Sometimes there’s something perversely good about being inconvenienced. That’s an old thought to have, or anyway a thought sometimes had by old people, complaining about some irritating feature of the modern world which is delighted in by the young. But maybe it’s made fresh by new facts about our digital lives. I recently bumped into an article again by Steve Almond (“The Trouble with Easy Listening”) — it affected me the first time I read it, and it bothers me still. He describes the act of searching through stacks of albums to find what he wanted to hear, setting up the record on a record player, and then listening to it — deliberately sitting there, absorbed, just listening. It’s an experience most of us will now never have. As he puts it:
“I really miss the fact that listening to music used to be a concerted sonic and emotional event, rather than the backing track to some flashing screen. It was more inconvenient, to be sure. But for me, this inconvenience was part of the whole point.”
While inconvenience can enhance our experience of the world, not every inconvenience will do it. An hour struggling up a hillside can enhance one’s experience of the view. Spending an hour inconvenienced by traffic for the same view doesn’t make the view any better. The struggle through the means sometimes, somehow makes the end feel deserved. But it’s an illusion, isn’t it? You don’t deserve to listen to a record or read a book because you had some trouble finding it, do you?
You can make a start on thinking about this with a hand up from Locke. As he puts it:
“Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.” I don’t believe a word of that when it comes to understanding property, but I do think Locke knows human nature. When you struggle, when you mix your labour with nature, you join something of yourself with something in the world. That’s part of what makes it feel like it’s yours, like you earned it, like it matters. As we get better at effortlessly putting information at our fingertips, we lose a little of the feeling that information is earned, that it’s ours, that it matters. The facts we encounter so easily online feel cheaper than they did when we had to struggle to find them in a pre-digital age of information poverty. It’s hard not to wonder if this is part of the reason we’re in a post-truth world, where facts matter less to us than they should.