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The Serious Price of the Hyperconvenient Economy

Apart from sensual appeals, the chief marketing wave in our country is selling convenience. It has reached a level of frenzy with companies like Amazon and Walmart racing your order to your doorstep (with Amazon now wanting the electronic key to your house).

Ever since the industrial revolution, when the division of labor between consumers and producers widened and deepened, the convenience of not having to grow your own food, weave your own clothes and build your own shelter have become a given of economic progress. Expert specialization has tended to make products better and more standardized as well.

But, in recent decades, adding tiers of conveniences touted by the vendors’ television/radio/print advertisements has rarely mentioned the downsides.

For example, consider the fast food industry. Fast food was sold to the American consumer as convenient, tasty and always available. For these shallow advantages, many consumers chose to give up home-made and nutritious meals for those with heavy doses of fat, sugar and salt—all deadly when taken in such excessive amounts by tens of millions of children and adults. Food that “melts in your mouth,” and “tastes great” usually comes with additives that turn your tongues against your brain and bodily health.

There is the convenience of credit and debit cards. It started in the nineteen fifties when a businessman found it inconvenient in restaurants to have to make sure he had enough cash. Why not sign up restaurants to take the Diner’s Card? Before long the question became, why not take it all the way to enable massive impulse buying, massive invasion of privacy, revolving debt traps, bankruptcies, and the iron collar of unilaterally determined credit scores ratings? Why not deliberately overextend  credit and turn consumers into hooked supplicants who won’t complain  to their car dealers, insurance agencies or landlords for fear of a complaint lowering scores and ratings?

What could be more convenient than signing on the dotted line of fine print contracts or click-on agreements? You don’t have to read, understand, bargain or reject. It’s easy, if you don’t mind having your rights taken away on page after page as fees, penalties and other overcharges plus closed courtroom doors plunge you into contract servitude or peonage.

Like any steps of “progress,” convenience taken too far induces dependency, ignorance of the product and service and more loss of voice, self-determination and self-reliance.  Today, rampant advertising and telemarketers tell  you to sign up to have your groceries be home-delivered. For some people with disabilities, this can be a plus, if you get what you ordered. For most people, the price is a loss of sociability, of going to markets where real people have meaningful interactions with learn from one another.

The promotion of touted quick-fix drugs, when successful, less invasive treatments are available with fewer deadly side-effects (note the pain-killer epidemic that will take 60,000 American lives this year) is accelerating beyond tranquilizers and sleeping pills. The advance of biologics could make Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) an understatement of silent manipulation and mind control.

How about the convenience of online gambling, pay-day loan rackets and cosmetic surgery—all loaded with their unpublicized and underreported costs or r the “convenience” of outsourcing your judgement and self-control by omnipresent apps?

But surely the “free” Facebook and Google do not come with such costs, do they? In return for this “free” service, you surrender your most personal information, which they turn into massive profits without giving you a share. Then they data-mine your buying profile for in-house use or outside sale; they select the news you get and expose you to anonymous, and often fraudulent, solicitations and propaganda. If these violations are invasive and omnipresent for you, just consider how it will affect your children and grandchildren?

Technology driven by narrow commercial interests needs to provoke us into asking, “What’s all this convenience doing over the long run? What kind of community and society is coming out of this unassessed marketing?” For a better future, we must mobilize, community by community, for some inconvenient thoughts and organization. Unless, that is, the corporate future doesn’t need us.

To get started, encourage your friends and neighbors to sign up for Jim Hightower’s Hightower Lowdown newsletter.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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