The Cultural Politics of In/Convenience
Joshua Neves & Marc Steinberg
Screenshot of 7-Eleven Website, "7-Eleven as life infrastructure."
We are pleased to kick off the In Progress series with new work from two members of the GEM Lab’s governing collective, Joshua Neves and Marc Steinberg. This excerpt comes from their collaborative research into the culture and politics of in/convenience. The project grew out of the 2021 Seminar in Media and Political Theory and is the starting point for a cluster of research initiatives, including a journal special issue (in progress), Steinberg’s study of convenience stores, and Neves’ examination of media and overdevelopment.
The felt sense that we inhabit a convenience economy and culture is by now widespread. Nested in this understanding are ideas about ease and comfort, perpetually new technologies, and empowered consumers, on the one hand, and the growing inequalities and frictions between the speed and exhaustion that convenience engenders, on the other. Popular critics of Big Tech such as Tim Wu name this the “tyranny of convenience,” where the adoption of modern conveniences like the washing machine or the smartphone has the “ability to make other options unthinkable” (Wu 2018). Academic and journalistic assessments of the rise of platforms like Amazon, Uber, JustEasts, but also Meituan, Grab, Jio, LINE, WeChat and Flipkart, among many others, suggest a similar tension, often assuming convenience as a self-explanatory framework for analysis. Sara Jones, for example, argues that Amazon’s conflation of speed with convenience “is destroying us.” She adds: “Someone has to pay for speed, and it will either be the customer or the worker. Amazon, like most companies, decided to shift the cost to workers” (Jones 2021; see also West 2022). Arjun Appadurai and Neta Alexander similarly note the “prominent promise of convenience, with its emphasis on immediacy and instant gratification” (Appadurai and Alexander 2020) at the heart of the appeal of both Silicon Valley and Wall Street. This is to say that convenience has re-emerged as a politically pressing problem that is tied to digital technologies, speculative finance, and logistical infrastructures but also exceeds these frames, historically and sectorally. Beyond smartphones, apps, and the platform economy, our current research and collaborations explore how in/convenience shapes culture and politics in the present.
Popular and critical approaches to convenience tend to emphasize speed, the reduction of trouble or work, and ease of access or personal comfort. But they also suggest a surfeit of convenience as well as its uneven distribution. A willingness and meritocratic pretense to encourage or require some among us to do the heavy lifting in order to create time for privileged others, including gig economy services like on demand delivery, shopping, laundry, driving, and much else. This familiar division of labor and social relations is exacerbated by networked devices and organization, which are understood to disrupt prior inconveniences by making them smarter. Yet, while we agree that conveniences involve the social production of inequality, we suggest that ease, time, and technologized efficiency - the dominant models for convenience in earlier critiques such as Tierney (1993), among more recent studies - are insufficient to grasp and critique this shared sense of a divided world. Convenience instead resonates with Frederic Jameson’s account of postmodernism as the cultural logic of an epoch – a constellation of “aesthetics, knowledge, and political economy”(Baumbach, Young, and Yue 2016, 2). Jameson’s account of the postmodern reworded in terms of convenience expresses our view of the phenomenon: “if [convenience] is a historical phenomenon, then the attempt to conceptualize it in terms of moral or moralizing judgements must finally be identified as a category mistake” (Jameson 1991, 46) . Like the postmodern, convenience is not dismissible solely on moralizing grounds; it is a condition we inhabit within contemporary capitalism, and must be submitted to rigorous analysis, historical and conceptual. That even proponents of radical politics assume that convenience will be part of a post-capitalist society, as exemplified by Aaron Bastani’s treatise on “fully automated luxury communism,” among others, hints at its importance to contemporary political imaginaries (Bastani 2018). In other words, convenience bears something of privilege and even boredom, something of the compulsory, and something of the “predatory inclusion” Tressie McMillan Cottom (McMillan Cottom 2020) finds at work in Internet-accelerated racial capitalism. Responding to this condition requires us to think beyond simply not clicking “buy now.”
