The case against convenience
Last week, I finally bought a MacBook Pro. It’s a slightly older model, since I wanted the optical drive and the ports that Apple is busy prying away from its current generation of devices, and though it isn’t as powerful under the hood as most of its younger cousins, it’s by any measure the nicest laptop I’ve ever owned. (For the last few years, I’ve been muddling through with a refurbished MacBook that literally disintegrated beneath my fingers as I used it: the screws came out of the case, the plastic buckled and warped, and I ended up keeping it together with packing tape and prayer. If this new computer self-destructs, I assume that it won’t be in such a dramatic fashion.) And while it might seem strange that I sprang for a relatively expensive art object from Apple shortly after my conversion to an Android phone, my favorite thing about this new arrangement is that I don’t need to worry about syncing a damned thing. For years, keeping my laptop and my phone synced up was a minor but real annoyance, particularly on a computer that seemed to audibly gasp for air whenever I connected it with my iPhone. Now that I don’t have that option, it feels weirdly liberating. My smartphone is off in its own little world, interacting happily with my personal data through Google Photos and other apps, while my laptop has access to the same information without any need to connect to my phone, physically or otherwise. Each has its own separate umbilicus linking it with the cloud—and never the twain shall meet.
And there’s something oddly comforting about relegating these devices to two separate spheres, as defined by their incompatible operating systems. I’ve spoken here before about Metcalfe’s Law, which is a way of thinking about the links between nodes in a telecommunications network: in theory, the more connections, the greater the total value. And while this may well be true of systems, like social media, in which each user occupies a single node, it’s a little different when you apply it to all the devices you own, since the complexity of overseeing those gadgets and their connections—which are entities in themselves—can quickly become overwhelming. Let’s say you have a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone. If each connects separately with the cloud, you’ve only got three connections to worry about, and you can allocate separate headspace to each one. But if they’re connected with each other as well as the cloud, the number of potential connections increases to six. This may not sound like much, although even two extra connections can grow burdensome if you’re dealing with them every day. But it’s even worse than that: the connections don’t run in parallel, but form a web, so that any modification you make to one invisibly affects all the others. If you’re anything like me, you’ve experienced the frustration of trying to customize the way you interact with one device, only to find that you’ve inadvertently changed the settings on another. The result is a mare’s nest of incompatible preferences that generate unpredictable interference patterns.
Segregating all the parts of your digital life from one another takes away much of that confusion: you don’t have to think about any of it if your computer and your phone don’t speak a common language. (They can each talk to the cloud, but not to each other, which provides all the connectivity you need while keeping the nodes at arm’s length.) But Apple and other tech companies seem determined to combine all of our devices into one terrifying hydra of information. One of the big selling points of the last few Mac OS X updates has been a feature ominously known as Continuity: you can start writing an email or editing a document on one device and pick it up on another, or use your laptop or tablet to make calls through your phone. This sounds like a nice feature in theory, but on closer scrutiny, it falls apart. The whole point of owning multiple devices is that each one is best suited for a certain kind of activity: I don’t want to edit a text document on my phone or make a call on my laptop if I can possibly avoid it. It might be nice to have the option of resuming on one device where you left off somewhere else, but in practice, most of us structure our routines so that we don’t have to worry about that: we can always save something and come back to it, and if we can’t, it implies that we’re enslaved to our work in a way that makes a mockery of any discussion of convenience. And retaining that option, in the rare cases when it’s really useful, involves tethering ourselves to a whole other system of logins, notifications, and switching stations that clutter up the ordinary tasks that don’t require that kind of connectivity.
Is the result “convenient?” Maybe for a user assembling such a system from scratch, like Adam naming the animals. But if you’re at all intelligent or thoughtful about how you work, you’ve naturally built up existing routines that work for you alone, using the tools that you have available. No solution designed for everybody is going to be perfect for any particular person, and in practice, the “continuity” that it promises is really a series of discontinuous interruptions, as you struggle to reconcile your work habits with the prepackaged solution that Apple provides. That search for idiosyncratic, practical, and provisional solutions for managing information and switching between different activities is central to all forms of work, creative and otherwise, and an imperfect solution that belongs to you—even if it involves rearranging your plans, heaven forbid, to suit whatever device happens to be accessible at the time—is likely to be more useful than whatever Apple has in mind. And treating the different parts of your digital life as essentially separate seems like a good first step. When we keep each device in its own little silo, we have a decent shot at figuring out an arrangement that suits each one individually, rather than wrestling with the octopus of connectivity. In the long run, any version of convenience that has been imposed from the outside isn’t convenient at all. And that’s the inconvenient truth.