The Inconvenience of Convenience: On Being Unreachable

14 minute read

[Cloud computing] allows people to read and modify word-processor files, spreadsheets, and presentations using a smartphone on the toilet. This is generally regarded as progress.
—Andrew Tanenbaum, Modern Operating Systems

There was a time, not so very long ago, when walking out your door meant you were no longer reachable by anyone who wasn’t physically next to you. At the time of this writing, in fact, most people reading this will have been alive to see that world – although those much younger than me will likely struggle to remember what it felt like. (Even for me, it’s hard to pick apart what part of the old feelings were because I was a child rather than because I didn’t have a mobile phone.) It’s astounding to think that the iPhone has only existed for 15 years, and that into the mid-aughts, there were plenty of people in the industrialized world who didn’t own a mobile phone that could make even the most basic of calls – and this was true across all social classes and age groups.

A world without mobile phones already feels unfamiliar. Remember: If there was big news, you might not hear about it for hours. If you and your friends didn’t know a fact, you had to wait until you got home to your dial-up internet connection (beep beep bloop brrrrrrrr wooshhhh) or to the library to look it up. If you missed your train but your travel buddy was on it, well, you just had to figure out how to find them again on your own. The idea of going somewhere without a phone, even in a well-populated area, now scares people (what if there’s an emergency?); thirty years ago that was called Tuesday. But the same world also seems oddly attractive to many people. Despite the obvious functional progress we’ve made since then, there was a sense of freedom in being disconnected, on our own, unreachable, even just as part of daily life, that we didn’t know existed until we lost it.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as nostalgia, of course. And to some extent, that’s exactly what it is; looking back years later, it’s easy to remember the good parts of any situation more than the annoying and ugly ones. But the more I think about it, even from a purely cost-benefit standpoint, the less sure I am that I like the tradeoff here.

Take the home answering machine. Despite the jarring nature of being asked to leave a voice message (see first infobox), the result for the recipient is pretty great. You’re out in the world, busy doing whatever you’re doing. Everyone and everything else waits for you until you’re done, leaving all your time and attention for whatever you’re trying to do. They don’t have a choice, after all; you simply aren’t there to take the calls. When you’re done, when you finish being present in one place and you get back home, there’s a pleasant little light letting you know that the world moved on while you were away, and anything you’ve missed is neatly queued up for your review.

Nowadays, in contrast, we bring both our phones and our voicemail with us. This is much better, because we…hear about a bunch of usually unimportant things 2 hours earlier, while we’re trying to do something else? Nobody likes getting those calls! Sure, being able to make and receive calls and texts on the go occasionally prevents or mitigates rare, embarrassing blunders like being unable to find someone you were trying to meet or running out of gas on the highway, but the tradeoff is that in all the normal cases, life gets less pleasant. Optimizing for rare incidents that usually aren’t disastrous at the cost of common ones is usually not a winning strategy.

Convenience is not optional

We often say that the benefit of the new way, having communication tools with us everywhere instead of leaving them at home, is “convenience.” And sure, to some extent smartphones are convenient. But is it convenient to be constantly interrupted? To let people bother you anywhere? To not notice what’s around you because you’re looking at a screen? To always feel like you could be busying yourself with something else?

Take this example: the other night I was at a bar with a discussion group, talking about a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and during a lull in the conversation someone ran outside to his car, grabbed his laptop, and brought it inside and started working on it at the table. We asked him what he was up to, and he said he had to give someone permission to access a software repository. Is this convenience? To be able to change security settings from a bar table at eight-thirty at night?

It’s more convenient than going to the office, of course. But let’s get real, thirty years ago nobody would have called this software developer and asked him to drive into the office to change a thoroughly non-critical setting. For starters, unless he was needed off-hours frequently enough to have a pager, nobody in his office would have been able to call him at all, at least not on this particular Tuesday, unless by chance they managed to find someone who knew what bar he’d gone to and then had the chutzpah to call over there and ask for him. But even if they could have called him, the whole thing would have just seemed absurd. You tried to call an average person whose location you didn’t know when your computer system was down worldwide or someone got airlifted to the ICU, not when someone might have had to wait a couple of extra hours to start working on something. No, either they would have waited until the next day, or they would have planned ahead better in the first place knowing that people would frequently be unreachable outside of their office hours.

This brings us to one of the central features of technology: new technology, once it’s widely accepted, doesn’t just make new things possible, it also makes them required. It changes the expectations and mindset of a whole society and the way it thinks about problems. Having a smartphone connected to Slack in your pocket and a laptop in your car doesn’t mean you can change security settings from your seat in a bar, it means you have to, or at least that it seems like a good idea to. It means that both you and other people think it’s a reasonable thing to do. It means that if you don’t do it, you’ll be distracted by thinking about it for the next hour.

Individual choice is not a solution

Now there’s an obvious objection here: most of these problems appear to be solvable by individuals. If Security Guy doesn’t like spending his evenings out changing security settings, he should just refuse to do it (it wouldn’t come off badly in most sane organizations), or his company should change its culture so employees don’t feel like asking him is acceptable, or what have you. If I really like being unreachable when I leave my apartment so much, I should just get a landline again, buy an answering machine from the Salvation Army, and leave my phone at home. To some extent, this objection is fair; personally, I think Security Guy probably should do that, and I probably would be better off if I left my phone at home once in a while.

