in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #400: The Tyranny of Convenience

Modern life has given us lots of conveniences. With a tap of your smartphone screen, and without leaving the house, you can order a car to your door or a hot dinner, or even replenish your toilet paper supply. Right now, you’re listening to this podcast how and when you want to. Yes, life is good in the 21st century. 

But what if there’s such a thing as too much convenience? What if it’s actually enslaving us in some strange way?

That’s what my guest today argues. His name is Tim Wu, he’s a professor of law at Columbia Law School and the author of several books, including The Attention MerchantsToday on the show, Tim and I discuss the tyranny of convenience. We begin with a brief history of convenience, discussing how it became a driving force in the economy in the late 19th century and how Tim believes we’re at the beginning of a second convenience revolution. We then discuss how convenience can make us feel more free and unique, but actually limits our freedom and makes us like everyone else. Tim then shares ideas on how to inject some healthy inconvenience in your life for more happiness, freedom, and fulfillment. 

Show Highlights

  • What got Tim thinking about our society’s obsession with convenience 
  • How focusing on convenience makes you miss out on a lot of what life has to offer
  • Why the tools we use can actually change us and define us 
  • How the quest for convenience became an obsession
  • The “convenience revolution” and its noble origins 
  • What The Jetsons can tell us about technology and convenience
  • How convenience enslaves us and limits our choices 
  • How the convenience revolution led to the counter-revolution of the arts and crafts movement 
  • The ways in which hobbies fight convenience 
  • Why Tim argues we’re in the midst of a second convenience revolution, and how this one is different  
  • The counterintuitive homogenizing effect of convenience 
  • Why we need inconvenience and struggle and frustration in life
  • Why getting exactly what you want isn’t what it’s cracked up to be 
  • The connection between this culture of convenience and Tim’s previous work, The Attention Merchants
  • Brass tacks tips for resisting the culture of convenience 
  • Fighting convenience in our relationships 
  • The most fundamental decisions you can make to define who you are 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With Tim 

Tim on Twitter

Tim’s website 

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Modern life has given us a lot of convenience. At the tap of our smartphone screen and without ever leaving our house, we can order a car to our door, or a hot dinner, or even replenish our toilet paper supply. And right now, you’re listening to this podcast how and when you want to. Yes, life is good in the 21st century. But what if there’s such a thing as too much convenience? What if it’s actually enslaving us in some strange way? Well, that’s what my guest today argues.

His name is Tim Wu. He’s a professor of law at Columbia Law School and the author of several books, including The Attention Merchants. And today on the show, Tim and I discuss the tyranny of convenience. We begin with a brief history of convenience, discussing how it became a driving force in the economy and in our culture in the late 19th century and how Tim believes we’re at the beginning of a second convenience revolution. He then discusses how convenience can make us feel more free and unique, but actually limits our freedom and makes us like everyone else. Tim then shares some ideas on how to inject some healthy inconvenience in your life for more happiness, freedom, and fulfillment. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Convenience. You’ll find links to resources where you delve deeper into this topic. And Tim joins me now via Clearcast.IO.

Tim Wu, welcome to the show.

Tim Wu: It’s a pleasure.

Brett McKay: So back in February, you wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called The Tyranny of Convenience. I’m curious, what got you thinking about the implications of a culture and an economy like ours that puts a premium on making things as convenient and as easy as possible?

Tim Wu: I’m really interested in things that affect your life very strongly, but in a way are hidden or less obvious. And one of them is for some years now has struck me as this kind of obsession with convenience that in its own way, seems to rule our lives. And I kind of started to notice that what I like to call my preferences, I like to cook charcoal, were being trumped by the idea that, “Well, yeah but it’s not really convenient.” And so as some who’s kind of interested in freedom and autonomy and things like that, I was like, “Well, who’s really in charge here? Is it me or is this thing called convenience?”

I’ll add to it, I think also I’ve had the experience, and maybe other people have had too, where you have a lot of technologies in your life that are supposed to make everything really convenient, but somehow, it doesn’t quite seem to work out the way you think.You have a microwave, and you have email, and you have text messages, and you have this computer, extremely powerful, almost like miraculous technologies. But it’s not like I walk through life like I’m on a cloud. And I was like, “Where did we go wrong somewhere here?” So it was kind of that sort of thing, like, “Where is this utopia I was promised?”

