September 26, 2014

Convenience as neglect, disloyalty, and desecration

A recent comment about digital cameras marveled at how remarkable technology is, that it has given us such cheaper, faster, and generally more convenient ways to take pictures. But that has come at a cost to image quality and to the emotional significance or resonance of our pictures, which has devolved in the digital age. This trade-off between convenience and some kind of quality is general, not only regarding cameras, so it's worth looking into.

These days the principle of convenience is so worshiped by so many people in so many contexts that we can hardly recognize how strange it is. From Walmart to Amazon to Redbox to Facebook, convenience has proven to be the most important value to 21st-century man (or more accurately, guy).

Yet convenience resonates with only one of the "moral foundations" in the Haidtian framework, namely liberty — freeing up the individual to pursue whatever they wish they had more time, money, and effort to devote towards.

On all other foundations, it offends rather than pleases our moral sensibilities. In matters of care and harm, it manifests as neglect; in the domain of fairness, as rule-bending and corner-cutting; in authority, as abdication at the top and shirking at the bottom; in group loyalty, as opting out; and in purity, as debasement.

Convenience is thus a libertarian rather than liberal or conservative value, and its pervasiveness reveals the callous laissez-faire norm that governs our neo-Dickensian Gilded Age v.2.0.

In politics it appeals mostly to so-called moderates or independents, who shop around for whichever candidate can offer them the most convenient quid pro quo if elected to office. Likewise in religion it appeals to the denominationally unaffiliated, who shop around for the most convenient arrangement of investment from the pew-filler and reward in self-fulfillment. Longer-term concerns about party or church stability, or indeed stewardship of anything outside of the individual's little existence, are utterly foreign to the convenience shopper.

As mundane as it sounds, there could hardly be a sharper ideological fault-line to wage a battle over than convenience, which prizes puny gains to the individual over substantial blows to group cohesion, whether it be the family, community, workplace, or nation. Or put the other way around, tolerating puny costs to the individual in order to hold these groups together is what makes us the successful social species that we are.

It is tolerance of inconveniences which compels us to care for the sick when we are healthy, to play fair, to carry out our duties to superiors and subordinates alike, to honor the wishes of the community, and to preserve purity from adulteration.


  1. "Your one-stop shop" is now a valued marketing phrase.

  2. The convenience leads to an inflation; that is, a devaluation. Convenience in communication--texting, phoning, Facebook, Twitter, etc.--leads to more words but less weight in those words. Inflation. Devaluation.

  3. "The convenience leads to an inflation; that is, a devaluation."

    I prefer the term "quality" for something objective, and "value" for something more subjective. Convenience shoppers find value in the cheaper / faster / easier traits of what they buy, but it's all of lower quality.

    "Debasement" is closer to what you mean than "inflation."

    ' "Your one-stop shop" is now a valued marketing phrase.'

    It's a floor wax AND a denomination!

  4. From Daguerreotypes to Polaroids, wasn't there already a path dependent march to convenience in photography's history prior to the commercialization of digital cameras?

  5. Polaroids were a niche thing, even when they were popular. Early box cameras from the 19th to early 20th C were way easier to use than those of the '70s or '80s, because they didn't do very much.

    The early Kodak cameras had an unremovable lens, whose focusing could not be dialed closer or farther away than a pre-set value, whose aperture could not be closed down or opened up, and which only had one shutter speed. Image quality was poor.

    20th-C. cameras are entire "systems." This model is from the '60s:

    It is less convenient to use than a 100 year-old Brownie or 10 year-old digital, but it'll take much better pictures.

  6. There are, however, two major milestones before digital in the history of "convenience over quality" -- zoom lenses and auto-focus, which became common by the end of the '80s.

    Zooms have inferior optics and take crummier pictures compared to "prime" lenses (whose focal length is fixed -- not the same as focusing distance, which can be dialed closer or farther). But using a zoom meant you could do away with owning three lenses of different focal lengths, and own a single bigass lens whose focal length can be dialed up and down.

    Their appeal is entirely convenience -- buying, carrying, and maintaining one vs. multiple lenses -- and is traded off against poorer image quality. ("Jack of all trades, master of none.")

    Auto-focus meant you could just hold a button down and wait for the camera to adjust focus until it was right, rather than manually adjust a focusing ring on the lens. Easier, simpler!

    But does it get the focusing distance right? If not, poorer image quality. Manual focus is hard to fuck up, because you're in control and you can compare what you see at the moment to what you want it to look like, and adjust accordingly. The camera doesn't know what you want, and have guesses built into algorithms. Each iteration of auto-focus technology tries to make it less dumb than the last. If you take awhile with auto-focus, you may get out of it problem-free -- but then that defeats the convenience appeal!