Convenience's affective charge is captured by mood conditioning playlists, by now a regular part of music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tencent Music, with moods/genres focused on work, play, sleep, exercise, romance, and much else.
To say that convenience is a condition is also to underscore its aesthetic and affective dimensions. Like Jameson’s account of postmodern “euphoria,” or Sianne Ngai’s post-Fordist “zany,” convenience is a privileged form of experience under data capitalism, including its platformed iterations. At the economic level, writers such as Nick Srnicek describe platform capitalism as a moment when “capitalism has turned to data as one way to maintain economic growth and vitality” (Srnicek 2016, 6) or where, as The Economist puts it, data is the new oil and platforms name “a new business model, capable of extracting and controlling immense amounts” of it (Parkins D. 2017). Convenience is an implied and under-examined user-side driver of this shift, even if it’s ultimately folded back into production, creating new demands on workers. Such conveniences come in app-mediated services from food delivery and taxis to therapy and tap-to-pay services. As commonly noted, these perks come with tradeoffs, such as one’s data being tracked for a faster search result. Draper and Turow call our acquiescence to networked surveillance “digital resignation” (Draper N.A. and Turow J. 2019); we name this relationship to platforms in convenience. The state of living in convenience shapes the protocols that make everyday life “smart,” wherein “each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data” (Crawford and Joler 2018). In today’s platform capitalism, convenience is the often unstated explanation and material organization for why things are as they are; why user-citizens understand data tracking, express delivery, climate-warming energy consumption, rare mineral mining, waste, toxic working conditions, and much else, as the basic infrastructure for everyday work, leisure, and self-fulfillment.
One key starting point in our research is the assumption that convenience’s consequence stems from its perceived inconsequence. Convenience is boring (habitual, just the way things are), imperceptible (like infrastructure, and often as infrastructure, it is most noticeable when it fails), or downright embarrassing (we lie about subscriptions to Amazon Prime, for instance). This includes the ways that our relationship to convenience shifts over the course of a day or week inasmuch as we are workers, consumers, or (non)citizens, etc. It also exacerbates existing inequalities by further partitioning society. Our interest here is less to reiterate the claim that contemporary conveniences rely on and generate deep inconveniences. Though that is certainly the case. Instead, in/convenience describes a sensorium shored up by smartphones, logistics, and a swelling service sector that shapes the charm and demands of the present. It is how the world appears to us, forms the boundaries of what is possible, and establishes new thresholds for living and working (recall that gig work was initially presented as convenient for the worker). In this context, we both want to take seriously the popular recognition of convenience’s explanatory power – that we inhabit a convenience culture and economy; that convenience is killing us; etc. – and challenge the assumption that it can be explained away as mere laziness, or a problem of desire or ideology. Convenience, as we can only suggest here, is not simply a consumer choice or an indulgence that can be shirked by putting down one’s phone or by purchasing a new green product. It is experience, datafied.
These premises are both inspired by and ground our current research. Steinberg looks at the oft-overlooked convenience store in its transnational circulation and Japanese reinvention to find one site of the quotidian and overlooked production of convenience as an infrastructural condition. Examining convenience stores’ place in the promotion and circulation of transmedia properties is one first step (Steinberg 2019b); examining the logistical development and design of convenience and its subsequent disappearance into everyday “life infrastructure” (as it’s often referred to in Japan) is the next step in this project. That early smartphones and the Japanese mobile internet systems that inspired their development were themselves inspired by convenience stores (Steinberg 2019a, 144–45) is but one proof that the story of contemporary convenience is both more globally intertwined and of longer duration than contemporary critics of convenience acknowledge.