Brett McKay: Isn’t it a drive for humans since ancient times to use tools to make life easier? I mean, that’s what makes us human, right? Like the little hand tools you see from prehistoric man-made, that made things easier.

Tim Wu: Yeah. I agree with that. And so I don’t in any way think that I am against tools. I think that, like all good things, it’s kind of a question of doing it right. So I deeply believe that our tools are identity. And I guess that’s why I think we need to be more careful about it. I think that tools can expand who you are, how you live in different dimensions. And if you just reduce it to one dimension, i.e. making things more convenient, then you miss out on a lot of what life offers. Just to give a classic example, if you’re learning to play an instrument, that’s not exactly a very convenient choice. It’s an important tool, a guitar, a violin, or drums, but it’s not going to make it easier to listen to music. Actually, if you want that, you can buy yourself a stereo. That kind of takes care of it.

So there’s other dimensions of our lives that are revealed by our choices and tools. And what I think sometimes is that we have kind of reduced ourselves, narrowed ourselves to this one axis. Does it make life easier? Does it kind of get me to my goal with less I guess time? Or thinking? Or effort? And if you start to make that your life, it becomes all destination, no journey, and frankly I think you become a very … Are in danger of missing out on a lot of life and becoming a narrow person.

Brett McKay: That’s an interesting point you made earlier just now about how the tools, they not only allow us to shape the world, but when we use a tool, it shapes us as well. I think there’s a phrase, like the tool works at both ends is one that I heard. So as you’re using a tool, it’s also changing you in a weird way as well.

Tim Wu: Yeah, I mean another way of thinking about it is that the tool is you, and that we are kind of defined by it. But I also like your idea, or the idea that it changes you. I’m one of these people who thinks that goal of life is self-development, finding out kind of what you could be, building character so to speak. And there’s no question that the tool choice and tool usage is a big part of that. And most of us realize that. I think another reason I wrote this is I was thinking about the things, the tools I like best. And they tend to be related to my hobbies. I have a lot, probably too many hobbies.

So like my hockey stick, I like to play hockey. I like to surf. All these things, the tool becomes so important, and frankly, so treasured. Yet we also spend an awful lot of time at work and a lot of time with other tasks in life. And there, we’re kind of reducing ourselves. Now, obviously there’s certain things you can’t always do the old school way, and maybe there’s something about hobbies where we take more time for them. But I started to think there was something important about living life the best you could in this whole question of tools. And frankly, the decision not to make convenience the overriding value in the choice of tools.

Brett McKay: So you said humans have always been trying to make things easier, life easier with tools, but in the piece you wrote, you argue that this quest for convenience became like an obsession in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with sort of that second industrial revolution that occurred during that period. What are some of the examples of convenience technologies that popped up during this time?

Tim Wu: Yeah, you’re exactly right. I think the convenience revolution as we know it was born, and I think in a worthy way, with the promise of liberation. I think, frankly, that the earliest convenience liberation, even though this is the Art of Manliness, was directed mainly at women. There was an observation that women spent most of their lives in drudgery, whether it was spending all day washing clothing, cooking foods in incredibly laborious ways, or keeping house clean. And one of the ideas is that women could only really become emancipated or have some life of their own if they had tools that saved them labor. And so the convenience revolution, frankly, is born there.

And I think these are its noble origins. I mean, there is something to be said for a life that is something other than total drudgery. And that’s it. So some of the conveniences that are the first generation are like the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, even things like basic cleaning solutions like Old Dutch. These were big revolutions. Rolled oats, so called instant foods, which are not really instant by our standards, but I guess just reducing the amount of time for cooking. Like pork and beans. These were the big revolutions of the late 19th century.

Brett McKay: And it continued though, even through like the 1950s. I mean, you look at those mid-century depictions of what life would be like in the future, and it was just like this wonderful utopia where robots did everything. You have The Jetsons, where they have sidewalks that just move. You don’t have to walk. I mean, they really thought this would be this like utopia and we’d be living it right now, but it didn’t turn out that way.

Tim Wu: I think there was a period, and I think it reached its apex in the 1950s, where the future and the utopic version of it was defined by total convenience in all possible aspects of life. And you describe some of them, but some people may remember, you push a button, your food arrives. You push another button, you arrive at work through a teleportation machine. Push another button, all your work gets done. So life becomes about pushing buttons. In some ways, we kind of live in that era. I mean, you can push a button and something will be delivered. You can push another button, and a message gets sent to somebody in Japan. We do push buttons.

