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Convenience, schedules and sustainability
Alan Warde, Elizabeth Shove & Dale Southerton, Lancaster University
Draft paper for ESF workshop on sustainable consumption, Lancaster March 27-29, 1998
From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here.
convenient ‘Personally suitable or well-adapted to one’s easy action or performance of functions; favourable to one’s comfort, easy condition, or the saving of trouble; commodious’
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition
Convenience is an idea which suffuses contemporary consciousness. A little surfing on the world wide web one afternoon in January 1998 identified 280,337 different web pages which mentioned convenience. Many products are sold and many activities justified in terms of their convenience. Yet it is a notion, an everyday notion, which is rarely analysed academically despite its relevance to central themes of social theory concerning time, space, consumption and rationalisation. Arguably the subject is a central pivot of calculation about everyday life at the end of the 20th century.
1. The concept of convenience
The term convenience is not a new one, it has been used in English since the 15th century though the early usages - deriving from the Latin convenientia, meeting together - are now obsolete and current applications of the term have their origins no earlier than the 17th century. Three meanings derive from the 17th and 18th centuries. The first refers to something which is suitable or well adapted to the performance of some action or attainment of some satisfaction. This continues to be an important sense referring to utensils. A second meaning concerns the avoidance of personal trouble in particular practices, and also to material advantage and personal comfort deriving therefrom. From this emanate phrases like ‘marriage of convenience’, ‘at one’s convenience’, ‘to suit one’s convenience’. This sense, sometimes used in the plural, refers to material arrangements and appliances conducive to comfort and ease of action. Conveniences ‘save trouble’. Among the items that do this are the furnishings of a house, means of household production and vehicles. A third sense refers to an opportune occasion or an opportunity, as in the phrase ‘at your earliest convenience’. These three different meanings continue to operate in contemporary discourse, and for our purposes are represented as meaning - fit for purpose, saving trouble (particularly saving toil) and furnishing an opportunity or advantage.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records no significant new applications of the term convenience between the early 19th century and the 1960s when another usage was imported from the USA. The terms ‘convenience food’ and ‘convenience store’ indicated that arrangements or commodities might be ‘designed for convenience or used when convenient’. It was only then that convenience came to be associated in any sense with time. Thus the OED cites the Guardian (6 Dec 1968), ‘No one would deny the drudgery, the time-wasting, the monotony, that has been removed by convenience foods’. Thus it was only in the 1960s that convenience added consideration of time-use into judgements about functionality. Indeed, the single current usage of the adjective ‘convenient’, recorded in the 2nd edition of the OED, still refers exclusively to function and purpose: ‘Personally suitable or well-adapted to one’s easy action or performance of functions; favourable to one’s comfort, easy condition, or the saving of trouble; commodious’. We surmise, therefore, that the concept has changed recently, perhaps because shortage of time has been identified as a contemporary ‘trouble’ which requires ‘saving’.
The most recent 20th century additions to the meaning of the term, which relates to notions of ‘saving’, or more properly re-ordering, time. In recent usage, convenience becomes something of positive value, something to be pursued for its own sake, which stands separate from particular practices, which can be achieved and maximised and which becomes a virtue in its own right.
Increasingly, convenience acts as a reason for purchasing a plethora of goods and services and for decisions about the organisation of everyday life. There has been a perceptible change in emphasis during the 20th century on different attributes of convenience. Houses used to be advertised as having ‘all mod cons’, meaning all modern conveniences, (electricity and running water, including indoor lavatory). Modern conveniences were ones oriented toward comfort - keeping warm, not having to go outside in the cold to find coal - but also toward saving labour. The instruments of modern convenience reduces the amount of toil required in the accomplishment of routine domestic tasks. The washing machine, the electric fire, the electric mixer, etc. are ones that replace labour, both by reducing the total time taken to generate the associated use-value and often making the resulting labour process less painful, dirty or heavy. Washing machines involve less physical labour, avoid chapped hands, require less than constant attention (the operator can do something else while clothes get clean), and take less time overall than hand washing or using a wash tub and mangle. (However, they also use more non-renewable or polluting resources, especially when used in combination with hot-air dryers.) Other labour saving devices are convenient because they require less cleaning: especially the electric fire, the self-cleaning cooker, ceramic hobs, and so forth. Modern conveniences, strictu sensu, reduce labour input and reduce labour time attached to a given activity. They do not ‘save’ time (time cannot be saved) but rather they compress the amount of time absorbed by that activity.
