Pyrrhic Convenience

This is a term that emerged in the comments under Inscius’ Ceramic Aware blog post. The conversation turned to the subject of the fridge spam (which, it turns out, probably isn’t a thing – yet) and the fact that we are increasingly being sold gadgets that are connected, flexible, very functional and completely locked down so that the person paying for the gadget has little or no control over it.

It is, of course, very convenient to be able to buy a device, take it home, plug it in and expect everything to just work. But if that convenience comes at the cost of not being able to open it, repair it, upgrade it or even apply a security patch, then the short-term convenience is far outweighed by the long term cost.

There is a trade-off between convenience and control and, in the vast majority of cases, the choice you make will depend on a range of factors and there is unlikely to be a clearly right or wrong decision. However, I do think that you need to understand that you are making a choice and that choice is, in the majority of cases, between short-term convenience and long-term convenience.

Whenever you choose the immediately convenient option without understanding, or even being aware, of the longer term consequences of this decision, you are enjoying pyrrhic convenience.

4 thoughts on “Pyrrhic Convenience

  1. Pyrrhic convenience. As you explain it is how I first understood it, which shows it is a great formulation! 😀

    Even if control and power is not a zero-sum game, a user’s/customer’s lack of control usually gives another person/entity opportunity for more control.

    It is also a trade-off between short and long term convenience, as you point out. I have never thought of it that way. But it is true. Great formulation again!

    I feel now being a GNU/Linux user (not a developer or sysadmin or anything) gives me convenience, even if at the beginning it took some time to learn how to become a user. The short term inconvenience was eased with what I thought was interesting and quite fun learning (and some frustrations). Long term frustration with that proprietray crap helped, of course 🙂

    I was just reminded of the famous Benjamin Franklin’s quote “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”, which is often repeated in various versions. The pyrrhic convenience fits the industrial, and especially digital, age. At least for those that enjoy relative safety.

    The story of the fridge was too good not to be spread ;-),. It does point to the potential problem with anything net-attached. I remember at least ten years ago they talked about intelligent refridgerators, how they could keep track of what was “needed” to buy. Imho it is a weird notion to have net-connected alarm for food shortage in one’s own home. Next, will we have alarm for when we are hungry? 😉 (Tho that of course could be a useful thing for a person with constant lack of appetite, lessened contact with reality or some other serious problem/disability/etc ).


  2. I have to admit that I took the Spamming Fridge story at face value when I first saw it. Even if the original press release was more excitable than accurate, it does point to a very real problem and we do need to understand that any bit of functionality that we can’t get at is a problem that can’t be fixed.

    I do like your Benjamin Franklin reference – if you replace ‘liberty’ and ‘safety’ with ‘control’ and ‘convenience’ it sums this up perfectly.

    I switched away from Windows to Linux back in 2007 and, as you say, there is a learning curve. But there is also plenty of help available if you are willing to look for it. I wouldn’t claim to be any sort of expert but I do now find myself increasingly surprised at the amount of both inconvenience and cost that users of proprietary systems are prepared to endure.

    And, it has to be said, I do find that being able to fix my own problems feels great 🙂


  3. I started using Linux in 2009, and I had not had that many problems. And the few times I had problems I managed to fix them, with help of the wealth of information on the web. But I do not remember how I fixed stuff, so if the same problem occurs again, I have to look up the solution again. Some applications that behaved strangely I often replaced. It is a quite worriless experience, at least when using some of the more “user-friendly” distros. I am also just a desktop user, apart from some fiddling with a raspberry pi, so it is rather uncomplicated these days. The only time I had some bigger problems is when distrohopping and occassionally with wine. Wine is in steady development, and I do not use it often, but it have not given me any problems in a fair while.

    So even if I could fix stuff myself, I just find it more stable, trustworthy and convenient with GNU/Linux then with those proprietary choices.

    “User friendly” is a rather ambigious concept. It could mean easy to use. It could also mean respecting the user/consumers freedom. For me, at least some distros fulfill both meanings. A proprietary system that is easy to use is not so user friendly in the freedom sense. It is pyrrhic convenience.


  4. I think my experience with Linux has been much the same as yours. The issues I have encountered have been realtively minor and it has always been pretty easy to find an explanation of how to solve them. I do try to post something to the blog if it’s a problem I think I may encounter again, or if I’ve pulled together information from two or three sources, but I’m not always as consistent as I would like to be.

    You make an interesting point about being user friendly. Certainly some operating systems (and I’m thinking more of proprietary ones now) do achieve a level of pyrrhic convenience by hiding their complexity but also making it impossible – or very difficult – to change or repair anything not explicitly permitted by the vendor.

    Linux distros, in my experience, are less able and less likely to go (as far) down this path. Even if the maintainers of the distro do try to hide the complexity, they don’t actively prevent you from poking around with the settings if you really want to.

    That said, I am really enjoying using Antergos at the moment, which – for me – embodies The Arch Way for Dummies. One of these days I will find the time to install Arch itself. Probably 😉


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