But one thing we’re started noticing is that sitting around pushing buttons all day does not make, necessarily, for the most satisfying life. And I’ll add to it that there is a skill in pushing buttons repeatedly, and multiply, it’s called multi-tasking. And we are sort of in danger of becoming a society where the only skill that matters is multi-tasking, and the only way you live is you sort of decide that which will be done as opposed to doing yourself. And that’s, to me, sort of a diminished way of living. But it’s certainly true that in the 1950s, that was kind of the dream.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so I mean not only did people … I mean, even you even saw that in The Jetsons where sort of the shtick was here they are in this utopia, but the technology like messes up their lives. George gets caught in some bathing machine and it mangles him up or something. And also, you just kind of feel unsatisfied with life. So not only is this convenience, like it’s unsatisfying, but you also argue, and I think this is really interesting is that convenience can actually end up enslaving us or limiting our choices. How so?

Tim Wu: Yeah. When in the sense it ends up taking over your preferences. I want to discuss an example from the 50s. I think it’s kind of a turning point.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Tim Wu: It wasn’t in the article, it was an earlier draft, which was the development of something called the baby box, or I guess the baby tender. There was a scientist named B. F. Skinner, who is famous for his experiments on pigeons. And he was very caught up in the idea of the convenience revolution. And so he invented this technology which was supposed to greatly reduce the burdens of childcare, especially for babies and toddlers. And so it basically was a box, and you put your baby in there. And I guess it was warm so the baby didn’t need clothes, and baby couldn’t get that far. So it just sat in the box all day. And you kind of put in food from a little door, something like that. And it was sort of supposed to take care of all the childcare. I think it had a little thing where the baby could drink if it wanted. Obviously not breast milk.

Brett McKay: Sounds like a hamster.

Tim Wu: Yeah, a little like a hamster cage, I guess. And so he expected this was going to be his greatest invention, and expected to become a millionaire. But lo and behold it wasn’t popular. Actually, he put his own daughter in it, by the way.

Brett McKay: Oh, jeez.

Tim Wu: She was the experimental test subject, which is a dedication to science which is rare in our times. But yeah, so people weren’t into it. It didn’t sell well. Actually, it sold 300 or so, which is actually a little more than I would expect. But no, it didn’t become a blockbuster hit. And I guess there was something in there, some lesson. There was other problems at the time, instant cake mix wasn’t as popular as people thought. Just add water, have a cake. And I think that a little bit of this enslavement problem was sort of showing up. People were thinking, “There’s some parts of life that seem to be going missing here when it’s only about convenience.”

And in some ways, parts of the counterculture were sort of about, well you know, rediscovering this idea of having a human role in things. It wasn’t always articulated as anti-convenience. But when you think of some hippy dude living in the woods without a safety razor, that is sort of a rejection of conveniences. And so yeah, I think there was a sense that it contributed to a sense of being bound.

Brett McKay: Right, because those convenience tools, in order for them to be convenient, you have to use them in a certain way. So it strips you of agency.

Tim Wu: Right. That’s right. It’s sort of like it is sort of the trump card. If you only go places where the parking is convenient, well then like suddenly your freedom of movement has become constrained. There’s an example.

Brett McKay: And speaking of these reactions to this first convenience revolution you talked about, you mentioned one. There was one in the counterculture revolution of the 60s and 70s where you had hippies going off to communes and growing their own food and making their own music with whatever. But I mean, you also saw this even in the early 20th, late 19th century. I mean, this is during that time, that’s when the whole arts and crafts movement started where people decided, “I’m going to make my own chair and my own table and build it with my own hands. I’m not going to use this mechanized, mass-produced stuff.” And we still see that today, that sort of ethos. Like, “I’m going to build a table by myself. Why? Well because it’s not convenient.”

Tim Wu: Yeah. I think there’s a constant kind of counter-revolution. And I think it’s noble. I think that the human spirit rebels against kind of a loss of meaning, and I might say this later, but I think that we are actually constantly fighting convenience, but we kind of disguise it from ourselves by calling it our hobbies. And so people do something utterly ridiculous like building a battleship out of plastic, which is like not convenient. You can order one from China at half the price. Or not even half the price, at a fraction. But you call it your hobby. Or you ride a bicycle to work or something.

