If Columbia professor Tim Wu is to be believed, we nowadays suffer from too much convenience in our lives. In a recent piece for the New York Times, the legal scholar lectured readers that “We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest.”
Oh my, professors say the darndest things! Where was Wu’s TA when he needed him? Or one of his less caffeinated colleagues.
While Wu doesn’t reject convenience out of hand, he worries that “in a subtle way it can enslave us.” Only a professor, as in only someone sheltered by the unreality that is tenure on a leafy college campus, could publish something so divorced from reality on the editorial page of the world’s most important newspaper.
Up front, Wu’s lack of self-awareness is quite something. In contemplating it, one can’t help but wonder what goes through his mind as he walks Columbia’s campus each day, or for that matter the grounds of any school in the high-end world of academia that he is part of. This rates prominent mention simply because Wu’s freedom to write earnest thought pieces about the “problems” that come with ease is plainly the result of entrepreneurs having persistently removed unease from our lives.
If anyone doubts the above assertion, they need only visit Columbia, or any prestigious college campus. What they’ll see is building after building, and school after school, exists thanks to some entrepreneur’s tireless desire to democratize convenience. Stating what should be obvious, the U.S. isn’t the richest country in the world thanks to colleges and universities that employ people like Wu, it has colleges and universities that can employ Wu’s lot precisely because it’s the richest country in the world.
Figure that John D. Rockefeller wasn’t college educated, but his great fortune did, among other things, lead to the creation of world-renowned University of Chicago. Notable here is that Rockefeller’s fortune was a monument to the erasure of inconveniences. Among other things, it used to be that the day ended at night. Man made light was, in the words of Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, “too precious to use.” Generally only the rich had access to messy, odiferous candles.
Rockefeller’s first fortune was in kerosene that literally lit up the night for the masses. Banking heir J.P. Morgan took the process of convenience further through his much-ridiculed backing of Thomas Edison, and the lightbulb.
Rockefeller’s next fortune helped free people from the tyranny that was distance. Thanks to mass refinement of crude oil, more and more people were able to get around in the inconvenience eraser that was the automobile. Henry Ford democratized access to the early cars as evidenced by one of his Model Ts retailing for $850 in 1908, but only $260 as of 1925.
Crucial about all this is what Rockefeller’s erasure of frustrations related to darkness and distance meant to health. Indeed, one of his grandsons died of scarlet fever in 1901. We don’t hear about deaths related to scarlet fever anymore thanks to Rockefeller’s convenience-generated wealth that freed up precious money and human capital on the way to a cure for what killed his grandson.
Back to Wu, he argues that “we err in presuming convenience is always good” since it allegedly “threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.” It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
While Wu acknowledges that increasing convenience is the “great liberator of humankind from labor,” the coddled professor seemingly misses why the latter is such a beautiful thing. That it freed and continues to free humans from the cruelest forms of labor is a statement of the obvious.
But what makes the erasure of labor truly brilliant is that it frees more and more people up to specialize, and when we specialize our productivity increases. Better than that, freedom from the mundane yet backbreaking allows those whose talents had previously been suffocated to focus on real problems. Missed by Wu is that we’re all beneficiaries of problem-solving that was born of surging convenience.
Lest we forget, a malady as basic as pneumonia used to be one of the world’s greatest killers. It wasn’t until World War I that more people died from gunshots than from basic health problems that were the norm before more and more great minds were freed from the farms by convenience, so that they could fix things. More modernly, Polio used to paralyze thousands of children each year until Dr. Jonas Salk created a cure. Does anyone think there would have been the time and means to pursue this wondrous advance absent previous job-destroyers like fertilizers, plows and tractors?
Fast forward to the present, and it’s actually terrifying to think about how cancer and heart disease regularly take friends and family from us too soon, not to mention how we feel when we see football players suddenly immobilized on the football field. What these still unsolved killers and immobilizers remind us of is that we haven’t scratched the surface when it comes to fixing all that’s life-ending and life shattering. Getting right to the point, life isn’t nearly convenient enough as evidenced by the endless occurrences that can end it, or cruelly alter it.
Wu fears too much convenience because, in his words, it causes us to be impatient such that “waiting in line to vote in an election is [now] irritating.” It’s amazing that even the ignorant can believe as Wu does, yet in his case he’s a full professor at one of the most prestigious schools in the world.
As he neared conclusion of an op-ed that will go down as one of the more insulting (to common sense) ever published by the Times, Wu preached that “convenience has to serve something greater than itself.” Missed by the professor is that the convenience he naively decries has bettered the world in incalculably grand ways. The only downside to convenience is that it has afforded the unworthy perches from which they can broadcast their lack of gratitude, reason and self-awareness all at once.