Convenience increasingly takes another form which we will call the hypermodern variant. This involves appeal to a new way of conceptualising the manipulation and use of time. The ordering of activities, as when we talk of creating a schedule, is a means for including more activities into the same amount of time, by arranging or rearranging their sequence. This is about timing rather than about time. Beans in the freezer permit reduction in the number of shopping expeditions and provide vegetables to hand at whatever time of day or night it might be desirable to eat. It is unclear whether the time taken to drive to buy many things at the supermarket once a fortnight is less in total than going daily to the corner shop. What certainly is eliminated is any need to include shopping into the schedule every day of the week. The latter would require fitting shopping in among all other mundane activities and require a daily presence near home during shopping hours. It is the relaxation of constraints upon the individual’s trajectory through time and space which is the principal benefit of the hypermodern convenience item.
Among the devices permitting the reordering of time in this sense are the refrigerator which saves shopping journeys. Despite its deviant uses, it is primarily conceived in terms of the use value of preventing food from decay but, as its operation involves almost no labour and it allows the reallocation of time around shopping, it perhaps lies on the cusp of the modern/ hypermodern boundary. The use of it’s cousin the freezer is, we hypothesise, more clearly a device for manipulating time. Of course, the freezer develops certain unique functions of its own - for example, the making of ice - but we would anticipate that most people would, as do its advertisers, currently consider it as a time saving instrument. It belongs to a generation of machines like the video and electronic mail, hypermodern convenience items which neither save labour nor compress time but rather allow the re-ordering of sequential use of time. E-mail is a type of time-transferring service. It delivers a message and allows the recipient to reserve it to read at a moment suitable for their purpose. By contrast a telephone operates in real time (though an answering machine used to take messages and a fax machine do otherwise) such that one is interrupted in order to answer. Another aspect of the shift to the hypermodern is the emergence of automatic machinery where the machine does not need a guardian or a minder present to watch it operate. The automatic timing devices which allow the video recorder to make a tape in the absence of the potential viewer in the expectation that it might be consumed at a more convenient time, at a more opportune and advantageous moment, are among the critical inventions sustaining the hypermodern organization of daily life.
Thus, we seek to tell a story which explains a re-definition of the appeal to convenience in terms of a distinction between innovations which reduce the time needed to accomplish a particular task and those which permit alterations to the timing (i.e. the scheduling) of tasks. We argue that, whether as cause or effect, the development of new conceptions of convenience are associated with a re-evaluation of time, which increasingly entails individuals coveting a capacity for the autonomous organisation of the personal schedule. The distribution of time is increasingly seen as a source of ‘trouble’, and the ability to organise time use in the light of personal purposes a mark of privilege. The obsession with convenience is a hallmark of the society of the schedule.
2. Hypermodern convenience in the society of the schedule
The core meaning of the hypermodern sense of the term convenience can be expressed as a conceptual model. To say that something is convenient is a claim or judgement about the relationship between one agent’s purpose and the concerns and purposes of other agents. In the light, that is, of available devices or services which have a capacity for reducing the time devoted to particular activities or for altering the timing of a sequence of activities. In almost all circumstances, whether a course of action is deemed convenient will be calculated in the light of the first agent’s preferred time-space trajectory. Convenience applies to the conducting of an activity which will serve the practical purpose of an agent (or network or category of agents), where there is potential for an alternative distribution of people or/and labour, and where planning for its enactment is guided by the agent’s desire to achieve an optimal trajectory through time and space.
Among the implications of this definition are:
Among other interesting features of this group of meanings of the term convenience are:
So, to summarise, some thing or activity may be described as convenient when an agent’s temporal and spatial location intersects with objects or people in order to fulfil the agent’s purpose with minimal cost to that agent in terms of the time or effort devoted to accomplishing that purpose. In these terms the first modern concern is with saving labour, the second, hypermodern, concern is with optimal timing.