    Hollywood movies, for as crappy as they look compared to the golden age of the '70s and '80s, still maintain some level of standards. They're more likely than other camera-operators to shoot on film vs. digital. They favor using a wide assortment of prime lenses rather than a few or just one zoom lens. And they still adjust focus manually -- that is so difficult to do with moving subjects that actors are given marks to hit so that the "focus-puller" can know beforehand what the focusing distance should be throughout the shot. It's more of a pain in the ass than using auto-focus, but that would look like shit, and nobody would pay to see it.

    So, did the march toward convenience begin earlier than the digital age? Yes, but not that much earlier -- around the late '80s, with the adoption of zoom lenses and auto-focus camera-lens combos.

  7. At least at a cognitively low level I agree. Taking photos is extremely boring today. Each photo, even during such momentous occasions as weddings, possesses only a minimal emotional value.

    Taking a snapshot when I was a kid was interesting. It wasn't just the sound of the camera shutter but what it signified which made it significant.

    I still believe that there's something inherent to information technology and digital cameras in particular which have led us to this point.

    But as a broader cultural observation - while Gutenberg's popularization of the printing press raised the standards of literacy the reverse is true of mainstream music and photography production.

  8. I think there is a similar dynamic with email vs. letters. Reading about historical figures, it's fascinating how frequently they were writing sophisticated, highly literate letters to each other. Many of them corresponded with large numbers of people so it must have taken a substantial amount of their time.

    It seems clear that the delay in communication tended to push people away from talking about the minutia of current events and practical matters. Even in cases where there was some pressing business to attend to, they were always promising to return to the long-term discussions at hand at a later date, when more time was available.

  9. 'But as a broader cultural observation - while Gutenberg's popularization of the printing press raised the standards of literacy the reverse is true of mainstream music.'

    Quality of music, at least pop and rock music, depends on people being emotionally healthy, exuberant and outgoing. I don't think it has a whole lot to do with technology. Still, even on a strictly technical level music was recorded, produced and mixed more intelligently in the 70's and 80's than in the decades before or since. Many production innovations took place in the later 60's thru 80's which were used to good effect, but since about 1993 music has sounded like ear bleeding garbage because of knowingly incompetent production. This fits into Agnostic's 'nobody seem to give a F*** about quality' theory that explains peoples behavior since the early 90's.

    Before the late 60's and after the early 90's people seem to have no regard for quality in many things and it's often rationalized as being a matter of convenience, efficiency or it's rejected as being irrelevant. 'Who cares about clear production, it's just a dumb pop song'. Or, who cares if what I bought at Wal Mart will fall apart in 3 weeks, it was cheap, wasn't it? Who cares if my McMansion was built by illegals with workmanship and materials that are 1/17th the quality of what went into a 1920's house, I still got my McMansion to show off. Really, the apathy of modern consumers and producers toward quality is vulgar and depressing.

    For further research, read just about any article on the Loudness War. This blog has one and wikipedia does as well. is a very useful database of sound levels in music.
    If you look at a veteran band's releases, the albums mixed and mastered in the 70's thru about 1991 tend to have much greater dynamic range which means less nasty distortion. 'Quieter' productions also tend to have much more audible bass lines and drums.

  10. Agnostic, I wanted to contact you to get an opinion on some subject, but couldn't find an email. So I am writing here as a comment. You have written extensively about how beards are sign of status in inequality times. Now I see bearded young adults in 2/3 of advertisements. And on the streets too. It started in Poland a year ago and is growing exponentially.
    Now when it comes to women, they can't grow beards, obviously. But I see more and more, on facebook and in other media, how they go for the glamour/aristocracy look. Red lipstick, jewellery sugesting royalty, strange hairstyles. I am intuitive man, and this look is perceived by my gut as an unapproachable type of women.
    Girls have painted eyebrows, stone face and mean look. It could be a fun topic for an article. Unfortunately I can't find any photos like this right now, but I will start collecting from now

  11. O/T: did you read Bret Easton Ellis' piece in Vanity Fair (linked by Drudge)? As Steve Sailer and Lion might say, I think Ellis is reading your blog.

  12. I doubt Ellis is a reader, those are just normal observations from anyone who's part of the older (but not too much older) generation, and who's been in contact with the younger.

    I analyze the differences more than most folks, and try to explain them by looking into historical counterparts, but seeing the basic picture and having an understanding of what led the Millennials to be what they are comes naturally to Gen X.

  13. "Red lipstick, jewellery sugesting royalty, strange hairstyles... Girls have painted eyebrows, stone face and mean look."