But since big changes in technology cause big changes in society, making these choices individually doesn’t restore most of the features that made the old states of affairs work. When nobody has a mobile phone, society arranges itself in a way that keeps people at least reasonably connected given these circumstances. When everybody has one, those adaptations fade away. Thus, many of the benefits of being unreachable when you leave your home only accrue when everyone, or at least a sizable minority of people, is unreachable when they leave home, and many drawbacks only become apparent when few people are.

For instance, back when cell phones were uncommon, if you needed to call someone while you were out, chances were you could find a public pay phone within a couple of minutes’ walk. You would know most of your friends’ phone numbers, so it wasn’t hard to make calls when you didn’t have your own phone. If there was a true emergency and someone was away from home, you could call all the places they might be and everyone would try their best to find them and bring them to the phone. People wouldn’t be impatient when you weren’t able to answer for a few hours. People planned exactly when and where to meet so they could find each other without texting when they arrived. There were no restaurant menus you couldn’t look at without scanning a QR code on your phone. Apartment buildings had buzzers you could use to let residents know when you arrived. And your friends wouldn’t be fixing security settings during conversations; it’s all well and good to help yourself be more present by not carrying a phone, but the broader benefit was that everyone had more attention to give to the people around them.

None of these things are true today, so by not carrying a cell phone, you aren’t just going back to the connectedness state-of-the-art of, say, 1995 – which was pretty functional – you’re going back well beyond that, while simultaneously living in a society that expects you to have a 2022 level of connectedness. (Not long ago I got stranded at a Wal-Mart without my phone, and the younger store employees I talked to didn’t even understand why I wanted to know the store’s phone number so that someone I left a message for could get a message back to me later.)

What now?

I think there really is no going back on this one, absent an apocalyptic level of societal upheaval that somehow makes mobile devices impractical or widely undesirable, because in order to recreate the conditions of, say, the nineties, you’d have to get a large minority of people to agree either to do all of this at the same time, or to fight through the actual conditions that occur today when you decide to live without a mobile device for an uncertain length of time, until the critical mass is reached. And maybe we don’t want to. Not having mobile devices at all meant we didn’t have to worry about some problems they expose us to, but if we name the problems and work on solving them, we might be able to intentionally attack those same problems and take back at least some of our freedom, while also keeping the benefits of these devices. Here are three suggestions.

Make the design of smartphones less addictive

I’m sure someone could write several books on this, and I’m not qualified to write even a paragraph, but it’s clear that smartphones and smartphone apps drive us to interact with them even when we don’t want to and it doesn’t benefit us. While I doubt it’s possible to make devices that feed us whatever information we want whenever we want altogether unattractive or instrumental, I’d be mighty surprised if we can’t do better than what we have right now.

Develop better notification systems

I’ve written before about the need for “spear notifications” (see How to Slow Down). In short, and slightly adapting this concept to the topic of discussion, current systems are generally unable to distinguish between “here’s a funny video a friend sent this user” and “the user’s house is on fire and his wife is in the hospital.” This is silly; you should always get a notification when your house is on fire, but you should never get a notification when someone sends you a video (instead, once or twice a day you can go review new non-urgent messages). The right action for other kinds of messages depends on what you’re doing: you might want to know right away that your friend asked if you’re around when you’re bored and watching TV, but not see it until later when you’re in the middle of some complex work. Your phone could even identify which mode you should be in on its own (for instance, if you sit down at your desk, it could turn off non-urgent notifications automatically).

It’s telling that a lot of people now consider it rude to directly call someone without asking ahead of time – because they’re always going to have their phone on and receiving calls, yet there’s no way for them to indicate how open they are to talking. A phone system – and, for that matter, a chat system – that exposed people’s availability (e.g., actively soliciting calls, able to answer time-sensitive calls, able to answer emergency calls, offline) would be awesome. Again, phones should be able to change this status automatically based on configurable rules, because most people won’t remember to manually reset their status all the time.

While some current phones do allow you to set different settings for different apps and enter a “do not disturb” mode which allows only certain notifications, this usually can’t distinguish between different levels of severity sent by the same app, nor can people indicate when sending someone a text or email whether it’s important that the recipient sees it right away, which in practice makes these systems relatively useless. I think the current wishy-washy nature of notification urgency is a key design problem to be resolved in the 2020s, but nobody else seems to be saying this!

Stop expecting people to be available

Most importantly, we should stop expecting that people will be available all the time. If we can do this, we’ll leave space for people to have whatever policy of personal availability and connectedness they want, whether that means they’re always available, available anytime they’re not intensely focused, available only when they’re at home, or available for one hour of intense communication a day. And regardless of what people generally choose, they’ll be able to switch everything off temporarily if they need a break without feeling like they’re going to miss something important.

It’s hard to take this to its full conclusion until our tools have improved somewhat (e.g., right now you generally can’t find out if someone’s available without them getting a notification, which is exactly what you want to avoid if they’re busy!) but we can at least support people in not responding to every notification right away and design our lives and our organizations to make that easier.

Ironically, remote-only and remote-first workplaces, an idea even more modern than always-on communications, are one of the few places that have figured this out. When employees are spread across the country or across the world and don’t have fixed schedules or workplaces, it’s impractical to expect people to be available at any particular time unless you’ve arranged it in advance. Guess what? Everything still gets done – you just have to adjust your workflow and expectations a little bit and make sure that there are options for handling emergencies. We should be making this the default everywhere.