The Briefing

Documentation and Additional Reading

Part

New York Times

The Tyranny of Convenience, by Tim Wu

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Part

Part

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday, Mar. 16, 2018

Tags: Audio, Convenience, Parenting, Playgrounds, T. Berry Brazelton

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It's Friday, March 16, 2018. I'm, Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

How the cult of convenience fails to deliver on its own promises

This Friday, as we go into the weekend, let's give some attention to some fun and interesting stories that otherwise might be crowded out by more urgent news. A recent essay appeared in The New York Times entitled The Tyranny of Convenience. And in the article, Tim Wu asked the question, "If we are actually tyrannized by the convenience that otherwise, we prized and we so highly value."

Now before even looking at the essay, an interesting question we should ask ourselves is this: How much of what we do is done simply because of convenience? How many of the choices we make even some of the choices that are apparently invisible to us are driven merely by convenience? How much convenience do we expect? How much convenience do we demand and furthermore, what are we losing in the bargain when we make our choice for mere convenience?

Wu begins his essay by writing convenience as the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today. As a driver of human decisions, it may not offer the illicit thrill of Freud's unconscious sexual desires or the mathematical elegance of the economists incentives. "Convenience is boring," he says. "But boring is not the same thing as trivial." He goes on to say, "In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience that is more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies."

Now, let's pause for a moment. Let's ask if that could possibly be true. Could it possibly be the case that convenience is the driving economic force in contemporary society? Well, Wu makes the case that it actually is. It's an arguable point but what is not debatable is the fact that convenience is at least one of the chief drivers of so many of the choices that consumers make. And we have to include ourselves amongst those consumers.

Wu cites Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter who said memorably, "Convenience decides everything." Wu then goes on to say that, "Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show with a prescribed hour seemed silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience not to own a cellphone, not to use Google has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity if not fanaticism."

Wu's article is interesting not just because of the argument he makes but because of the research and the evidence he cites for example. He makes very clear that the tech industry is on to the secret. The tech industry is very much aware of the fact that convenience drives behavior online and furthermore, it drives consumer behavior elsewhere as well.

Wu who teaches Law at Columbia University argues that the dominance of Amazon, for example, is not so much because of competitive pricing. That may be how it began but rather now that dominance is explicable by the fact that Amazon is simply so convenient. Amazon pioneered the idea that with a prime membership, you can simply hit one button and almost like magic, something is delivered to your home, and now very speedily. And consumers are often ordering such items without having what had formally been the experience of making a consumer choice going into a store and paying with cash, all of these by convenience actually becomes a massive new economic and moral reality.

But Wu's interest is not primarily legal or economic. It's moral. He points to the fact that when convenience becomes such a driving issue within the economy and the culture, resisting convenience looks like an act of fanaticism. It's not just eccentric. He says, presuming convenience is always good as a problem, "for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear." He says later, "It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule but when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much."

The insights that Wu brings to this article are not entirely original even in previous decades especially after the Second World War. There had been warnings that in the name of convenience, we are simply surrendering too much. But one of the interesting things to consider here is the fact that this cult of convenience has its corollary in the corporate world in the cult of efficiency.

The cult of efficiency came to major corporations especially in the early decades of the 20th century and efficiency became the sine qua non, the sole obsession, but the reality is that you can do something efficiently without doing it particularly well. And as many businesses have found out, they can be extremely efficient and go out of business because they're making something that no one needs.

But Wu also raises the point that when we have so many modern conveniences in our lives and in our homes, somehow this is not created what was promised. What those who created the modern world of convenience promised especially in that post-war period all the way to the present is that all of these convenience would give us additional leisure time, free time, calm time in our lives. But it hasn't turned out that way.

Indeed, all these conveniences have actually made us busier because in the end, our conveniences may drive us as much as we think we are using the conveniences. As an observer of the culture, Wu points to the fact that the idea of convenience as liberation is often intoxicating. He points to the fact that it drove much of the science fiction and futurism of the 1950's and 60's.

