Last summer, a friend was in a position to get a cow. Never having had a bovine before, she was a little panicky and called to pick my brain about what she needed to do.
We talked for quite a while. She kept asking more questions and I gave her what information I had. I don't pretend to know everything about milk cows, but here's the thing: I was amazed at what I did know. The friend got the cow, and it's the start of a beautiful journey toward self-sufficiency as the whole family fell in love with the sweet animal and the milk she gives.
The experience made me realize how far along we've come on this path toward homesteading independence. This leads some people to ask – why? Why are we enamored with doing things ourselves? Why do we bother with cows or chickens or a home dairy or home-grown beef or an extensive garden or canning, when grocery stores are convenient and inexpensive? Why did we embark on such an unconventional lifestyle right after we got married nearly 30 years ago? Why?
Until last year, all I could say is we've always fought against the easy suburban existence that seemed our destiny early in our marriage. But I never knew what pushed us, what drove us to embrace such a rugged do-it-yourself lifestyle, until last year.
That's when I read a brilliant essay in the New York Times by a man named Tim Wu. Entitled "The Tyranny of Convenience," he outlined why "convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today."
"Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable," writes Wu. "Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper."
We've always labored to recapture lost skills because of our concern about what I call "the death of knowledge" – how 5000 years of skills have been lost in just the last century due to the tyranny of convenience. We've taught ourselves a lot of stuff, but it wasn't until reading Mr. Wu's essay that I realized we were engaged in a lifelong battle against easy living.
[W]e err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us. It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule. But when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much. …So there you have it. For the last 28 years or so, Don and I have blundered along, fighting against convenience, learning how to do things through trial and error, and enjoying every (well, almost every) minute. We raised our kids with this quirky disregard for "normalcy" as well. And in every way except financial, our lives have been immeasurably richer because of it.
As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. … Today's cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.
"However mundane it seems now, convenience, the great liberator of humankind from labor, was a utopian ideal," writes Wu. "By saving time and eliminating drudgery, it would create the possibility of leisure."
But the great dark unspoken secret of leisure is this: It's boring. It's far better to be busy, especially by working with one's hands. (That's why my personal motto is 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12: "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.")
Wu notes, "The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it?"
No. That's why we stubbornly continue doing things ourselves. We will continue to mutiny against the bounty, to question what's "normal," and shun the tyranny of convenience.
In fact, as convenience in the form of the "Internet of Things" becomes more and more widespread – as people come to depend on smart technology more and more – I'm heading in the opposite direction. I like doing things for myself. I don't want Google to run my life. I'd rather run it myself.
That's why we proudly live in a "dumb" home. Don and I don't need a refrigerator hooked up to the internet. We don't need smart mattress covers communicating activities to a central location. We don't need smart cars that tell us where to go or how to drive. We don't need windows that close when it rains or lower the blinds when it's sunny. We don't need a washing machine that starts remotely. We don't need smart toilets with a built-in Alexa to "set the mood." We don't need lighting that turns itself on or off upon request. We don't need a smart oven that downloads recipes and lets us play games while dinner is cooking. We don't need smart aromatherapy diffusers to make the house smell nice. We don't need smart TVs that take over and perform functions we didn't ask for and don't want. We don't need smart shoes that lace themselves and customize to our feet. We don't need smart phones that spy on every movement, every message, every conversation, every banking transaction and every trip we take.
Above all, we don't need Alexa, whose eerie presence listens in on every conversation (and goes "rogue" once in a while). Did you know there are some 28,000 items that now work with Alexa? That's creepy.
Proponents of "smart" technology praise its advantages which, they say, include "control at your fingertips," safety, accessibility, energy efficiency, cost effectiveness, convenience, comfort, peace of mind, flexibility, security, appliance functionality, "home management insights," resale potential, sustainability, savings, quality of life and less stress.
In the article "The True Benefits of the Smart Home," the author concludes: "You can't buy happiness. We know that. But, more money means less stress, and that's something you can't beat. As cool as it is to tell Alexa to play the latest single from across the room, having more room in your budget is even cooler. And plus, energy-efficient homes put a considerably less amount of strain on the environment, making life better for all of us. So do yourself a favor, start replacing those old appliances with smart, sustainable devices that will actually make you, and the rest of us, a little happier."
Wow, so smart products will save the world! End global warming! Cure the common cold! Eliminate dust bunnies under the bed! And make us "a little happier"! What's not to love?
The implication, of course, is with all these advantages, why would anyone choose NOT to surround themselves with smart products? (The Bible verse "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" comes to mind.)
It's obvious what the disadvantages of "smart" technology are. Some recent headlines:
- Your TV is now a computer, but not in a good way: You don't really own it, and it breaks in unpredictable ways. It seems many televisions now come pre-loaded with apps buyers don't want, can't be deleted, and often cause the unit to crash. The frustrated writer notes: "[A]fter you've purchased an internet-connected device of any kind, it begins to generate information that the company can use itself or sell to third parties."
- Apple FaceTime bug lets you listen in on people you call, even if they haven't picked up their iPhone. "There's obviously a big privacy concern here," reported the Technology Product Editor who wrote this article. "You could theoretically call anyone with FaceTime and, using the steps above, listen in on their conversations."
- Now your groceries see you, too: Walgreens is exploring new tech that turns your purchases, your movements, even your gaze, into data. "Walgreens is piloting a new line of 'smart coolers' – fridges equipped with cameras that scan shoppers' faces and make inferences on their age and gender."
- Technology can beam a voice directly into your head. "Scientists have figured out how to use a laser to transmit audio, ranging from music to speech, to a person across a room without any receiver equipment – a potential breakthrough for the future of audio and communication." (Thankfully, as the Organic Prepper snarks, "They'll only use their powers for good.")
As Wired put it, "What you're about to lose is your privacy. Actually, it's worse than that. You aren't just going to lose your privacy, you're going to have to watch the very concept of privacy be rewritten under your nose." Homes are getting smarter – and creepier.
I should point out our "dumb" home is perfectly modern and comfortable. We have all the appliances we need to make our lives easy and -- yes -- convenient. The difference is, those appliances don't spy on us and report our data to some third-party source, which then sells those data to advertisers.
Arguably the exception is our two computers; but since we cling to software no more recent than Windows 7, hopefully most of the data mining will bypass us. We also pay in cash whenever possible, don't have smart phones, avoid social media, refuse to save things to the "cloud," and otherwise continue to be irascible and difficult. I figure Google knows enough about me; I don't need to spoon-feed it any more information.
How long before America falls prey to the social rating system currently used in Communist China? Collaboration between the Big Five Big Tech (Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook) and Big Brother is increasing, and increasingly invasive. Apple chairman Tim Cook bluntly describes the process: "We shouldn't sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance."
Technology has its uses – we're thankful an elderly widowed neighbor in poor health has Alexa – but for those of us who are able-bodied, this kind of smart technology is not only invasive and pervasive, but it smacks of the dystopian future featured in the Pixar film Wall-E.
Okay, rant over.