Convenience vs control

Everything in life is becoming a balance of convenience versus control. Only, it’s not so much of a balance as a mass grab for convenience. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, sometimes it does.

Take food for instance. We love the convenience of ready-made meals! Those microwaveable lasagnes make cooking so easy – you don’t need to know how to make a lasagne, you don’t even need to know the ingredients for lasagne!

Only, such is the great convenience that we lose control of what we are eating. We end up consuming horse meat without knowing it. Horse meat may not technically be bad for us, but not even knowing what we are putting into our mouths is a scary place to be.

So what do we do? Retreat to the fields and only eat what we pluck from the ground, or slaughter ourselves? As delightful as that may be, it’s probably not practical, so some sort of compromise is needed. Some of course are happy to put up with all manner of inconvenience to have total control over their diet. We might laugh at them now and again, but I can’t help but feel that the last laugh will be theirs.

What does this have to do with technology? Well, the convenience versus control thing is happening all the time when we use computers, too. Almost every aspect of our use of technology involves us choosing between these two things.

Cloud computing is a classic example. No software to install or maintain! Access your files from anywhere! Let us worry about viruses and all that stuff – just make sure you have an internet connection and a browser!

We do this all the time, sometimes without knowing it. Letting the easy convenience of having Amazon look after our ebooks, Apple our music collections, Google with pretty much the rest of our lives. A recent example is Adobe making their software subscription only. If you stop paying your subscription, will you ever be able to open your files again?

Most of the time, this is fine. It’s a simple trade off and it’s unlikely anybody will get hurt. The downside of systems built around convenience though is that when they go wrong, they are pretty difficult to fix. They aren’t designed for the user to fix them and often these companies aren’t able to cope, either. Ever tried getting hold of Facebook’s customer support? You’ll know what I mean.

Culture matters too, and perhaps philosophy as well. For computing, who are the equivalents of the Romanian butchers who sold us that horse meat? They are Silicon Valley companies, all funded by VC money, looking for a payout via the stock market or by being bought by a bigger company. Now, I’m not necessarily against this per se, but one does have to bear in mind that all these companies don’t actually care about their users, or their data – or rather they do, but only in relation to how they can make money from it.

So there’s a way in which these companies and the services they provide are ephemeral – they are there to make money rather than for some higher social purpose (in other words, Amazon doesn’t really care about the future of the novel, they just want to sell us – or, technically, rent us – ebooks). When they get swallowed up by another company or just run out of cash, they won’t care too much about the users who rely on the convenience they have seduced us with.

We could claim control of our computing in the same way those seeking control of their diets do, by doing it all ourselves. Use free software, run your own servers, manage your own data. Again, sometimes we laugh at such people, and imagine them wearing hats made from tin foil. But they won’t be the ones left looking daft when the company you entrusted all your stuff to goes bust.

Of course, there’s a middle way, a sensible approach. We don’t all have to learn Linux and bash scripting (although it might be a good idea to at least know what these things mean), but we should understand where our data is, who actually owns it, and grab a copy we can keep safe just in case.

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