Do you observe your fellow commuters with morbid curiosity…
As they peer into their phones, absorbed by the latest hyperbolic headline or fantasy football result?
Do you watch them click furiously through various online portals, waiting to unleash their next Facebook comeback or Twitter storm?
As you look around the train, do you see human cadavers swaying back and forth, illuminated by their blue, backlit screens?
If so, you too have witnessed the subtle shift in societal behaviour; one that’s revolutionising the way we live.
Making life easy
You see, humanity is being transformed not by huge market forces, but instead, by tiny, seemingly mundane actions we take, unthinking, every day.
Each time we opt to use our phone, sign into Amazon and buy a new pair of speedos, we submit a vote.
One that may well set in motion a series of events resulting in the closure of yet another high street outlet the following year.
We’re poorly positioned to interpret the cause and effect of these, apparently benign, actions.
Like hearing of a conflict in an obscure corner of the world, the reality doesn’t hit home until we’re forcibly ejected from our little bubbles, during a temporary Internet outage or fuel crisis.
And although we don’t often stop to consider these daily invisible referendums, I can assure you they’re taking place on an obscure server somewhere, spewing out binary 0’s and 1’s.
The thing is, these decisions aren’t being made in a concrete Siberian bunker with locked briefcases and nuclear buttons.
Rather, society is being remade every day by each and every one of us in our desire for convenience, guided by the ‘not-so-free’ hand of capitalism and its profiteers.
You see, the market has become our new God, defining our decisions and behaviour better than an evil despot ever could.
By exploiting our prehistoric instincts, algorithms have created a new currency so powerful that it stands to remodel humanity…
From a human wiring perspective, it’s always been better to conserve energy wherever possible.
Why would the prehistoric Joel willingly volunteer to go running on the Savannah when he’s already feasted on a delicious bison?
Especially when that energy could be better conserved for tomorrow’s potential food scarcity.
As fast as our environment is changing, our internal biochemistry isn’t.
Why then would present-day Joel choose to walk to town when he can save that energy and get his delivery through Amazon Prime while sitting in his pants on the sofa?
In the short term, we’re rewarded for making life easy, because it feels good! With a fully stocked fridge and other basic needs met, relaxing provides a temporary neurochemical fix.
The instant gratification derived from such behaviours is an evolutionary mechanism to reward us for our hard work of staying alive and to keep us safe to fight for another tomorrow.
But perhaps it isn’t so applicable in a world with 24-hour toilet roll delivery.
So too socially, we’ve entered into an implicit contract, re-inforced by our friends and family every day, proselytising the value of comfort and convenience.
Our parents worked hard all their lives so they could eventually afford to retire and relax.
Nowadays this desire, aided by the Internet, has accelerated.
Why work hard all your life, the Gurus say, when you can start earning a passive Internet income and sip Pina Coladas in Bali instead?
We’ve been led to believe that making life easy is the short road to happiness. By removing yesterday’s annoyances, we can finally be happy today.
But is it true?
With every company in a breakneck race to make society more convenient, we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves whether comfort is actually a corollary to happiness.
In fact, there are plenty of anecdotal stories proving the opposite, from the early millionaire retiree bereft of purpose to the corporate banker dissatisfied with her worldly contribution.
Such stories, however, are unlikely to dissuade the masses from feeling that it would still be pretty damn fine to sit back in comfort with a few million squared away.
Taken on a grander scale, there are also cases of developing countries placing higher on happiness indexes than their industrialised counterparts.
Such studies, however, are unlikely to placate those facing unimaginable hardships every day who dream of an easier life.
So the spread of comfort and convenience will continue, not in a redistributed form to those that need it the most, but to the ones who can afford it.
After all, comfort manufacturers need to appeal to those with the money for a luxury upgrade.
The issue is…
It’s a self-driving machine.
Despite the evidence that wealth and consequent comfort beyond on a certain level don’t make us happier, it doesn’t discourage us from pursuing them tooth and nail.
And so the hedonic treadmill of adaptation begins, our pursuit of ever-increasing convenience accelerating ever-faster.
We think that if only we could improve efficiency in one area of our lives, we could use the extra resources to reclaim our freedom.
But efficiency improvements don’t stand still. Instead of a means to an end, optimisation becomes it’s own goal, one standard becoming the new baseline which disruptive companies seek to surpass.
Promises to make us even more productive, save us more time and make our lives even easier abound in every advert in what has become an automated, software-driven arms race.
But the problem is, with our obsessive desire for seeking comfort, humans are relinquishing their personal power.
The comfort providers
The reason we’re even able to submit our daily invisible votes is because we’ve harnessed the power of technology to do our bidding.
The Internet of Things can now control our home utilities. Self-driving cars will begin transporting us from one location to another and soon, we’ll have personal AI assistants to plan our days.
The price of outsourcing our existence to make our lives easier?
Firstly, it’s easy to make a case for the economic impact of the privileged few. All our glittering advancements create a price to be paid somewhere in the comfort chain.
Humanity is becoming a dispensable asset. As we cede more control to technology to ease our lives, we unwittingly become secondary agents in our own existence.
Seeking comfort, while it feels wonderful in the short term, can have undesirable long term effects.
We become weak, unable to tolerate any inconvenience in our perfectly manicured lives.
Whereas friction and hardship can create tremendous personal growth, so conversely, every time we take the easy option in life, we become slightly more fragile.
The question is…
How much growth as an individual and collective, will we trade for the easy life?