Convenience refers to arrangements, arrangements which involve the coordination of an agent, other actors, and social and mechanical devices in time and space. The concern for convenience is appropriate only to agents who are obliged to plan their own trajectories through time and space. It covers only those activities where the agent has some control over arrangements made to direct his or her own trajectory. Control over time-space trajectories is always problematic, (and is increasingly so in a world with a technology permitting and encouraging high levels of mobility) because of the need for coordination with others. That control is usually compromised by the need for negotiation, for making arrangements with other agents or agencies. However, not every agent has a similar degree of control over his, her or its disposition in time and space. There is a degree of inequality of control and this takes the form of the capacity for some agents to constrain or determine the trajectories of others. The powerful have greater capacity to exert autonomous control over their own trajectories through time and space, and to subordinate the schedules of others to their own. This is a critical sociological issue at stake in the scheduled society.
3. Theoretical implications
3.1 The emergence of the society of the schedule
A schedule is a description of a trajectory, or intended trajectory, of entities through time and space which involves conscious time-space coordination. Where there are no consciously formulated schedules the late modern sense of convenience would not be applicable. Feudal daily life and the patterns of the field labourer could not to be understood in terms of convenience. Paid heteronomous labour never appeals to the category of convenience because the labour-time is appropriated by the employer and it would be of no legitimate concern of the employee where in time or space s/he might be directed during the hours purchased by the employer.
Schedules involve planning. The schedule is a specifically modern device. The current period (of late 20th century) sees the intensification of concern with schedules, in the sense that the essence of the hypermodern form of convenience is a concern with timing, with the ordering and reordering, sequentially, of the many discrete activities which constitute everyday life. Convenience perhaps becomes a value and a virtue only in association with the development of greater concern with time and scheduling. That is to say, there are many other aspects to scheduling - it has become a general social obsession - than mere convenience; but perhaps the advertising hype for convenience makes people ever more conscious of the passing of time, its practical irreversibility, its value to a person who sees life as the challenge of self-development, the kind of individualism that sees the finitude of mortality as the end of meaning. The logic of the appointments diary which is the deep background against which appeals to convenience, in its sense as optimal timing, have resonance.
3.2 Time and space
Recent uses of the term convenience allude increasingly to the saving of time. This reflects, or may have created, the distinctive obsession of the late 20th century with a shortage of time. Time famine, the time squeeze, the harried leisure class, the search for quality time, are topics of public discussion and of more and less popular social science books (e.g. Schor, 1992; Hewitt, 1993, Linder, 1970). Time comes to perform a mantric role in reflection on the organisation of everyday life. In social worlds where people feel that they have insufficient time, where they are always hurried, where they fear that they will not accomplish things important to them because they have insufficient time to devote to those activities, counting time, saving time, reducing time (an amazing range of verbs are applied to time) become matters of concern. However, one illuminating study of contemporary time pressure, Schor’s The Overworked American: the unexpected decline of leisure (1992), interestingly makes no reference to convenience, partly because it analyses time independently of space. In fact, convenience is, properly speaking, only obtained by the convergence of people and practices in time and space. For example, the addition of extra domestic devices, providing they are all in the same place, e.g. microwave and freezer, may aid the compression of blocks of time. So although contemporary calculation about convenience is increasingly in terms of time (and thus the available literature is mostly concerned with time) there is a hidden and implicit reference to space also in any full consideration about whether a practice is convenient. Etymologically, this marks a return to the obsolete sense of the term convenientia, meeting together.
This implies that we should consider not just the use of time but also movement through space. When it comes to considering environmental impacts we should be sensitive to those devices which might eliminate the need for travel (i.e. the relocation of agents in space) for example home shopping, working from home, home delivery services and so forth. These are innovations which might alter typical space-time paths, are a matter of considerable significance. Comparison between the time-space paths of the peasants of Scane described by Pred (1986) and the daily battle of the American mothers, described by Thompson (1996) as the fear of losing control by being thrown off schedule, indicates a critical change in the basis of the organisation of everyday life. For the peasants, daily life is determined by routine, while for the American mothers it is organised by plan.
In the society of the schedule, we suggest, a new personal objective emerges, to exert control over the process of becoming. Increasingly the aim is to maintain a network of continuous intersection between things, events and people as a tool in the pursuit of personal projects. An antagonistic social division might emerge even between the controllers and the controlled, with the capacity for self-direction an indicator of possession of power.
