Against The Prepackaged Life

or, a tale of two frictions

Against The Prepackaged Life

Freddie wrote this piece a while back about how some people want a socially frictionless world, which is a conclusion (and a word, indeed) that I and several others I’ve read have also arrived at independently, though I think he expresses it the most eloquently. I would say that while social frictionlessness might not be possible, a practical frictionlessness (that seems to me to be the end goal of the current crop of technology companies) may well be.

A friend of mine worked in the nerd department of one of the many, many meal kit delivery services out there, and they encouraged us to give theirs a go1. I was a little apprehensive, not having used one before, and when the box arrived I felt like it was a lot of packaging, but adding it up I guess it was less than buying it all from a supermarket and more recyclable. We made the food and you know what? It was good. The meals were tasty, and now we've got the recipes we'll probably put a few of them into regular rotation.

But a part of me rebelled against the very idea. Why not also send us a mechanical mother bird who can chew the food for us before spewing it into our mouths? I'm trying to examine that part a little more closely since I spent some time recently reading the blog of a vaccine skeptic. What came through to me as their weirdest characteristic was a visceral aversion to wearing masks. As someone who wears glasses and gets eye infections quite easily I'm certainly not a fan of having to wear masks, but I don't share this strange bone-deep feeling a lot of these people seem to that they're somehow inherently bad and wrong. So when I do have that kind of strong negative reaction I find myself asking: where's my reaction here coming from?

I remember how, after I got my first 'real' job, I became able to do things that would once have been manual and laborious in a far more automatic and convenient manner by spending a bit of money. Once you have a bit of disposable income, you become able to value your time more than your money. You're able to grease the gears of life somewhat. But there's a point—unfortunately often a hazy and difficult-to-discern one, clearest only in retrospect—where this tips over from making your life easier to changing your relationship to the world, and your ability to deal with problems in both a practical and emotional sense. You become comfortable only with the prepackaged. The less friction you encounter in your day-to-day, the more resistant you are when you do encounter it. You notice the stone in your shoe far more when you're walking down a flat road then when the path itself is jagged and uneven.

If you're a certain sort of upwardly mobile urban professional, you can probably just throw money or use apps and SAAS products to service a great many of your wants and needs, from transport to food to relationships2. But aside from losing resilience, the sheer gravitational pull of convenience transforms the services into tyrants. You find yourself looking for extra things to order to hit the Amazon free shipping threshold, getting something from a restaurant to which you're indifferent to because they're on Deliveroo and you have Deliveroo Plus. If something arrives late or slightly wrong it's elevated from a minor inconvenience to a crime against God and nature. The expectation of the prepackaging of reality does not allow for such things.

I think that many of the services individually are fine or beneficial. Some are better than others, and for a few the convenience isn't even the real problem, but the sugar on the pill of their truly evil dark pattern designs. In aggregate, though, the elimination of practical friction from life is invidious to individuals and corrosive to society. I think it takes us further away from the bare metal of reality, from encountering things as distinct and different, not uniform units of Stuff, and I think the more you try to keep in contact with that to ground yourself, the better off you'll be. I'm not saying that you need to delete all the apps, but more to be judicious in their use and try and keep a weather eye to ensure that they are serving you and not the other way around3.

A while ago, someone I know was talking about buying a sailboat and living on it. They didn't have any sailing experience, but they thought that introducing an element of constant low-level resistance to their day-to-day would be the antidote to the disaffection and ennui they were experiencing. I don't know whether I would necessarily subscribe to that extreme a prescription (and it didn't end up working out that way for them) but I can certainly sympathise with the inclination. In short:

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson for January 25, 1995 |
Calvin: Everything is so darn hard! I wish I could just take a pill to be perfect and I wish I could just push a button to have anything I want. Hobbes: The American Dream lives on. Calvin: Why should I have to work for everything?! It’s like saying I don’t deserve it!

  1. though as so often with this friend (who I love dearly), I realised this was probably at least in part down to their benefiting from the referral code, but their recommendations have usually steered me right in the past so I won't complain too much ↩︎
  2. You can even try this for meaning, sense-of-purpose. I have spoken of this before, of the hucksters who sell a pre-packaged life-of-the-mind to people who write Javascript for a living. Theirs is the hollowest promise of all. At least the meal kit delivery will introduce you to some good recipes. ↩︎
  3. I'm the millionth guy to say Actually The Amish Don't Hate Technology They Just Try To Consider Its Downsides As Much As Its Benefits (See Also The Luddites), but it's true, and something we could all learn from. ↩︎

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