Choice And Convenience: Do They Enrich Or Impoverish Our World?

Posted: August 12, 1999

ITEM: MCIWorldCom and Sprint announce new rate plans.

Oh, boy! More choice!

ITEM: The U.S. Postal Service says it will begin selling "PC postage" at home via the Internet.

Oh, boy! More convenience!

Then why does my grumpy soul mutter, "Oh, brother"?

Friends, indulge a few words about the dark side of choice and convenience.

In this broken world, most blessings come alloyed with pitfalls.

Yes, choice is the loyal sidekick of freedom. It can open vistas, sate desires, save money.

It also can bewilder and frustrate, set you up to be exploited. It begs you to invest time being a consumer that'd be better spent as citizen, parent, child, dreamer, doer.

Yes, convenience is a mantra of the age. It can simplify tasks, reduce stress and save time.

It can also limit and isolate. It can insulate from serendipity. It can exalt individual whim over communal good. (To litter is convenient.)

In the last decade, the digital revolution and deregulation have bombarded us with new choices, new avenues of convenience.

Only a curmudgeon would dismiss out of hand the blessings. Only a fool would shrug off the pitfalls.

The long-distance phone battle is a good place to analyze the ambiguous blessings of choice.

Talk about the fog of war! Nickel Nights, One Rate Plus, 10-10-321, etc. Only seven consumers in this great land claim to grasp all the permutations and trapdoors of the options offered by MCI, AT&T et al. - and six of them are delusional.

Do I want to go back to the days when the only choice was Ma Bell's Take It or Leave It Rate? Nope. This is an arena in which choice clearly has saved money. Am I aware that the savvy consumer can parlay the providers' quest for customers into major savings? Yes.

But I also know that for every consumer who plays the rate offers like a pro, there are others so bewildered that they've either never switched plans or pay much higher fees than needed. This fog of choices provides great cover for unscrupulous practices such as "slamming" (switching your carrier without your permission) and "cramming" (larding your bill with charges for services you never sought).

For some, time devoted to navigating a swirl of choices is worthwhile if it leads to consumerism's holy grail, a good deal. Me, I resent every second I have to spend parsing such bewildering arrays to avoid being played for a sucker.

Am I the only one who groans in weary defeat when another once-settled area of commerce becomes a carnival of choice as overwhelming as the cereal aisle at Genuardi's? Don't think so. Take electric choice in Pennsylvania. Anything that puts the whip hand to Peco Energy can't be all bad. But I confess I haven't yet summoned the will to find another supplier. Such inertia is common; only 13 percent of Pennsylvanians have switched.

But if lost time is my bugaboo, then conveniences such as buy-at-home postage must seem grand, right? Isn't waiting in a long post office line an utter waste of time?

Well, I don't know. Walking over to the post office gets me moving through my community. I meet and chat with a neighbor; I see a school musical advertised on a message board, check the progress on the school addition. Such contacts refresh my sense of connectedness to a place, a community. They open me to the serendipity of random information, of surprise learning.

Even the idleness of waiting on line holds potential. In that enforced pause, the inner static might clear and my mind might summon an insight obscured by the usual whoosh of activity.

Convenience is swell, but a mania for it will over time limit your universe, make you dull. You will see only what you're used to seeing, learn only what you already know. The dubious American preference for the private over the civic, for consumerism over community, will only be bolstered.

That's why another touted form of digital convenience, voting by Internet, bothers me so. Enhancing voter turnout is a worthy goal, but should we achieve it by catering to folks for whom citizenship isn't worth walking a few blocks?

Voting from home turns a vital civic act into a private, consumer gesture. Walking into a local institution, past the hoopla of flags, placards and palm cards, then waiting in line with fellow citizens - these are energizing rituals of civic connection. They change for the better your sense of why you're voting.

By all means, let's celebrate the real benefits of choice and convenience, but let's be warier of the hidden costs exacted in their name.

Care to comment? Please, e-mail or call 215-854-4243.

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