An example he gives is the television comedy, the animated comedy, The Jetsons, where he said, "We learned that life in the future would be perfectly convenient. Food would be prepared with a push of a button. Moving sidewalks would do away with the annoyance of walking. Clothes would clean themselves or perhaps self-destruct after a day's wearing." The end of the struggle for existence could at last be contemplated, but then with deep moral insight, Wu points to the fact that this cult of convenience that promised liberation promised a particular form of liberation. And that was liberation from the drudgery of physical labor.

Wu makes no references to biblical theology or for that matter any part of the Christian worldview but his insights are deeply resonant. Why? Because the Bible actually honors and values physical labor, and when you have a worldview and the development of technologies that promises and worships the ideal of absolute freedom from physical labor, what you have is a redefinition of human life and human expectation in the name of convenience with the promise of liberation. But a liberation, we should note, that never comes.

But in a final really important moral insight, Wu points to the fact that the cult of convenience also promises escape from difficulty, but it turns out the difficulty is important. He writes, "Today's cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. The climbing of mountain is different from taking the tram to the top even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people," he says, "who cared mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides."

I like the way he concludes his essay. He says this, "So, let's reflect on the tyranny of convenience try more often to resist its stupefying power and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest." The next time you reflect upon the fact that most of what academics and our leading institutions write as nonsense just consider the amazing sense that comes from this law professor at Columbia University.

Part

The sterilization of play: What’s at stake as our playgrounds have become unrisky, and ultimately, unfun

But next, we shift from the United States to Britain and the issue shifts from difficulty in general to the necessity, the need of children for difficulty in their own lives. The dateline in the story is from the unforgettable name of the little English village called Shoeburyness where we are told and I quote, "Educators in Britain after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk are now cautiously getting into the business of providing it."

The example given is this, teachers at Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School looked critically around their campus and set about as one of them put it, bringing in risk. Out went the plastic playhouses and in came the dicey stuff. Stacks of 2 by 4's, crates, and loose bricks. The school yard got a mud pit, a tire swing, log stumps and work benches with hammers and saws.

One of the teachers said this, "We thought how can we bring that element of risk into our everyday environment. We were looking at, okay, so we got a sandpit. What can we add to the sandpit to make it more risky?" But then the teacher, and remember this is a teacher in an elementary and nursery school in a little village in England, she says, "Now, we have fires. We use knives, saws, different tools all The New York Times tell us under adult supervision. Indoors scissors abound and so do sharp-edged tape dispensers." One of the teachers said, "They normally only cut themselves once."

The article then tells us, "Limited risks are increasingly cast by experts as an experience essential to childhood development useful in building resilience and grit." The article also provides some accurate and interesting cultural analysis indicating that there is now a pushback in Great Britain to the development of what's been called the liberal nanny state and with those who had called for children to be protected from all risks at all times.

But it turns out that children who are protected from seemingly all risks at all times turn into children who are absolutely risk-averse as adults which means they do not have the legitimate adult experience. Why? Because they did not have a legitimate authentic childhood experience. They never had the skinned knee. They never had the bruised arm. They never had the experience of failure. They never faced difficulty, and furthermore, they never had to make a calculation about risk and learn how to make that calculation.

One of the leaders behind this movement in Great Britain said that it requires a sophisticated understanding of the balance between benefits and risks and it requires adults to stand back and say, here's a quote, "It's okay to have some risk of children falling over and bashing into things. It's not the same as being reckless and sending a two-year-old to walk on the edge of a 200-foot cliff unaccompanied."

Now, at this point, the article only becomes more interesting because it brings in a point of comparison between the United States and Britain in the larger context between the United States and Europe. The issue was this, why would Americans be more risk-averse? American educators, American parents, American playground designers, for example?

Well, litigation is in the background. In the American system of litigation, these kinds of cases that might eventually reach a court of law in which there is some accusation that a playground, for example, included too much risks. In the United States, those cases are decided by juries who often respond and judge on the basis of emotion leading to outlandish findings and charges against those who are sued because there might be some risks in a playground.

But in England and in the European contexts, these are not jury trials and they are handled by the courts in a very different way. There is legal liability but it is a much more limited legal liability. In the United States, that liability could be almost in the list, which is why our playgrounds have become profoundly not only un-risky but un-fun.