Or frankly, most of the things that people think of as deep in meaning are often kind of inconvenient. Although, we’re funny because we introduce conveniences into our inconveniences. So we’ll play golf, but, “I’m going to play golf, I need to … I want it to be convenient to play golf. I want the driving range near my house, the little balls just kind of come up by themselves. You don’t have to pick down and put them up.” But playing golf inherently is not … Like what is playing golf that you’re doing something inherently slightly ridiculous, although it’s fun. Yeah, so that’s the paradox.

Brett McKay: So the first convenience revolution kick-started in the 19th, early 20th century, went through the 1950s. You argue in the piece that we’re in a midst of a second convenience revolution. How is this one different from that first one?

Tim Wu: Yeah, that’s a great question. So there was this movement in the 60s and 70s, 50s to conformist. We’re not free to be us. And I think there was an important commercial reaction to those changes. Frankly, you saw it first in advertising when advertisers, for example, companies like Pepsi started associating their brands with freedom and the era of long hair, do what you want, live a different way, Pepsi. The choice of the Pepsi generation. So it started in advertising. But then technologists kind of climbed onto this and said, “Hey, we know you want to be you. But what we’re going to do is make it more convenient to be you.”

And I think one of the first great examples of this is the Sony Walkman. So now you have this man walking down the street, and he is kind of in his own perfect little bubble of self-expression. He’s listening to his jazz. Or maybe he’s listening to Black Sabbath, or maybe he’s into 70s funk. I’m not sure. But he is himself. And he’s experiencing kind of pleasures that were previously only possible in his den. But he’s got his whole system with him. And so Sony has now made it more convenient to be you. Sony has made your exercise of choice more convenient.

And when you look at most, if not all, of our convenience technologies today, they’re not actually trying to jam you, at least obviously, into some kind of mold. They’re at least promising from the outset that, “Hey, I’m going to help you be you.” So on Amazon, you can buy whatever you want. The original idea of Amazon, when it was just books, was, “Oh, you don’t need to just buy these bestsellers that are for the masses. You can buy whatever strange book that really is all about you.” And Google, it’s not like you’re being pre-fed this feed of news from the media, whatever. It’s like whatever you are, that’s who you’ll be. And Facebook I guess was like, “Here’s your friends and your network.” Friendster before that. But you can keep in touch with them, know what they’re up to without having to go hang out with them. So that’s freeing and convenient individuality, let’s put it that way.

Brett McKay: But you argue that this convenience to be ourselves, we think it’s going to make us more unique and more individual, but you argue that it ends up actually homogenizing society. How so?

Tim Wu: I think it’s, like many things, at the core, I actually do believe there is some promise there. I think it has in some ways become easier to be you. I mean, yeah, let’s face it, you can buy obscure, strange books on Amazon. I don’t want to discount that. Recently, I got into sort of neo-Platonian philosophy for whatever reason known only to myself. And you know, those books are kind of hard to find, but they all are on Amazon. And so there’s something to it. But there is a strange counter effect where even on supposedly on Facebook, everybody is like their own thing, we have this weird way of making us all kind of seem the same. And everyone’s on Gmail and on Google and for some reason, it has this kind of counter-intuitive, homogenizing power. And that’s kind of one of … It’s almost like a mystery.

I think that sometimes, the promise of individuality can kind of be a little bit of a mirage, because at other levels you are also submitting to kind of conformity. And you have all the choices. I mean, just consider … Let’s pick on Walmart for a second. So Walmart offers a lot more choices then the general store in a small town. So in a way, they enable individuality. But if every town seems the same, and has all the same things, then there’s sort of a grander homogenization that happens. And yeah, I think that’s one of the real challenges in our era is sort of seeing through the idea that choice is the same thing as individuality, and that self-development is nothing more than exercising choice in the easiest way possible. I mean, we talk about this a bit later, but there is something more, there’s a struggle, I think, that really defines character … Maybe relevant, this podcast has something to do with the development of manliness. And that is missing.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean let’s talk about that. I mean, so this idea, I mean kind of what you’re arguing is that in the piece is that struggle, you need to bump up against things that are frustrating and inconvenient and annoying in order to really truly develop yourself as a unique individual.

