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The Tyranny of Convenience

Welcome to the future we all chose, but that nobody seems to want

Credit: Greg Baker/Getty Images

“I“I just boarded an international @JetBlue flight. Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera before being allowed down the jet bridge,” MacKenzie Fegan tweeted last week. “Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?”

The quick answer? Yes and no.

Yes, facial recognition did replace boarding passes for international travelers in some U.S. airports recently, and — if the Trump administration has its way — it will be the default check-in method in many more airports by 2020. And no, Fegan did not overtly consent to this specific use of facial recognition. Nor did anyone else, presumably. In a subsequent tweet, JetBlue told Fegan that passengers can “opt out of this procedure,” suggesting that JetBlue considers consent to be implied by default.

If we take the airline’s word for it, JetBlue assumed that its passengers would find biometric check-in more convenient than the conventional method.

Part of the answer as to why JetBlue might have made that assumption — that people would actually want their faces to serve as a boarding pass, instead of a piece of paper or their smartphone — appears in a press release JetBlue linked to in its response thread with Fegan.

Back in November, when biometric boarding was introduced at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, JetBlue’s senior vice president of customer experience was quoted praising the technology as “a testament to the airline’s ongoing work to create a personal, helpful, and simple experience.” If we take the airline’s word for it, JetBlue assumed that its passengers would find biometric check-in more convenient than the conventional method.

In the ongoing and growing opposition to the seemingly dystopian world technology companies are building, convenience is often overlooked. But it’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us, that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.

CConvenience is signing up to a social media platform to keep in touch with friends and family and keep abreast of current events, and then discovering that the personal information you’ve been required to upload to enable your account has been used to micro-target you with disinformation.

Convenience is buying a digital assistant for your home to make hands-free information searches easier, and later finding out that employees of the company that makes it are able to listen to the commands you’ve been giving it — or that its recordings of the ambient sounds of your home have been mailed to someone you don’t know.

Convenience is downloading a weather app to check whether you need to pack an umbrella, only to later realize that the app’s code makes it easy for someone to track your movements with such specificity that no amount of anonymization of the data would hide that it was you entering a Planned Parenthood, or riding along with the mayor of New York City.

Convenience is watching one video online by someone who thinks the world is flat, and tumbling down a rabbit hole of aggressive and increasingly swivel-eyed conspiracy videos until you end up believing that Hillary Clinton is a lizard from another planet. Better yet, convenience is sitting your child down in front of a supposedly child-friendly video only to discover a while later that the same autoplay function has dug up videos of their favorite cartoon characters being mutilated.

Convenience is driving a car for a ride-hail company because it promises flexible hours, only to find yourself making less than minimum wage and subject to phantom price surge promises, the absolutism of personal star ratings, and constant surveillance, including messages that prompt you to get back to driving like a notification that your phone is unmounted.

Most importantly, convenience is a value, and one we hold personally.

Convenience is booking a flight online quickly and cheaply, only to discover upon arriving at the airport that you are required to subject yourself to a facial recognition “procedure,” where your image is captured and automatically checked against a federal database, affording you little recourse if it happens to mismatch, in order to board your plane and embark on your trip.

Convenience is allowing the “if, then” logic of an algorithm to shape the music you hear, the books you read, the information you see, the news you read, the things you watch, and the people you interact with.

Convenience is the powerful marketing tool deployed by utopian evangelists to describe a world of total ease and seamless interactions that deliberately masks a frantic race to monopolize a near-bottomless well of behavioral and biometric data. It is the device used to reduce our personal agency, strip us of personal choice, and ultimately render us helpless to the terms and conditions to which we have unwittingly clicked “I agree.”

Most importantly, convenience is a value, and one we hold personally. Ultimately, this is why it keeps winning, outweighing the more abstract ideas like privacy, democracy, or equality, all of which remain merely issues for most of us. That’s why Fegan’s encounter matters. Her moment of realization at the airport is one we will all face one day: the instant when we realize that the convenience we value is not only inseparable from those issues, but that, taken far enough, that they can’t exist simultaneously. Convenience doesn’t simply supercede privacy or democracy or equality in many of our lives. It might also destroy them.

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