Building on his prior research examining the complex dynamics of underdevelopment (2020) – the way, that is, that extraction and inequality are consolidated under globalization – Neves’ current research centers on the rise of overdevelopment as one of the core models, and thus political challenges, of the present. Overdevelopment is not merely an excess of development, but rather a paradigm whereby exploitation and aspiration are transformed by global media processes, including the political economy of convenience. Crucial here are new modes of surplus generation that scholars like Melinda Cooper have termed “surplus life” or activists like Vandana Shiva call “biopiracy” to describe how the bio-economy produces by depotentializing future states. Neves’ current projects are interested in the increasingly ordinary and complex interactions between smartness, platforms, and biotech, especially the conceptual frameworks and political might that position their demands as norms. One key site where these problems come together is the entanglement of big data and big pharma (Neves et al. 2022), including smart drugs and emergent forms of mood conditioning (Neves 2022), neurotech wearables (Chia and Neves 2022), among many other phenomena that treat subjective states and vitalities as programmable biomedia. Together we draw on insights from our individual and collaborative projects and call for new work responding to the culture and politics of in/covenience today. (Stay tuned for our proposed special issue on “The Culture and Politics of In/Convenience.”)
Convenience, in our view, operates through inclusion and exclusion; a particular distribution of in-convenience. It is not only produced by exploited, abandoned and inconvenienced workers and groups, but constitutes a kind of threshold for legitimately inhabiting society and its benefits. This was devastatingly captured during the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2019, when employees at firms like Amazon and Meituan were classified in many jurisdictions as essential workers. Ordering via online services was revalued from convenience to necessity, and indeed civic duty (Steinberg and Neves 2020; Andrijasevic et al. 2021). Unequal distribution of convenience applies to racialized workers in the U.S. context and to migrant workers in the Chinese context – both the backbone of the essential workforce. The racialization and economic marginalization of necessary workers — workers in inconvenience — capture something of the complexity and harm of this political economy. Inconvenience at once describes, and fails to register, the condition of those who labor for the production of the conveniences of others. And, of course, these positions are not mutually exclusive; a convenience store employee or Meituan food delivery worker is still a consumer at the end of their shift.
The reformulation of labor and exploitation in terms of convenience also draws on a lineage of ideas that frame, if somewhat ironically, global climate change (The Inconvenient Truth) (Gore and Melcher Media 2006) and settler colonialism (The Inconvenient Indian) (King 2012) as inconvenient. What it means to adopt the language of inconvenience in doing so requires further exploration, but signals the political hold that convenience has on the imagination of counter-politics and otherwise worlds. We cannot think of convenience without its counterpart. Living today means inhabiting the hyphenated relation that we call in-convenience. To be outside of convenience is either an ephemeral privilege – the yuppie who abandons their smartphone – or an extreme form of precarity or abandonment. At an everyday level, convenience can no longer be limited to coziness, ease or comfort. Instead, it is infra-structural to the present.
 Emily West offers an important consideration of this compulsory aspect of convenience in her Buy Now, especially in relation to the model of subjectivity she calls the “served self.” Yet in our view her return to consumer activism by way of conclusion, as a presumed counter to the passivity of the served self (West 2022, 110–11), assumes a model of the autonomous, consuming, liberal subject that we argue the compulsory nature of “in convenience” makes untenable. Return to text.
 Given this close relation between data and platforms we use “platform capitalism” interchangeably with “data capitalism” in what follows, with the caveat that data capitalism is more capacious in describing a longer set of transformations. Return to text.
 For an account of Amazon Go stores via ideology critique, see (Huberman 2021). Return to text.
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Wu, Tim. 2018. “The Tyranny of Convenience.” The New York Times, February 16, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/opinion/sunday/tyranny-convenience.html.
Joshua Neves is associate professor of film studies at Concordia University, the director of the Global Emergent Media Lab and author of Underglobalization: Beijing’s Media Urbanism and the Chimera of Legitimacy.
Marc Steinberg is a professor of film studies at Concordia University, director of the Platform Lab and author of The Platform Economy: How Japan Transformed the Commercial Internet.