One British observer looking at playgrounds in the United States said of them now, "It's a rubber floor, a little structure surrounded by a fence. It's like a little play jail." The cost of new playgrounds has gone way up. Plank swings and steel merry-go-rounds are gone as are many of the features of playgrounds from previous generations of childhood. The result has been what some have described as a gradual sterilization of play.

Here's another interesting fact, those British playgrounds that allow for a little greater risk are actually used a great deal more. They are visited more often by more children than is the case with the average playground in the United States. And we simply ask the question, why wouldn't it be that way? Not if in the United States all these litigation and over-protection has led to playgrounds that appear to be play jails.

The article also points to the distortion of reality that is created by social media and continual news because every time there is some kind of incident in which a child is harmed on the playground, there is all kinds of attention to it. The story is broadcast over and over again. The story is told all out of proportion to the reality, and the reality is that playground incidents are actually a very low statistical reality but you're not told that in the news.

And furthermore, you're not told that there is also a statistical risk to allowing the child to be in another very, very dangerous place otherwise known as your home. It says a lot about us as society as you think about this in worldview analysis about the fact that we have become so risk-averse that seems to go along with that cult of convenience just translated into a different form. And yet, it also tells us what kind of society we are that we now are so distanced from the natural world and that natural risk that we have to bring in calculated risks.

A society that tries to eliminate all risks and then has to respond by trying to manufacture some artificial risks is a society that ought to look at self squarely in the mirror and ask itself if we can possibly be sane.

Part

Why dad-style parenting is a key ingredient of a healthy home

But next, we turn to an article that appeared just this week in Tuesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal as by Abigail Shrier. The headline is this, "Knock It Off and Shake It Off: The Case for Dad-Style Parenting". As Shrier writes, "When my seven-year-old twin boys were first learning to play piano, I would check with them regularly to see if they were still enjoying it. Finally, their teacher, a Russian woman who was evidently unfamiliar with fashionable theories of child rearing told me that if I wanted my kids to learn an instrument, I needed to cut it out. Some weeks," said the Russian teacher, "they won't like it. So what? Stop asking."

Shrier then goes on to speak of three different well-recognized approaches to parenting in the modern world today in contemporary America. They span from authoritarian parenting on the one hand to permissive parenting on the other. Authoritarian is the "Just because I told you so." Permissive is "I don't tell you what to do, you're your own person. Just be yourself."

And in the middle what's described as authoritative parenting, that's where the parent maintains authority but rather than merely saying, "I'm telling you to do this. Do it," rather going onto explain why. Authoritative parenting, we should say, has many parallels in a biblical understanding of the role of parent. The role the parent is not merely to say, "Do this, don't do that." Now, let's just interject to say at times that's exactly what a parent needs to do.

But to go on and to explain in Deuteronomy 6, it is the parents of Israel who are told when your children ask you what is the meaning of these laws and the statutes, then you are to explain, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt but God brought us out by his mighty hand and his outstretched arm." That is to say that Israel's covenant parents were told to teach the law to their children and that means to explain it. That's authoritative parenting. The parent is the authority but the parent exercises that authority in the context of the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

But Shrier then goes on to say that in a healthy home, of all things would you imagine it, there is the need for both a mom and a dad style of parenting. Now, what isn't said in the article is the obvious. In order to have a mom style and a dad style of raising children, you need ... Well, let's just state it, a mom and a dad. That would be a bit too controversial perhaps to state these days but it seems to be edgy enough that Shrier writes that we need a mom style parenting and a dad style parenting and that children both girls and the boys need both.

And what she's talking about when she writes about a dad style parenting was the kind of parenting that is often short in summary. In the two expressions that find themselves in the headline of the article, "Knock it off and shake it off." She says when a dad style parent says, "Knock it off," it's the child's job to figure out the precise behaviors from which [inaudible 00:17:03] accepting that definitive knowledge of what or why might never come.