    In periods of falling competition and falling inequality, women have short and simple hairstyles. In America, that was roughly 1920 to 1970 or 1980. The "bob" of the '20s, the pixie style of the '50s, the pageboy style of the '60s.

    When women compete against each other over looks, their hair is one of the main things they start to emphasize. Bigger, more elaborate and intricate styles. You see that from the Victorian era up through the early 20th century, as competitiveness was rising.

    When the social attitude changed to "let's not compete so viciously against each other," women minimized the attention they drew to their hair. Short, simple, not exciting.

  14. "It seems clear that the delay in communication tended to push people away from talking about the minutia of current events and practical matters."

    They had diaries for that. Today it's like everyone is sharing their diary entries with the world, the moment they're written.

  15. " 'Who cares about clear production, it's just a dumb pop song'. "

    This lame argument comes from the moderate / independent type whose values are libertarian. Someone cut off from the real world and its folkways. "Meh, so what if parents these days aren't passing on nursery rhymes -- it's not like we're losing Voltaire." Or "So what if pop music has no melody, no riffs ("ostinato"), the simplest and blandest of phrase structures, and where the only range is between plainspoken and shouting? It's not like we're losing Bach."

    Voltaire, Bach, and high culture, is not passed along face to face, from one generation to another. It's something you search out or are exposed to and make a choice to delve further into it. It's like philosophy vs. proverbs and folk wisdom.

    Glib dismissal of where folk culture is heading reveals a disturbing degree of rootlessness and anomie. "I don't care what happens to this or that element of folk culture because I belong to no particular folk culture -- I choose to affiliate with the same high culture that all high-IQ and upwardly striving individuals do."

    Sociologists refer to "ascribed" status that a person is born into (race, sex, generation), vs. "achieved" status which comes after deliberate choices among alternatives.

    The libertarian in moderate clothing is the type who abandons the church of their extended family and joins the Episcopalians because status. It's the same with folk culture -- that's something you're born into or raised in, which they abandon as soon as possible and join the trans-national elite high culture.

  16. Or take the toe-curling use of "___ and I" as the object rather than subject of a clause, which has become so common.

    That does not come from anyone's regional dialect or folk speech because it's crashingly ungrammatical. But somehow some trend-setting strivers put it out there, and the rest of the striver herd ran with it. It's a declaration that I belong to no regional or folk culture, that I'm severing my roots and choosing to affiliate with this rootless aspirational club whose pledges, rushes, and admitted members identify one another by phrases like, "You should come to the new Thai restaurant with Jason and I. It's amazing -- it's Jason and I's favorite new restaurant."

    It's not enraging because it's ungrammatical, but because it's so flagrantly "I'm so much better than where I came from." Fuck you and your ridiculous striver slang.

  17. Well, than why did you write that girls nowadays hide their hair and hide their face (using hair too)? Isn't this some sort of contradiction?
    the hairstyle I see quite often nowadays. But it's much smaller in volume usually

  18. I agree that short hair seems more tied to equality.

    but it seems like there was a trend in the 80s for tomboy actresses to have short hair, such as Lori Petty(League of their Own) and Molly Ringwald in Pretty and Pink, and Madonna at one point.

  19. 'Glib dismissal of where folk culture is heading reveals a disturbing degree of rootlessness and anomie'.

    Is this why we've been bombarded with the insufferable 'guilty pleasure' nonsense so much since the 90's? I guess would be elites feel like they're slumming it when they hum a Night Ranger song. It's lost on them (as well as boring dorks) that what makes so much 'guilty pleasure' music (aka 80's pop/rock) stick in the head is because it's got heart, spirit and soul. Maybe it didn't always have brains but as Agnostic has pointed out before this sort of music is for getting you up rather than making you think.
    Back when people were compassionate, sincere and outgoing they listened to this stuff without having an anxiety attack. OMG I might actually start to identify with the artist and the heartland trash to whom the artist appeals. Forget that, I'll turn on NPR to get proper disinfection so I don't question this Great Progress Mission.

    Hey, if you live in a Dick Florida approved environment and take cues from the trendy liberals and elites, why care about fidelity to your hometown, your religious peers, your racial peers, or even the basic health and biology of America and it's subjects?
    Immigrants are unleashing epidemics in America so what we're all people with the same hopes, dreams, fears now shut up i got to go buy the latest Mac status symbol i mean product minted by their FAAABOULUSSS new C.E.O.

    Heaven help us, can't wait till the freakazoids go back in the shadows and sewers where they belong.

    Note that the sheer complexity of the arrangement & playing in popular 80's music by default means that a lot of intelligence went into it's composition and performance. It still was about moving the listener though, rather than making them think.

