Several civilizations used large quantities of lead. The Romans used lead in their plumbing. The word plumbing has its roots in plumbum, the Latin word for lead. Throughout the middle ages, high-class Europeans used lead in glazed cups, plates and utensils. As recently as the 20th century, we used petrol with high amounts of lead.
However, lead even in trace amounts is toxic to nearly every organ in the human body. The widespread use of lead is said to have brought down the Roman empire. People continued to use and expose themselves to lead well into the 20th century despite knowing how deadly it was.
And the only reason for doing this was because using lead was convenient. Lead was a readily available and highly malleable. As an fuel additive, Tetraethyl lead (TEL) had excellent anti-knocking properties and was suitable for use in high speed combustion engines. Even though ancient Roman physicians knew about the toxicity of lead, they could not stop the masses from using it. In the 20th century, it required the scientist Clair Patterson to wage a war against powerful petroleum lobbies and ban the use of lead in fuel.
We live at a time where convenience is seen as an ideal to aspire towards. Sure, convenience has given us washing machines, dishwashers, running water in our homes, sanitation and encyclopedias at our fingertips. Why with the click of a button, I can compile all the research needed to write this post. Or I can have somebody deliver my favourite dish from a restaurant nearby to my doorstep in half an hour.
While the benefits of convenience are immediate, its costs are often hidden. The convenience of ordering meals online makes it less likely for people to prepare their own meals. The hidden cost lies in the difference in incentives here. A restaurant’s objective is to minimize cost and maximize taste. People’s objectives when they cook for themselves is to prepare healthy meals. When we order online, the meals we are served might not serve our best interests.
Every bit of technology that increases our convenience comes with hidden costs. It helps to weigh against the benefits before we render convenience the central virtue of our times.