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What the Shut-In Economy Destroys

Grocery pickup, home cleaning, takeout, laundry, Amazon: there’s a delivery app for almost everything nowadays. But Lauren Smiley writes that our new “sharing economy” seems to be creating, in fact, a “shut-in economy”:

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon researchers warned that the internet could make us into hermits. They released a study monitoring the social behavior of 169 people making their first forays online. The web-surfers started talking less with family and friends, and grew more isolated and depressed. “We were surprised to find that what is a social technology has such anti-social consequences,” said one of the researchers at the time. “And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing.”

We’re now deep into the bombastic buildout of the on-demand economy—with investment in the apps, platforms and services surging exponentially. Right now Americans buy nearly eight percent of all their retail goods online, though that seems a wild underestimate in the most congested, wired, time-strapped urban centers.

Many services promote themselves as life-expanding — there to free up your time so you can spend it connecting with the people you care about, not standing at the post office with strangers. … But plenty of the delivery companies are brutally honest that, actually, they never want you to leave home at all.

Home delivery isn’t necessarily detrimental to community or society. But the nature of today’s home delivery service is much broader in its reach, and less communal in its medium. As Smiley points out, the deliverymen in today’s shut-in economy (unlike the milkman of times past) are often invisible—like the “Alfred” who drops off your groceries and puts your clean laundry in its drawers. Today’s litany of service apps take care of all the tasks that we traditionally had to do—the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and dusting—yet there is rarely a human face which we can connect to the work.

This reminded me of an excerpt from Matt Crawford’s fascinating new book, The World Beyond Your Head. In it, he speaks of the ways we have increasingly mitigated reality, consigning ourselves to a virtual world that is more manipulable and controllable, one without the hazards and frustrations of reality. He writes,

As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces … as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.

Smiley’s article considers well the class divides and dilemmas that this new shut-in economy shows us. But it’s worth considering the philosophical dilemmas that this new reality presents us with, as well. As Crawford points out above, our tendency to virtualize our lives—to turn to computers, televisions, and apps for the bread and butter of vocation, recreation, and housework—has damaging repercussions for our mental and physical health. We delve into a mitigated reality, one in which we rarely see or experience the real-world consequences of our actions. We lose the ability to perform fundamental (yet meaningful) skills, like cooking or repairing our cars. We lose the camaraderie fostered through group activities and familial tasks. We also lose the virtues associated with conflict, failure, and imperfection—the traits of patience, perseverance, and wisdom that only come through commitment to a difficult skill.

It is also interesting that these services are all presented with the promise that they will save you time—yet the time that it saves us, according to Smiley’s research, is almost entirely dedicated to vocational tasks. As one young interviewee told Smiley, “I was talking to my father on Skype the other day. He asked, ‘Don’t you miss a casual stroll to the shop?’ Everything we do now is time-limited, and you do everything with intention. There’s not time to stroll anywhere.” Our delivery system isn’t freeing us up for more leisure time—but rather, for more work.

The peril in this, of course, exists in the fact that if our home spaces are increasingly dedicated to telecommuted work, rather than to communal activity or skilled labor of some sort, we will increasingly find ourselves departing from the physical world, and existing only within the pleasant yet tepid waters of virtual reality. “The world in which we acquire skill as embodied agents is precisely that world in which we are subject to the ‘negative affordances’ of material reality,” writes Crawford.

We are not just company employees, Dungeons & Dragons players, Netflix watchers: we are human beings with physical, corporeal selves—with hands and brains that grow sharp through even the most menial skills. A life that ignores the necessity of such skills will not just become physically “shut-in”—it will likely facilitate an intellectual and emotional closing, as well.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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