Tim Wu: Right. Sometimes, I don’t know if there are really any short cuts in life. I mean, maybe there are some. But there’s such a thing as sort of a cheap individuality, a superficial individuality. And I think it’s different than the real thing. And I think what makes a difference is the struggle. Because it’s relatively easy to go out and buy clothes and look different than other people, but to sort of develop yourself into someone requires, I think, confronting challenges and facing them in your own way, and seeing where it takes you, win and lose. It means having like lost in serious ways sometimes, but also having won. And kind of follow the path that is a real path.

And I think the problem with convenience choices is they take that out of it. I mean, I oversimplify that, but there’s something that happens to you in climbing a mountain that doesn’t quite happen when you get on the trolley. You end up in the same place, there’s no question. But something about you has become transformed when you undertake a serious and challenging mountain climb. And yeah, that’s maybe the best way I can capture it. And the difference, you can call it the struggle, you can call it the confrontation of nature itself, if you’re religious you might say your encountering God, or God’s limits. Those are, I think, the most worthwhile of activities. The ones where you are actually facing nature directly, seeing the face of it, either seeing your own body’s limits. Maybe like in long distance running. Long distance runners understand and are intimately familiar with the ways in which their body starts to fail and starts to hurt.

Or, it can mean facing strongly and directly just that kind of arbitrary and infinitely complex, yet somewhat predictable nature of our environment itself. And that is revealed. Any rock climber who has sort of struggled with gravity and the strange ways in which friction can pull you up or not. Or anyone who surfs and starts to develop a intuitive sense of how waves work and understand why one wave throws you on your face, another one pulls you out. Yeah, those aren’t things that you click on a button to get. Those have to be earned the hard way.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean it sounds like this sort of, we’ll call it cult of convenience, it thinks what we really want is the end result. But in reality, often times what we really … The thing that really give us meaning and satisfaction is working towards that result. I mean, I’ve had this happen in my own life when I’ve accomplished a big, long-term goal. I accomplished it, and then I feel kind of good. And then right away, I’m like, “Okay, that was kind of disappointing. It wasn’t as … I didn’t feel as good as I thought I would feel.”

Tim Wu: Yeah. Sometimes it can feel pretty good. But I agree. If you sort of are fixated on that moment where you get what you want, doesn’t last very long. If you think … I keep going back to these hobbies. But like surfing, you got to have some appreciation for the parts other than the moment you’re on the wave, because that only lasts a second or two. Or another example’s fishing. I like to fish and how often are you actually catching a fish? Most of the time you’re kind of sitting there. But people love fishing, love it. And so it does something. And I think you’re exactly right. Somewhere in there is … It might overstate it to say the meaning of life, but certainly some of deepest life satisfactions.

Brett McKay: You wrote a book a few years ago called The Attention Merchants. I’m curious, how do your thoughts about this tyranny of convenience tie in with what you wrote about in that book?

Tim Wu: That’s a great question I’ve never answered before. And I think they’re related. So The Attention Merchants is about this resource called human time and attention. And basically, the premise of the book is that our time and attention in particular are very valuable. They’re sort of the fuel by which we do anything or accomplish anything we really want to accomplish in life, which I think people might think is obvious, but maybe less obvious is the fact that we’ve somehow allowed the development of industries, whose primary job is to take as much attention as they can from us, sometimes giving stuff in return, but sometimes it’s not particularly a great deal. I guess that book was inspired by that experience, which I’ve had. And I don’t know if your listeners have had where you sort of start to write an email, you have the idea of picking up your computer and you want to write one email, and then something like two hours go by and you try to figure out what happened.

And I just feel there’s an industry trying to suck out all of our time and attention from us without giving us enough money or anything else in return. And taking something from us. So the question is how is that related to the culture of convenience? I think they’re related in several ways. So one is the sense that in some ways it is convenience itself that is the weapon that leads us to allow our attention to be sucked away. Sort of lose willpower. It becomes just much easier to sit around, kind of do nothing, and so it’s kind of a combination. And I think that kind of stagnation happens to a lot of people. And I think they act together. And I guess more broadly, they’re related, I don’t know, philosophically or in terms of what I believe in in the sense that both books are all about trying to recognize some of the forces that are in your life, and trying to recognize you have to resist sometimes, or make some pretty hard choices if you want to be somebody.

