I t was the opening sentence in a recent New York Times opinion piece by Tim Wu that wooed me into reading the whole thing. The Columbia Law School professor and author began the piece, entitled The Tyranny of Convenience, this way: “Convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today.”

Professor Wu writes that in “the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience — that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks — has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies.” Quoting leading technologist Evan Williams for the idea that “convenience decides everything,” he explains that “convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences…. Easy is better, easiest is best.” He notes that although he prefers to brew his own coffee, Starbucks instant is so convenient, he hardly ever does what he actually prefers.

Then he writes something we’ll all need to ponder if we’re to summon the will to push back against the deluge of digital technology engulfing us: 

Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper…. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism. 

Here Tim Wu has touched upon an issue that’s at the core of our technological dilemma: Are we prepared to embrace the ostensibly unthinkable, to be eccentrics, or even fanatics if that’s what’s needed to live sane, not to mention spiritually vibrant lives? I am, but that’s just me. I’ve married off all my kids except one boy (and I’m not worried about him). What about you?

As Torah Jews, do we see the harm technology has wrought in so many areas of life as enough reason to act in ways the whole world (including much of the frum one) considers weird and needlessly extreme? Or do we instead regard these manifold deleterious effects as merely a tolerable price we need to pay, like the higher cost to machine-wash rather than hand-wash?

What has made the march of technological advance so inexorable and irreversible for us is precisely this eccentricity factor, the fact that when you spurn the promise of an easier, more efficient life that technology holds out, you come across (to others and even yourself) as more than a bit strange. And so, we shrink from rethinking and certainly from retrenching our involvement with technological conveniences. But, Wu insists, rethink we must. He writes:

Given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, as a value, as a way of life — it is worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country. I don’t want to suggest that convenience is a force for evil. Making things easier isn’t wicked….

But we 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.

One way in which convenience constrains and thus enslaves us is, as noted earlier, that it makes us unwilling to consider stopping or even slowing the technological express train as it speeds down the tracks of our lives, and we, its hapless passengers, are whisked to spiritual and moral destinations unknown.

Another unintended constraint imposed by convenience, Wu observes, is that 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. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating.”

If the only casualty were to be the need to stand in line at the polls, I think democracy could survive without the people who can’t survive a 20-minute queue. The problem is that the “pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind” also means a decreased tolerance level for the investment of time and effort needed to learn a Tosafos — or how to be a good spouse.

And those are just two of the many things of supreme importance that until the end of time will still require patience and attention, time and effort. Never will there an app for accomplishing them or anything else in life of enduring value. Yet, the culture of convenience atrophies the psychic and emotional muscles they require.

Finally, convenience enslaves because it makes us deny ourselves one of the greatest gifts we can bestow upon ourselves — the experience of difficulty itself. Mr. Wu speaks eloquently to this point:

I do not want to deny that making things easier can serve us in important ways…. But being a person is only partly about having and exercising choices. It is also about how we face up to situations that are thrust upon us, about overcoming worthy challenges and finishing difficult tasks — the struggles that help make us who we are. What happens to human experience when so many obstacles and impediments and requirements and preparations have been removed?

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….

An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is “easy” is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for a life.

We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient — not always, but more of the time. Nowadays individuality has come to reside in making at least some inconvenient choices. You need not churn your own butter or hunt your own meat, but if you want to be someone, you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others. Struggle is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are….

So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest. The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity.

In an ideal world, we’d read his words and say to ourselves, “Wu who?” After all, should we really need a non-Jewish law professor to tell us that life is as much about the effort as about the outcome? We, who at every siyum declare, “Anu ameilim u’mekablim sachar v’heim ameilim v’einam mekablim sachar,” which, according to the Chofetz Chaim, expresses that very idea? Should we, whose Torah is shot through with teachings like L’fum tza’ara agra and Ashrei mi she’amalo baTorah and countless similar ones, have to be reminded that “difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience”?

But it’s not an ideal world, because we’re human. We forget, get worn down by the burdens of life, and become lazy. We are distracted by the wiles of the yetzer hara and influenced by the surrounding society.

And so, perhaps Wu’s words can serve as a reminder to us of that which we already know.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 702. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com