Is your new phone really your friend? | Oliver Burkeman

Our hardwired tendency toward laziness means once we’ve been persuaded to adopt certain pseudo-conveniences, we won’t want to give them up

The new iPhone 8, as you probably couldn’t help learning a few weeks back, boasts “wireless charging that’s truly effortless”, meaning that instead of having to plug it into the wall, you simply place it on a special pad. Which you then plug into the wall. If you’re struggling to imagine the kind of person who finds the act of plugging a cable into their phone unacceptably inconvenient – especially since you’ll still have to leave your phone in one place while it charges – well, that makes two of us.

But I’m sure wireless charging will catch on anyway, because Apple understands something profound about the psychology of convenience: half the time, it isn’t really about eliminating annoying or effortful chores. It’s about introducing features you “didn’t know you needed” – a fancy way of saying you didn’t need them – safe in the knowledge that once lots of other people have them, you’ll want them; and once you’ve got them, you won’t want to lose them. “I guess it’s one of those things you don’t really care about until you use it,” wrote one owner of another device with wireless charging, trying to explain the appeal. Which is also true of heroin, but never mind that for now.

One culprit here is presumably the phenomenon of “loss aversion”, which describes how people are much more upset about losing, say, £10 than they are thrilled by the prospect of gaining £10. Perhaps for evolutionary reasons, we’re much more motivated to cling to what we’ve already got than to strive to obtain what we don’t yet have. Add to that our hardwired tendency toward laziness – our instinct to conserve every morsel of energy, and to avoid every expenditure of effort – and you can see why, once you can persuade people to adopt certain pseudo-conveniences, they’ll be unlikely to want to give them up. Before you have wireless charging, the effort of plugging a cable into your phone seems negligible; once you have it, it’s too convenient to relinquish. And so even if, like me, you’re the kind of person who fantasises about downgrading from a smartphone to a dumbphone, you find yourself buying the new iPhone instead.

The other strange implication in Silicon Valley’s obsession with “effortless” convenience is the idea that all these tiny daily hassles – plugging in your phone, having to talk to a human to order a takeaway, inserting your card instead of using contactless payment – add up to a significant obstacle to a happier or more meaningful life. But the time savings are tiny. A much bigger obstacle is making good use of what time you already have. Because even if wireless charging saved you an hour a day, rather than three seconds, the same preference for laziness means you’d be more likely to spend that hour on Facebook or Instagram –instead of writing your book, volunteering in your community or whatever. And how would you check Facebook? Why, on the same smartphone that was supposed to be freeing up all that time. I’ll admit this is all very convenient. But convenient for Apple and the rest of them – not for you.

oliver.burkeman@theguardian.com

Contributor

Oliver Burkeman

The GuardianTramp

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