Unfortunately, in the United States, if you kind of go with the tide, you’ll end up in debt, overweight, addicted to social media, sitting in front of the TV for 40 hours a week, and probably won’t have a meaningful family life if you even have a family or any friends. So you actually have to sort of resist, and I think we’ve kind of created, maybe it’s always been like this. I’m not going to pretend that there’s been like some environment, maybe ancient Greece, where everybody like lived in this kind of meaningful way all the time. But if you want to have a life of meaning, if you want to be somebody, you got to take charge. And both books are really about that process. Both books are designed to create citizens worthy of that title. And in some ways, restore, I think, some of the older traditions of both the American republic, but also ancient ideas of what the meaning of life is.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about practical things we can do.

Tim Wu: I’m giving some pretty big speeches here.

Brett McKay: Yeah, no. It’s fantastic.

Tim Wu: You’ve inspired me.

Brett McKay: You are.

Tim Wu: You’ve inspired some pretty big speeches.

Brett McKay: No, I love it.

Tim Wu: Thank you. I’m enjoying it. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some brass tax thing we can do to resist this culture of convenience. So throughout the podcast, you’ve been mentioning your hobbies you take part in. And you argue that hobbies are something, they’re basically inconveniences we do for fun. So you mentioned you fish, you surf, you play hockey. What are some other hobbies that you’ve taken up that are super inconvenient, but give you a lot of satisfaction in life?

Tim Wu: Yeah. I guess that’s a great question. I’m a … I have too many actually. I guess I live by my words. So I don’t know if it’s quite a hobby, but I do cook most of the food in our house. And I have two small daughters. And it give me satisfaction. Obviously, it’s not the most convenient thing. Although, I’m pretty quick at cooking. As I said earlier, I like to surf, which is certainly not convenient. I don’t know if there’s any substitute for surfing, it’s sort of more a pure hobby. I like sports like hockey. I like to sail, which is certainly not the easiest way of getting from A to B. And I like to have a … We have a cottage, and I like to fish, which is obviously not the easiest way to get food for your household. In fact, the fish don’t always taste that good. Certainly not better than the ones you can buy. So yeah, I kind of am always doing this.

On the other hand, I wrote that New York Times piece, people reached out to me. Some people like Real Idaho. They’re like, “You know, you should live like we do. We make all our own food, chop all our own wood.” I do chop my own wood. I enjoy that. But in fact, I think from your website, I got some good tips for using them all. But I’m not at the extreme. I’m connected to society. Here I am using a computer. I have a smartphone. Somewhat try not to let it take over my life. So I haven’t really … I don’t completely live by this. I’m not totally rejecting all forms of convenience.

I just think, returning to what we where talking about earlier, I really do believe that the choice of tools in our life and the way you spend your attention are like two of the most fundamental decisions you can make as to who you are. And ideally, they come together. So another way the ideas are connected is you want to use tools, devote your attention you have to tools which you feel are character building, or do something for you, and when you’re done with it, you just can tell. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I think you can tell after an experience what affect you feel it’s had on.

Some make you feel sick and sort of degraded and like, “What was I doing?” Sometimes feel like that after too much time on the web. And other things sort of seem to bring you forward. I mean a big one, I obviously spend a lot of time writing. And so the computer, I don’t want to sort of just completely castigate the computer. Computer can actually bring you in some important directions. A lot of the writing I’ve done, most meaningful writing, it’s not like it was on some 1920s typewriters, it was on a computer. And that as brought me a lot of places. But that’s kind of my prescription I guess if you want to put it together.

Brett McKay: Right. I think this could not only can you do this with your hobbies, but also with your relationships as well. Maybe choose a more inconvenient way to interact with those around us, might actually bring more meaning or satisfaction.

Tim Wu: Yeah, you know it’s funny you say that, because usually when I wrote that piece in the New York Times, or some of the other things. And then I’ll usually get an email saying, “That’s a very male-centric way to think about like tools as the only thing that matter in life. What about human relationships.” And I’m glad you brought that up. Yeah, it’s a little different. But I do think some of what I said earlier about convenience and the sort of superficiality versus depth can apply to your relationships.