The pestering touch of persons and things, drumming of fingers and clicking of tongues, ululating and whinings each on its own might not be grounds for punishment but together, they can drive an adult to madness all the same. "Discipline socializes children," she writes. "They become tolerable to those who didn't already love them." That's a profound statement.

"Discipline socializes children. They become tolerable to those who do not already love them." Now, the absence of discipline and the absence of that kind of parenting explains why being out in public or in many other context is often these days so downright distracting and troublesome. Shrier writes, "I get it. In the age of psychology, we moms style parents are hyper-attuned to our children's needs. We treat their thoughts and intentions like satellite signals with enough effort in the right equipment. We think we ought to be able to unscramble every whine, answer every plea. It's a hard habit to quit."

Now, we should notice that even though there is the very clear testimony here to the necessity of a dad and a mom, she writing about mom style and dad style parenting indicating that either parent may at times give the same kind of parenting response, either mom style or dad style depending upon the circumstances. But as someone who had a dad, am a dad and now a grand dad, I can well understand that there is a difference and children can tell the difference. And at times, what they need to be told is simply, "Knock it off and furthermore," Shrier writes, "shake it off. Children need to be told that when they experience a minor fall, a minor unserious injury, when they have a disappointment, they need to move on. They need to keep playing. They need to keep moving. Knock it off and shake it off."

Shrier writes, "The dad style approach offers more than expedience. Tough love can offer emotional nourishment too and kids learn to soldier into the world with what a cynic might describe as naiveté. Others," she says, "call it courage." But as we're speaking about the child's need for both a mom style and a dad style parenting and that means both a mom and a dad.

Part

The legacy of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton: Pediatrician who helped us understand the necessity of mother-infant bonding dies at 99

As we're thinking about this week and the obituaries of this week, we need to note the death of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.

He was a pediatrician, one of the nation's best known pediatricians. He was born in 1918 and he died just a few days ago in 2018 and his understanding of the relationship between infants and mothers change the pediatric profession. Though he was not the first observer to notice the necessity of mother-infant bonding, he was amongst the first in modern pediatrics to point to the fact that that bonding is required for both the psychological and the physical development and stimulation of the newborn infant and the young child.

When video cameras were new on the scene, Dr. Brazelton used those cameras to observe simultaneously the faces of mothers and their infants, noting the fact that there was an incredible reactiveness on both parties, the mother and the infant responding to one another. Often with simply a facial expression, often with a movement of the eyes but in all cases building that bonding that become so absolutely necessary to the thriving of the child.

The obituary about Dr. Brazelton in the New York Times this week mentions the fact that he was amongst those who develop the notion of human resilience as related to human infants, "Defined as successful adaptation in the midst of challenging or threatening circumstances." As the time says much of our modern conception of human resilience as related to infants grows out of this research.

While speaking of dad style of parenting, Brazelton's father had a rather decisive influence in his life when Brazelton the son was a student at Princeton University. He graduated there, by the way, in the year 1940. He tried out for and was offered a role in a Broadway play alongside Ethel Merman. But his father would have nothing of it and told him instead to go to medical school. He eventually head chairs at Harvard Medical School and also at Brown University. He received the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2013 from President Barack Obama.

Finally, as all of these stories seem to come together on a common theme, looking at the distinction between dad's style and mom's style parenting, it turned out evidently it took place right in the home of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton. The obituary in The New York Times ends with these words, "When it came to their own children, Mrs. Brazelton did not always subscribe to her husband's child rearing theories." She'd say, "As the doctor said, I don't want to hear any advice from you." He went on to say, "We went back and forth all the time. We argued for 66 years and I always let her win. It kept everything alive."

A final thought on all these stories in developments taken together. What they point to is the necessity of the recovery of common sense in a society that is increasingly devoid of common sense. Every one of these incidents, headlines and stories basically comes to that point. But what's really interesting is for Christians to understand that what is behind this is not mere common sense or even the abandonment of common sense. It is the glory designed in purpose of God in creation in which he told all of these up front in creation and in his word. And all of these, of course, the gift from the one who revealed himself as a Heavenly Father, and that means that all of us who are Christ's people are his children.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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