The obsession with convenience indicates an application of the industrial logic of rationalisation to everyday personal life. Detailed planning of activities associated with personal instrumental purposes entails a further extension of the logic of industry into the sphere of private life. Indeed, the transformations of daily life may, in addition, be outcomes of commercial pressure for, arguably, the contemporary dominant sense of the term convenience is a creation of the advertising industry. If Schor is at least partly correct in the analysis of the origins of the harried ‘work-and-spend culture’ as residing in the preoccupations and interests of corporate capital, the legitimation of that culture has been achieved in great part through marketing and advertising strategies.
4. Convenience in late modernity
Convenience is a much vaunted value. Its prominence is indicative of a major consideration within the organisation of everyday life as a means to express personal autonomy and pursue personal objectives. Greater rationalisation of the life world and commercialisation of daily life occurs as people deploy new mechanical devices and commercial services to achieve a reduction in labour time devoted to the tasks of reproduction and new planning devices to develop greater control over the sequencing of activities. At least part of the sense of being harried is surely the promise that personal fulfilment will be achieved by cramming ever more activities into a day, a year or a lifetime. Reducing the volume of time devoted to heteronomous personal tasks and overcoming the inevitable constraints of spatio-temporal location by achieving greater control over sequencing of activities lie at the heart of the appeal to hypermodern convenience. The associated frame of mind is one which suggests that there are always more and more important things to be done and that it is a duty to fill time as variously and creatively as possible. This attitude has proved a primary conduit for the further commodification of everyday life as these aspirations have found a response from commerical manufacturing and service industries. It is also a sign of an extension of purposeful selfishness, and a form of contemporary, unequally distributed power over the sequencing of blocks of time. Whereas Veblen’s (1925) leisure class openly displayed its privilege as having abundant free time, the powerful now do it by interfering in other people’s time schedules. The summons to court, the queue in the doctor’s waiting room, the requirement to sign for public assistance at a particular day and time on pain of deprivation of the means of livelihood, symbolise social hierarchy in the making and breaking of appointments. Control of timings, control over arrangements requiring time-space coordination, is a key late modern marker of privilege. This may have important environmental consequences because of an inherent tendency to further ratchet upwards demand for more goods and more travel.
5. Environmental implications of holding convenience as a virtue
Environmental consequences arise as side effects of the social struggles for autonomy over time-space paths. These take several forms. People deploy technologies to compensate for rigidities in time-scheduling imposed by other agents; people deploy technologies to speed up their own movement through space or to bridge distances (mobile phones allow both parties to a call to be in two places at once); people deploy technologies to store time or re-position episodes (video recorder). Improved capacities to plan and enhanced abilities for mobility encourage people to schedule yet more appointments and more activities which not only exacerbates the sense of being hurried but entails the use of yet more material resources. Environmental consequences arise in the fields of transportation, costs of manufacturing technological time devices, a further entrenchment of an attitude towards the conquest of nature which takes the form of expecting to overcome barriers of space and time.
Another way in which the worship of the value of convenience has consequences for the environment is in its application as a reason for the more intensive spread of consumer durables and increased rate of replacement of older models with new more convenient ones. It also bears upon non-durable consumer items (though these may often require other durables in the network - frozen foods require a domestic freezer and a microwave as well as a packet of frozen fish) including energy resources.
The desire for instantaneous effects, a corollary of the feeling that waiting around is a trouble, implies more feverish mobility which, if it occurs irrespective of environmental resources, has potentially damaging consequences. Almost certainly one of the key attractions of the motor car is its flexibility should one need or wish to change ones plans at short notice. Like many other hypermodern communications devices it contributes to the impression that plans can be altered at short notice, that there are many possible trajectories through space, in the short and long term, which can be accommodated if accompanied by mobile phone, automobile and time-transferring devices.
Hewitt P (1993) About Time: the revolution in work and family life, London IPPR/Rivers Oram Press
Linder S B (1970) The Harried Leisure Class (Columbia University Press)
Pred A (1986) Place, Practice and Structure: social and spatial transformation in Southern Sweden, 1750-1850 Totowa, NJ, Barnes & Noble
Schor J (1992) The Overworked American: the unexpected decline of leisure New York, Basic Books
Thompson, C (1996) Caring consumers: gendered consumption meanings and the juggling lifestyle Journal of Consumer Research 22, 388-407
Veblen, T. (1925 ) The Theory of the Leisure Class: an economic study of institutions, (London, George Allen & Unwin).