So in your relationships with other people, it’s easier to keep people at arm’s length. It’s kind of more convenient. And some people, it’s necessary even. But there is something to be learned from being in the same physical space as other people, and just sort of being fully exposed to all of what they are. I would be lying to say that that is a painless process, in fact, it can at times be compared to that mountain climb I was talking about. And anyone who’s been in a long marriage know this that there are periods of serious suffering for most of us involved. I don’t … My wife is a lovely person. We’re deeply in love and have a happy marriage, but I would be lying to say that it’s been like the whirl blender all time, you just push a button, everything works great.

No, it’s challenging. But I think it’s basically the same principles. And in fact, being closely involved with another human person is a lot like what I was talking about. It is very coming very close to direct encounter with nature itself. It’s not like you’re hacking through the jungle with a machete. But in some ways, it’s sort of the human version of it. You’re kind of navigating the challenging project of coexisting with other people who actually have their own consciousness, their own preferences, their own lives, and don’t necessarily know everything you do. And I can’t say I’m the most successful at that, but it’s certainly something that makes life worth it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It takes skill. And I’ve had those experience where you’ve had a deft social encounter, and it feels fantastic compared to just sort of sending a text message. There’s something more grittier about it that makes it more fun. I don’t know if that’s the right word.

Tim Wu: I mean, I’ll add something. It doesn’t have to all be sort of dark. I take a lot of time. I like going out for drinks with my friends. That’s like one of my hobbies. Maybe I should have said that earlier. We have a couple bars we like to go, and we go there and we drink, I don’t know to excess, but we like to drink and just talk about whatever. And that kind of human experience, there’s no replica for it. Sitting in a kind of quiet bar, bartender, friendly bartender, not too crowded, not screaming, and just like chatting about whatever with your drinking buddies. I think like that is to me close to a religious experience. As blasphemous at that may sound. And the hours, you know it’s going well, hours kind of drift by. But not in a way like on TV or Facebook, you’re like, “What am I doing?” It’s more like, “This is just core of living.” So yeah, I think I seek out those kind of experiences, and they’re available to us.

Brett McKay: But here’s the thing, you have to be intentional about it, because the tide wants to make things convenient for you, so you have to actively resist it.

Tim Wu: Yes. That’s right. I think we have an environment which kind of, through the force of convenience, it’s an invisible thing. It’s so alluring. That’s what’s so interesting about it. It’s not like the old idea, totalitarian government putting you in prison. It’s more just like you coast along easy street, you make all the easy decisions, you kind of eliminate difficulty in your life, and next thing you know, it’s like, “Well, have you really lived?” And it’s so interesting, you look back at your life and what kind of parts of it that mattered, and they often involve certain, as I’ve said before, certain levels of pain.

Now it can also involve deep elation as well. But our tendency to try to avoid the highs and the lows, or avoid the highs because you’re afraid of the lows, yeah it’s not worthy of a society, of a country that’s supposed to be the home of the free and the land of the brave. Or maybe I got that backwards. But yeah, I think courage has really, this gets some into the Greek virtues that we sort of lost our courage along the way, and yeah, I think that’s a big part of this.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Well also another virtue we’ve lost is phronesis, that sort of practical wisdom. Like you know what to do in whatever situation because you’ve developed your judgment through direct experience.

Tim Wu: Right.

Brett McKay: Well, Tim, this has been a great conversation. Is there anywhere else people can go to learn more about your work?

Tim Wu: Well, I have the book that you described, The Attention Merchants, which is available at all fine bookstores, and I am not offended if you wish to click one button to buy it on Amazon. And I guess you go back and read that article, Tyranny of Convenience, which is on the New York Times. And I don’t know, just do a couple searches. And I’m always writing stuff for the times, and I always write new books. So there you have it.

Brett McKay: There you go. Well, Tim Wu, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Tim Wu: Yeah, likewise.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Tim Wu. He’s the author of the book The Attention Merchants. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at Also check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Convenience where you can find links to resources where he delves deeper into this topic. And if you’re looking for a way or a systematic way or a program to help you inject some healthy inconvenience into your life, check out our membership program at The Strenuous Life at That’s what the whole premise is designed to do. It’s designed to inject some inconvenience, or as we call friction into your life, a little bit more difficult so you can find that fulfillment that you get that Tim was talking about. Check it out, We’ve had over 3 thousand people sign up and we hope to see you there. As always, thank you for your continuous support and until next time, this is Brett McKay tell you to stay manly.

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