On retrofuturism and our culture of convenience

A couple of weeks ago, I was searching for a book titled The Greening of America by Charles A. Reich. I combed through bookshelves of commercial stores, searched for hours in libraries, and asked friends and family who might own a copy. I was unsuccessful despite knowing that an online version of this book was probably available somewhere on the Internet. Still, I persisted: I meandered through the streets of Toronto slipping in and out of used bookstores. Finally, one Friday afternoon, the yellowing vintage cover of a small book caught my eye. On it, in colourful psychedelic font, read the title of the book I had spent so much time looking for. I was ecstatic to hold the culmination of a week’s worth of labour and frustration in my hands, but, in retrospect, I could have easily downloaded a copy digitally.

What is Convenience Culture and Retrofuturism?

Convenience culture – defined by convenient lifestyles, convenient technologies, and convenient approaches – dominates much of the cultural landscape of the global north, making certain options virtually unthinkable, such as laboriously searching for a book with no certainty of finding it when the Internet already has you covered. Why wait for hours in line to buy tickets when you can just purchase them online? Why waste money buying individual ingredients for a cake when you can simply buy a box of cake mix? Why go through the repetitiveness of introducing yourself to someone when they can just learn the basics of who you are from your personalized social media accounts and music playlists that are just a few clicks away?

Experiences that historically required labour, time, and effort are being increasingly replaced by technologies that make things easier for us or breed instant gratification. But there is a logic to the success and lure of convenience culture: we have more time for what truly matters – hobbies, friends, and self-cultivation. Peering into the past, I can say that not much has changed. The generations that grew up during the 1960s, the “golden age” of retrofuturism, a movement in which people used the arts to represent their depictions of the future, imagined a future in which the mundanity and frustration of daily living were taken care of by robots, intelligent machines, and other scientific novelties.

The rapidly changing political, philosophical, and cultural scene of the sixties coupled with scientific breakthroughs pushed people’s imaginations to the point where the only thing separating science fiction from reality was just a matter of time. These futuristic ideals of the past were largely centered around expectations of a heightened culture of convenience and luxury. People dreamed of owning mechanized homes, of automated laundry, of seamless telecommunication, flying cars, and even vacationing on Mars. However, the thrill of these dreams, which surely were expectations for some, operated on a fundamental misunderstanding of a key aspect of the human experience: the necessary relationship between difficulty and meaning.

Convenience Culture and Our Values

In The Greening of America, a passionate text discussing cultural revolution and failure(s) of American society, Reich writes that “technology demands of man a new mind – a higher, transcendent reason – if it is to be controlled and guided rather than to become an unthinking monster. It demands a new individual responsibility for values, or it will dictate all values” (Reich, 1970). The sixties manifested a wide-eyed fascination with technology, a thrill that became an obstacle when it was time for serious discussions about the potential ethical problems an over-reliance on technology could produce. Conversations about how the emerging convenience culture would impact human experiences and values were largely concentrated in intellectual circles, while the artistic zeitgeist and aesthetics of retrofuturism continued to enthral the rest of American society.

Most technologies and scientific products identify a way in which life can be improved; in other words, most technologies are uniquely designed to deliver convenience because that is what sells. If we want to imagine what society will be like beyond 2024, we must expect that, even if something is free, it will not outsell convenience. In fact, we already know that convenience outperforms financial frugality: streaming platforms will continue to outperform other ways of accessing media because streaming is simply more convenient. For instance, Columbia law professor Tim Wu explains in an article titled The Tyranny of Convenience Culture that “the introduction of the iTunes store in 2003 made buying music even more convenient than illegally downloading it. Convenient beat out free” (Wu, 2018).

The point I am trying to make is not that convenience is the problem, but that developments in technology and how we imagine our futures must be in alignment with the values we want to preserve despite a landscape of rapid change. We should welcome change and convenience, but we should do so with caution because we do not want to enter a lifestyle that seems superficially appealing yet makes us experience philosophical amnesia, a forgetting of values that define us as distinctly spiritual and philosophical beings. The more convenient we make convenience culture, the more tempting it will be for people — especially the younger generations — to sacrifice the importance of struggle for a vague sense of luxury. In the future, if our drive towards convenience makes working hard to seriously cultivate our thoughts and ideas without the help of the internet seen as a “wastage of time,” we seriously need to consider how our relationship to convenience is changing our values.

