’s more worthy of surviving an autonomous vehicle crash. All which is to say: Are we really ready for the future consequences of our culture of convenience?
For me, the answer is of course not. But I’m no more ready to give up its advantages, either. I like knowing that when I get lost in my new city, I can call an Uber, or when I want my favorite shade of nail polish, I can get it delivered all the way across the world. It’s these little consolations I cherish when everything else feels hard, and I wouldn’t demonize anybody for harboring the same sentiment. And while it’s possible that this convenience-driven compromise is kick-starting some kind of end of days, it’s also possible that our lives will be a little more comfortable while we wait for the other shoe to drop.