The transfer of information is not so different from the movement of personal effects. Neither in principle requires nearly as much work as was once believed. In the case of data, the Web has trivialized the effort of searching for knowledge that was theoretically public but too tedious in practice to discover.
The New York University communication scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan has even proclaimed “the collapse of inconvenience” to a Boston Globe writer, referring to the millions of Web users who employ the pitiless eye of search engines to hunt for awkward personal data, from youthful indiscretions to middle-aged eccentricities and worse.
In popular culture, too, the extension of efficiency to the masses has changed behavior unexpectedly. The CEO who did the most to encourage early television remote control, E. F. McDonald Jr. of Zenith, hated commercials and expected newly empowered, remote-armed viewers to force the replacement of advertising with subscription-based television. They of course did no such thing; even most premium cable channels now feature advertising. But restless viewers did change programming in other ways.
For decades, programmers have been increasing the pacing of their shows. This makes it less likely that viewers will change programs at any instant, but for many observers, the jumpier action makes the shows less effective. Our ability to avoid commercials by fast-forwarding effortlessly through our TiVo-cached and similarly stored programs is making product placement more pervasive.
Finally, the spread of easy electronic fixes to knotty problems can postpone fundamental solutions. The ease of crafting new legislative districts with mapping software has invigorated the ancient art of gerrymandering. And a taxation expert, Joseph J. Thorndike, recently argued in the New York Times that electronic income-tax preparation software has removed an important incentive for tax reform: the annoyance of calculating certain taxes. If citizens had to fill out their forms manually to comply with the alternative minimum tax, originally directed at the wealthy but expected to soon snare a third of taxpayers, the tedium of the calculation (by many who turned out not to owe any tax) might have tipped the scales for reform.
I’m not about to do next year’s form 1040 on an abacus, but sometimes a bit of inconvenience is just what I need; having a manual transmission discourages me from answering the cell phone while driving. As Vaidhyanathan observed, “It turns out inconvenience was a really important part of our lives, and we didn’t realize it.”
Ed Tenner is a writer, speaker, and consultant on technology and culture, a frequent guest on NPR, and the author of the best-selling Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (2003).