    Heaven help us, can't wait till the freakazoids go back in the shadows and sewers where they belong.

  20. "Well, than why did you write that girls nowadays hide their hair and hide their face (using hair too)?"

    They seem to hide their hair more when they're around men, part of the cocooning trend. When they're around other women, they put a lot of effort into making it look good, to show off and compete. For example, at a school dance or at a dance club. (Most of their behavior there is to compete against other women in public, since horny club-goers don't really care how fashionable her clothing or hairstyle is.)

    Women today don't have the volume that they did in the "big hair" heyday of the 1980s, but it's still a lot longer and takes longer to prepare than in the middle of the 20th century.

    " it seems like there was a trend in the 80s for tomboy actresses to have short hair, such as Lori Petty(League of their Own) and Molly Ringwald in Pretty and Pink, and Madonna at one point."

    Referencing A League of Their Own rather than Point Break... shameful. Inequality was just getting started in the '80s, so there were still remnants of the older egalitarian ways, like short no-nonsense hair for women.

    Rising-crime times also make women more streetwise and tough (relatively speaking), and the boyish look will appeal to them. Pat Benatar, whose name was also short, no-nonsense, and androgynous.

  21. I'm not sure if the "guilty pleasures" thing is tied to an attempt to disconnect from folk / popular culture altogether, or whether they are fine with pop culture, just not the un-self-consciously feel-good flavor of pop culture from the '80s. I sense the latter.

    Here's a post from last year about "transparent" vs. "opaque" irony:

    My hunch is that the "guilty pleasure" folks favor the transparent type of irony, where they truly like the target of their irony, and are only poking fun at it because we aren't allowed to sincerely like things anymore. So that sneaks them past the meta- police, while everyone understands that they earnestly like whatever they appear to be poking fun at.

    Opaque irony is the kind where you can't really tell how the person actually feels underneath their superficial expression. They have a blank, dour look on their face, and forced laughter about something they supposedly like. Those people don't seem to be capable of any kind of pleasure, guilty or guilt-free.

  22. Thinking further on what I would consider my own guilty pleasure songs,* it seems like it has to do with when you were going through puberty, and just starting to imprint on music as a part of forging your social identity. (You may have liked music before then, but it wasn't part of your identity.)

    When you're imprinting, you don't absorb everything -- otherwise you wouldn't belong to a particular group -- but you do absorb a little too much, to be a member in good standing of the goth club, new wave club, gangsta rap club, glam metal club, etc.

    As you get older, the bad excess that you absorbed will fall away, since your identity hardens in place and you no longer have to imprint or continue paying your dues. You're likely to think of "the music I used to like before I knew better."

    But some of those songs that you half-mindlessly imprinted on as a sixth-grader are, you now admit, not that bad. A few are even enjoyable, even if not among your all-time favorites. "God, could I actually have liked a genuinely good song when I was just a desperate 13 year-old using music to fit in with some fleeting middle school crowd?"

    TL;DR You're supposed to feel guilty about the music you liked right when you were going through puberty and didn't know better, yet some of those songs are the real deal.

    * Here's a post called "Nineties music worth saving from a fire," which I could have more straightforwardly titled "My guilty pleasure songs from the Nineties." I wouldn't put all of them on a mix tape or anything, but a good share of that list are good pop songs that make me feel guilty when they pick me up in the supermarket.

  23. I guess I was getting at the phenomena of high status/wannabe high status whites being contemptuous of music (or movies etc.) that is conspicuously liked by blue collar and/or heartland whites. Country music, Hard/Arena rock, action movies etc.

    It's the whole, 'if too many (or the wrong kind of) people enjoy this it can't possibly be sophisticated or edgy enough to be worthy of my respect and interest thing. There's a sort of taboo about being exposed to anything that's liked mostly by stout lunch pail type guys.

    It would be hard to enjoy something if the liberal/trendy programming in you head was yelling 'this is going to turn you into that Texas redneck who dragged that poor black guy behind his truck if you don't turn it off'.

  24. 'As you get older, the bad excess that you absorbed will fall away, since your identity hardens in place and you no longer have to imprint or continue paying your dues'

    The vast majority of stuff I liked as a kid I still like, musically anyway. Most of the garbage released in the 90's and later has never done anything for me. Most of the CDs I've ever bought were from 1991 or earlier. I do regret that I subjected my ears to some god awful death metal, but then again I guess living in the 90's was desolate and alienating enough that a person could wind up doing some pretty stupid things like listening to Cannibal Corpse. Granted, that stuff usually wore me out and I would go and listen to something a little bit more pleasant.

    See ya on another post.


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