On real (digital?) convenience and real community


There is convenience that we cannot afford to refuse anymore.

Yesterday, Mrs Damaris Zehner published her complain, and concern, about how digitally enabled “convenience” harms community. These are the main things that happened:

  • Mrs Zehner went to the post office to mail a package overseas
  • The post mistress told her she couldn’t do that, instead of filling the usual paper form, “you have to do that online now… we aren’t allowed to use paper forms anymore.”
  • Mrs Zehner drove six miles back home, went to her basement to weight the package on her home scale, wasted one hour in “stroke-inducing frustration figuring out how to find and complete the form”, then printed it and drove six miles back to the post office
On real (digital?) convenience and real community /img/no-post-office-thanks.jpg

This experience lead Mrs Zehner to argue that

  • things are online now “for our convenience”, so even the ordeal above, which also implies having a working printer, and keeping track of the username and password for that website, is “convenience”
  • that convenience has an important cost, which is (emphasis mine) “loss of community. In fact, convenience as we understand it today is in direct opposition to community. It’s practically a law that the more inconvenient something is, the more it engenders community”

Food delivery versus farmers’ markets, ebooks versus visits to the library, manufactured houses versus barn-raisings - these conveniences all contribute to the loss of the kind of community, for good or ill, we used to have.

At the post office, notes Mrs Zehner, she would have chatted with the post mistress, who’s a nice woman:

“While she was weighing things and I was filling out the form, she might have asked about my daughter, and I would have inquired about her family. I would have appreciated her skill and been grateful for her answers to my questions about customs, costs, and insurance. She would have felt herself to be an expert valued by our community as a result.”

There is late stage capitalism

The thoughts above brought Mrs Zehner to late-stage capitalism, which in the context of this post is definable as “unsustainable absurdities and injustices in our current business practices”

I don’t know why forms have to be filled out online, says Mrs Zehner, but:

“whoever made the decision probably thought it was justified for reasons of cost.”

“The attitude that everything in a society, even public services, should pay for itself and in the process enrich its stockholders is typical of late-stage capitalism.”

“The result of the spread of “convenience” is atomized households, each with its own printer and scale, its own wheelchair and hospital bed, its own road paving equipment and computer for online education - for those who can afford them. No one ever has to leave home again - except the poor, and where can they go to get services?”

Answer is simple, and is in the ACTUAL value and meaning of work.

From the excerpt above, Mrs Zehner may seem a helpless Luddite, out of touch with reality. That is NOT the case. I regularly follow her blog, because she is a competent, sharp person with valid insights on today’s world, and suggest you do the same. In this particular case, however, I partly disagree with her analysis and conclusions, and I believe it is helpful to explain why.

Yes, “late stage capitalism” is deeply unfair, and also really, really stupid and inefficient in many occasions. And yes, the modern “quest for convenience” is both cause and effects of atomized households, which are a bad thing. It is equally true that today’s economy is one big push for “convenience, no matter how alienating it is”. There is no question that much recent “innovation” has been “testosterone, facilitating the need for LESS human interaction”. No question on this, not by me for sure.

And then there is demography, and meaning

This said, I have two issues with the first part of Mrs Zehner’s post. One is that, in a sense, she is too late. Decades late. Things like _“food delivery versus farmers’ markets, ebooks versus visits to the library” or, in general, both digitization and overall cost reduction of many services…

…are matters that (at least in western countries) we all settled out for good, all together, decades ago. Digitization of services, cost reductions, delivery by drones, telemedicine… all these things will have to increase simply because the alternatives may be even more polluting, but above all because population is aging.

Demography is a synonim of “problems that were only solvable as we would like today DECADES ago”. No amount of policy changes now, instead of the 1980s, can change the current demographic structure of western societies enough, quickly enough, to make without more automatization of services, not less. The challenge is to automatize only the right things in the right way, because going back would be worse.

The second issue is about what constitutes, or should constitute, both “community”, and the real meaning of work, and the correct way to deploy digital services.

Starting from the end, the right way to ship a physical package in 2020 and beyond is not to go back to paper forms. It is, in this order:

  • simplify the whole procedure as much as possible
  • find and pay enough competent designers, to create corresponding online forms that:
    • are as easy and usable with any device, not just on large screens
    • when filled, automatically send the data to the nearest post office, so when you get there you just put the package on their scale (which is mandatory to avoid frauds in the first place) and print a receipt or shipping label on the spot

All the procedures, at the post office or otherwise, that can indeed be performed properly without any physical presence, should be totally digitised instead, as soon as possible.

Mrs Zehner’s post mistress surely is a wonderful person, who is a pleasure to be with. But can continuing to let her “feel herself an expert valued by her community” be a sufficient reason to not “put services online”? Assuming such feelings could still exist once she knew that, of course?

In any case, even if she worked in the post office nearest to me, I would still want to avoid that office as much as I can.

I do miss the time to engage more with all the human beings around me. I do miss the time to volunteer for my community. During Italy’s lockdown, I suffered a lot (and still do, by the way) having to put non-urgent “work” before what my community needed the most. But that is what I miss.

Right now, here in Italy there are majors including “restaurants in office districts are going bankrupt” among the valid reasons to end lockdown, and consequentely telecommuting. And there are telecommuters saying “now that I have proven I can work from home, that is have more free time for my family, why on Earth should I return to waste hours every day increasing traffic and pollution?”

Me, I surely do not miss having to drive or walk somewhere, just so I can wait for everybody else to finish “chatting with the nice employee”, for something I could and should have done at home, in a fraction of the time. There are much, much better ways to live and build real community.

(This post was drafted in June 2020, but only put online in August, because… my coronavirus reports, of course)

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