Values of Convenience: Why Do We Not Make Life Better For Others?
I was asked recently for my thoughts on a wonderful article about software correctness, human convenience, and flossing, and I ended up dumping out an entire blog post worth of thoughts. So, this blog post serves as both a reminder to myself to write more, and also a sincere apology to my wonderfully patient friend, Kelly, who graciously puts up with me dumping absolutely unholy amounts of text into their phone at all hours of the day.
I really liked the blog post, by the way. Hillel is an excellent writer, and I find myself agreeing with just about everything he’s ever written. He’s got some fascinating takes, and I find them so grounded in reality and experience. One thing that can be pretty difficult, especially with Formal Methods or other “Big Math” computer science topics is that it can become so easy to get so deeply inside your realm that you become wholly divorced from the concept of anyone ever having to actually learn it, much less apply it. Not all things need to be applied, of course, or even learned; but there’s this extraordinary clarity that comes from having polished an idea to a fine shine on the frustrated tears of students or inexperienced engineers that is very difficult to replicate in any other manner. Consequently, his work really resonates with me. “Proving systems right” is so inherently human; after all, what is a proof other than a miserable pile of arguments, and what is “correctness” other than a human ideal laced with emotion, not yet sullied by the ravages of reality.
One takeaway that I have from the post is that there’s an idea that I don’t see explored a lot, and it’s one of what exactly “smoothness” looks like. What does it mean for something to be convenient to use? And, more importantly, why the fuck does it matter at all. If it’s good for you, why don’t you floss? If it’s healthy for you, why don’t you eat salad more often?
I want to take a moment here and think about this from the other direction. Rather than thinking about what smoothness is, what does inconvenience look like? What does friction feel like? I think we, as humans, really want to experience friction like a hill; we really want to feel like there’s a smoothly rising slope and you can sort of calculate how much friction you’re willing to endure in order to get a certain trade-off. “Oh, that’s 2 frictions? But 4 goody-goody-yum-yum points? Sure, I’ll take that; it’s within my friction budget for the week.”
In reality, I think friction is a lot more like a thousand cliffs of varying size. But, not only are the cliffs of varying size, you are cursed with a few inconvenient truths.
- Everyone friction cliff will be a different size to each individual
- The second you scale your cliff, you will immediately forget how high it was
- Every single cliff, no matter how tiny, can completely derail your ability to progress
- Every time you attempt to estimate the size of the cliff you scaled, you will underestimate it
- You will eventually forget that people are not on the same journey of cliffs as you
So, really, you’re fucked; completely and utterly fucked. Forget the curse of knowledge, or expert blindness; you’re doomed to eventually be the cliff that someone else must scale.
Joy! And now that we’ve thought about that cheerful note, let’s go to the next part of the article that really stood out to me, which is helpfully depressing to me for entirely separate reasons.
Similarly, in academia, UI/UX is low prestige work. […] The incentive structures are all messed up.
I think there’s potentially some very interesting implications here, and I want to unpack those. For the record, I agree with Hillel here, but this immediately brought to mind for me a single scorching thought
“That’s because it’s woman’s work.”
We’re currently trapped in a
dystopian hellscape patriarchal society where the undercurrent of the internet and technological cultures are one of egocentric bias and rugged individualism.
On the egocentric side, the incentives around removing barriers seem to be non-existent or even dis-incentivized entirely. Why make life easier for the next person if it “devalues” your own resume of achievements? For people to stand on your shoulders in an egocentric zero-sum society, it would imply that you had not achieved greatness yourself. Far from the “standing on the shoulders of giants” ideals that we love to pretend we believe in, we seem to tend towards viewing that sort of progress as being at the expense of those who came before, as if the very act of forging ahead diminishes the path itself and those who laid it.
On the patriarchal side of things, I notice a similar pattern around work that’s “feminine” (and thus codified as inferior in nature) being work that focuses on community, empathy, helping others, and enriching culture. You can see this in how we value the work of nurses and teachers; when their work shifted from being one of dominance and control to that of nurturing and care, the careers became associated with women and with that came a lowering of respect and pay.
What does it mean for something to be convenient, and what does it mean for something to have friction? If we think of convenience as making life better for others, as working to build that which breathes wholeness into the soul of a community, then friction is merely the absence of that life. The cliffs of friction are the same as the cliffs of neglect; malevolence isn’t required, disinterest alone can build cliffs that no one could ever hope to scale.
What is this convenience? This enriching of the other? I want to tug on that a bit, and not in the least because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Christopher Alexander and adrienne maree brown. (Warning: In the interest of brevity, I am about to condense hundreds of pages of nuanced literature into a few sentences and I humbly beg forgiveness for doing so, and as an aside: I will be eternally grateful to Erin Kissane for writing this amazing blog post, among others, that really exposed me for the first time to the duality of these two writers).
One thing that’s currently fascinating about them, to me, is that they seem to approach the same problem from opposite sides. They both want to build a healthier world that gives life to humans: Alexander through the question of how to build community-producing structure, and adrienne through the question of how to build structure-producing community. But the longer I think about it, the less coincidental I find it that Alexander–a white man–focuses on the systemic structure, approaching the problem from the top down; while adrienne–a mixed-race black queer woman–focuses on the community, seeing it as an essential and necessary prerequisite to the very idea of being able to build a structure in the first place, and consequently approaches the problem from the bottom up.
What is convenience?
What is convenience but a miserable pile of humanity?
What is convenience but a mirror that reflects purely the ability of one to reach another and thereby forge raw human connection from the aethers of desire?
What is convenience but the idea that in order to build a tower to reach the heavens, you must first reach into the heart of humanity itself.