The notion of “philosophical amnesia” relates to what social critic Neil Postman deems to be the difference between an Orwellian versus Huxleyan dystopia: in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman writes that “Orwell feared we could become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture” (Postman, 1985). Sure, technology and convenience can save us tremendous amounts of time, but what use is saved time if we cannot find anything meaningful to do with it? What use is an easier life if it eventually makes our lives lack any real substance? Everyone has a personalized definition of what makes their life meaningful, but regardless of what it is for me or you, we should see to it that our growing dependence on convenience does not tarnish it.

The Relationship Between Value and Work

In The Greening of America, Reich claims that “we think of ourselves as an incredibly rich country [referring to the US, but this sentiment rings true through the global west], but we are beginning to realize that we are also a desperately poor country – poor in most of the things that throughout the history of mankind have been cherished as riches” (Reich, 1970). What “riches” is Reich referring to here? As I mentioned earlier, there is a necessary relationship between difficulty and meaning for us: usually, the more arduous and hard-earned it is to achieve something, the more personal significance it has to us. In my opinion, the veneration of the future that defined retrofuturism in the sixties failed to consider the philosophical and humanistic importance of struggle. Professor Wu perfectly sums up this sentiment by writing: “today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience: convenience is all destination and no journey’ (Wu, 2018).

Sometimes, the physical and mental act of doing something is what shapes value in the first place. In her acclaimed book All About Love, author bell hooks writes that “the word love is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb” (hooks, 2000). What hooks meant was that the value of love resides upon how one chooses to exercise it in our lives. Without these actions, love would just be a stale and unproductive value whose meaning remains unactualized. In other words, the hard work of loving defines love’s meaning and significance in our lives. It is the same for other values we hold fundamental: individuality, freedom, and hard work – all values that can fall victim to the perils of convenience culture. Our culture of convenience eliminates the doing and therefore compromises the significance of values themselves.

A technological culture that promotes convenience makes it easier for us to replace the casual inconvenience of certain actions with systems, technologies, or approaches that are more efficient. In theory, convenience should make it easier for us to actualize values that truly matter. In reality, it distracts us. It contaminates the authentic actualization of values that it supposedly creates time for by making easier the very action that shapes the meaning of said value. The ability to cultivate and uphold meaning in our worldly existence is crucial to our psychological and social health, not to mention our sense of identity (Steger, 2022). Where does a culture of hyper-convenience and instant gratification leave us? On one hand, it lends us more time to do the things we really love, but on the other, it can leave us physically, mentally, and even spiritually unchallenged and unsatiated.

Struggling and enduring challenges, regardless of how big or small, is a timeless part of the human narrative. It’s a narrative we have inherited from our ancestors who could not enjoy the luxuries that define our daily lives. In the past, having a conversation with someone elsewhere in the world meant writing letters and savouring the sweetness of the anticipation of their reply. Now, talking to someone far away comes in the form of instantaneous accessibility and convenience through our phones. What does this mean for human fulfillment? What essential ingredient of spiritual and emotional contentment are we losing by sacrificing hard, slow work for the everyday convenience(s) of technology? I, just like everyone else, indulge in convenience culture. But even though I could have easily gotten a copy of Charles Reich’s book from the Internet, I found that the act of deliberately putting time and effort into seizing a physical copy made the act of reading it more special. Now, the book has a personalized story for me as it sits on my bookshelf.

Reconsidering Utopia

Just like the people of the sixties, we are living in an age where the advent of new technologies – and therefore new avenues of convenience – dominates our lives and makes us question what type of lives we want to lead. The retro-futurists of the past had an exuberant and utopian vision of their future, one in which they were no longer burdened by the everyday struggles previous generations faced. In 2024, we are in the same position to imagine our future in a world of growing technological marvels. We have a tremendous responsibility to preserve and protect certain human values, the actualization of which can fall victim to our culture of convenience. The act of fighting for these values looks different for everyone; for me, it means allowing myself to soak up the present moment without being distracted by the looming inevitability of the future or the trail of the past. It means not surrendering myself to the religion of convenience so often, and it means always reminding myself of what is important in an ever-changing world. The retrofuturism of the past can teach us a lot about what we want our futures to be like.

Associate Opinion Editor (Volume 50) — Mashiyat (”Mash”) is a second-year student completing a specialist in Neuroscience and a double minor in Biology and Professional Writing and Communications (PWC). As an associate opinion editor, she hopes to use her voice to encourage others to write freely and unabashedly about the things that mean most to them. In her free time, Mash can be found striking up conversations with strangers in the city, cooking for her family, and being anxious about her nebulous career plans!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *