Covid-19 Has Reminded Us of How “Physical” Our World Is. Is This the End of the “Convenience Economy”?

Social Commentary

Covid-19 Has Reminded Us of How “Physical” Our World Is. Is This the End of the “Convenience Economy”?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The science fiction novelist Arthur C Clarke had three laws – the last of which was: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But even Clarke’s vast mind could not have prepared him for today.

Over the last few years, we have been a beneficiary of this “magic”. Press a few buttons, you have a vehicle show up at your doorstep ready to transport you – in air conditioning – to your destination. At a price cheaper than taking your actual car.

Press a few more buttons, and you’ll have breakfast ready by the time you get there.

Once that’s done, a few taps here and there, and you have every piece of music ever created at your disposal.

On the way home, you realise you don’t have time to shop, and a few taps later, you have an entire week’s worth of groceries delivered by the next morning, before you do it all over again.

“Magic” and “convenience” are nice marketing terms, but they belie a shit-ton of things that happen in real life.

Magic! Steve Jobs himself, tech’s sorcerer-in-chief, unveiled the iPhone with the words “it works like magic!” And from that day, his brethren were all too happy to invoke similar proclamations to peddle their wares. After all, a big part of Silicon Valley’s focus has been to reduce friction or middlemen to get us what we need (and, well, don’t need). No, you’re a busy professional with a hundred things to worry about – don’t be burdened with minutiae like how your groceries are going to get to you, or if you can find an electrician in time. The convenience economy was meant to take care of everything for us. And for a while, that worked rather well.

Until, of course – like so many things, that ruddy virus struck.

Now, we’re coming to terms with just how “physical” everything is.

Denied slots on BigBasket – something that’s never happened before – we’re forced to go to our kirana wala for the first time in months. We’re told there are no stocks, because trucks are stuck at the border. The “maal nahin hai sir” reply has become all too common (even if the bugger has that loaf of bread with him – but who can blame him for hoarding for his own family?). That’s when the illusion of magic breaks down and you realise that there are farmers who need to grow something, or a factory that needs to process something, and a massive logistics network that is in place before that pack of biscuits lands up on Mayur bhai’s shelf.

“Magic” and “convenience” are nice marketing terms, but they belie a shit-ton of things that happen in real life. I’m not saying that’s bad – modern logistics and technology have been built so we can worry about other things. But we should be sensitive to the fact that everything has to be made somewhere and doesn’t appear out of nowhere, despite all the marketing, like magic.

Now, we’re coming to terms with just how “physical” everything is.

As incredible as it may seem to some of us in this time of plenty and a plethora of services vying for our attention, it is possible to run out of ingredients. I once heard a person in a cafe refusing to believe that they were out of strawberries. Right now, this is even more stark. Normally reliably stocked items like vegetables, eggs, and pulses are sold out. I mean – Mayur bhai was out of Moong Dal. Moong Dal. When was the last time anyone was ever out of freakin’ moong dal? People now are realising, perhaps for the first time in a generation – that it is possible for food to run out. We’re facing a massive global food shortage, and many people will realise that because a farmer in Central America could not get to his farm, or trucks weren’t allowed to ply, Whole Foods didn’t have avocados.

It’s not just food. Even the iPhone – the epitome of Silicon Valley hubris with divinity – has various parts sourced from around the world, needs to be assembled somewhere (which is stymied because of the virus) and transported around the world. If cobalt miners in Africa decide to stop risking their lives, much of the vaunted tech hardware companies would grind to a halt (as a lawsuit last year made clear). 35-40 million trucks in India ply 70 per cent of its total logistics. So while placing an order for the latest phone at midnight and seeing it arrive by noon the next day might seem like magic, there’s a vast, vast network that ensures this happens.

Think beyond stuff you buy.

What if coal miners had to socially distance? That would throw our uninterrupted power supply that we take for granted, out of whack. Imagine needing to ration your power supply, like we’re learning to ration vegetables now.

I once heard a person in a cafe refusing to believe that they were out of strawberries. Right now, this is even more stark.

Look around you. Think of every other service. The internet works because there are giant undersea cables. GPS works because of very expensive overhead satellites. The news you react to has journalists on the ground risking their lives. And let’s not even start to think of plumbing and sanitation (and yes, the latter are unprotected). Heck, just imagine what a fuss the housing society would throw if the garbage collector didn’t show up for a day.

When you get down to it, it’s mind-boggling (and honestly, a little humbling) to think of how non-magic our apparently magic world really is. And that brings with it a certain sense of empathy and hopefully less waste, too. So the next time you appreciate a beer, thank the farmers who grew hops in Belgium. When you get your new device, think about all the years of science and hours of labour that led to thousands of components coming together to let you stream Netflix. When you go to a music festival, spare a few minutes to appreciate the immense logistical challenge in getting hundreds of musicians from around the world together to play music on a stage custom-constructed for the purpose.

In the “click and fulfil” era, it’s easy to lose track of that. The beautiful irony of the lockdown, where we are forced to live virtually, is that we’ve become increasingly aware, perhaps painfully so, of how “physical” our world actually is.

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