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The Word of the Day? Convenience

It’s 3 in the morning, but you’re still awake, idly scrolling your Facebook feed while ‘Stranger Things’ blares on in the background. A few light taps on your iPhone, and you’ve just purchased a week’s worth of groceries, to be delivered straight to your doorstep – courtesy of the ever-convenient Amazon Prime. Hearing the rainstorm outside, you start dozing off, comfortable in the knowledge that Google’s new smart speakers will wake you up in the morning – after all, it knows you have to work on Thursdays.


‘Google that’ has become synonymous with ‘Look it up’. Dictionaries and thesauruses sit in shelves worldwide collecting dust, replaced with e-versions that can be accessed at a moment’s notice. Fewer and fewer consumers purchase cable, preferring to rely solely on subscription services such as Netflix and HBO. All of these are indicators of the increasing influence that technology has on our lives, and in particular, the increasing influence that the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) companies wield. These five companies carve out slices of our lives, slowly consolidating control through the pervasiveness of the services they provide, each concentrating on one particular aspect of a modern human being. Facebook, of course, controls our social media; Amazon, our shopping and purchasing; Netflix and Google, our sources of entertainment and knowledge. And finally, Apple, which provides the hardware we need to connect to the services of the other four companies.


All of these services and products link together to create a system that prioritizes convenience above all else. In the first paragraph, I detailed a very probable scenario in which one could comfortably live without ever leaving home – or indeed, the confines of his/her couch. This capability of self-containment was made possible by the very convenience of the services provided to us, an attempt by companies to make their products indispensable to our lifestyles. Now, at this point, one might ask the question – isn’t convenience also beneficial to the consumers? This is the crux of the issue.

Convenience, in its simplest form, is great for consumers. I myself am guilty of using Amazon on occasions where I just don’t feel like leaving my bed. But problems start appearing when a company starts using ‘convenience’ as a means of pushing its product, making it intertwined in our lifestyles inseparably.  The moment consumers become ‘addicted’—so to speak—to these products, these companies are given a position of power over them, a position that they abuse. Case in point: Facebook and Google both operate on a free system model. So how would these companies make a profit, if the main service that they provide is free of charge? With both, especially Facebook, the money-making product is the actual consumers themselves.


Further expanding on Facebook, as it provides a very apt example – the service is used as a honey pot to lure consumers in. Convenience then keeps them in, making them reluctant to leave the system. Facebook then sucks up all the data, browsing habits, and every other piece of information that it can get, before turning around and selling that to the highest bidder, who then can use it for possibly nefarious purposes. However, it’s the last step where the ugly side of convenience finally rears its head. Even if the consumers find out about how they’ve been abused for their information, and then subtly manipulated and influenced as a result, the convenience of the service still keeps them in the spider-web of Facebook. The same story runs parallel, in the form of Big Data with Google.


Convenience is again a term commonly used to describe the Apple Ecosystem. In essence, a tech ecosystem is what happens when one group of products and/or services work extremely well together, leading to a more efficient system. The Apple Ecosystem is one of the most prominent examples of this: each of their products is purposefully built to work seamlessly with other Apple products, creating a convenience for the consumer that is impossible to surpass, thus making it troublesome for the customer to leave the ecosystem, so to speak. The more products and services that are part of the ecosystem, the more convenient it is for consumers to stay inside the walls - and thus the harder it is to escape the influence of big tech. (‘Big’ in this case being used to describe an industry so powerful that it exerts political and social pressure on society, as used in examples of “Big Oil” or “Big Pharma”.)  Therefore, companies such as Facebook and Google also endeavour to snatch up as much of the available market as possible – so as to make themselves invaluable to consumers. The ‘Cambridge Analytica’ debacle led to people deleting and quitting Facebook, moving their social media platforms to Instagram - not knowing Instagram is also owned by Facebook. WhatsApp and Messenger are also a part of the Facebook conglomerate, leading to an almost complete monopoly on the instant messaging industries (with the noteworthy exception of China, which is dominated by WeChat). As consumers, even if it comes to light that their information has been sold to advertisers or worse, they have no other option than to stay because there are no other suitable applications outside of the ecosystem.


Aside from the common Ecosystems that can be found in Apple, Facebook, and Google, there is another kind of system that exploits our wish for convenience. If you’ve been paying attention to Amazon’s recent market acquisitions, you would have noticed two problems. Firstly, the rate of mergers & acquisitions have been rising at an unprecedented rate, with Amazon having shelled out tens of billions of dollars over the past few years to buy other companies. Secondly, the companies which have been acquired by Amazon are all part of different industries and  target markets. Four examples illustrate my point: Whole Foods ($13.7 Billion), Zappos ($1.2 Billion), Twitch ($970 Million), PillPack (~$1 Billion). None of these companies work in industries that correlate with each other. Unlike WhatsApp and Messenger (both similar products), Whole Foods is a grocery store. Zappos is a shoe store. Twitch and PillPack are game streaming and prescription pill companies respectively. What can be seen in these two trends is that Amazon is trying to expand into every sector that is important in our current lives. With the absorption of these companies into the colossal tech giant that is Amazon, the company will not only be selling us items such as books and clothes - they’ll also be selling groceries, entertainment, and prescription pills. Their aim is simple. If their website can sell anything and everything, the convenience of their company will overpower all others, leading to consumers only utilising their website - creating a monopoly. Classic stores such as Sears and Toys R Us have already been heavily affected by the existence of Amazon (Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy in late 2017). Within moments of Amazon acquiring PillPack, the stocks of other prescription pill companies dropped. These are all signs that Amazon’s efforts to increase the convenience of their service are succeeding, leading to more ‘addicted’ consumers, which in turn massively increases Amazon’s market power.


The rain is still falling, albeit much more gently. The sound of raindrops pattering provides some background noise while you trawl through pages of clothes on Amazon, occasionally closing some advertisements that are specially tailored for you based on your web history. At the press of a few buttons, the entire world is available for you online. We have reached the pinnacle of convenience. But at what cost?.



[Article by Hugo Chan]



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