Consumptive Automation

In the future, will we ever leave our homes?

I haven’t set foot inside a movie theater since 2018 when Avengers Infinity Wars came out.

I live in New York City, where a movie ticket costs $13 (more if it’s IMAX, and that’s not including a $9 popcorn).

But I’ve stopped going to the movies, and that’s because the economics simply don’t make sense. After all, one trip to a movie theater can buy two months of unlimited movies on Netflix.

This illustrates two general trends that don’t just apply to movies:

  1. Where we formerly had to leave our homes to get X, now X comes straight to our homes.
  2. Where X used to be exclusively sold as an individual product, it now comes with XYZ and the rest of the alphabet.

We used to have VHS tapes and DVDs, but now we have Netflix. We used to have cassettes and CDs, but now we have Spotify. Thanks to services like Scribd and Stadia, audiobooks and video games are next.

Our individual needs are being met with more celerity and convenience than ever before.

The “we’ll give you everything you’ve ever wanted!” mantra of the pushy salesman has been adopted by software developers in Silicon Valley, and because 1s and 0s can scale infinitely, SV actually delivered.

And I mean that literally.

If there’s one thing that exemplifies the ethos of putting as little demand on the consumer as possible, it’s at-home delivery.

Jeff Bezos became the world’s richest man by catering to consumptive automation, and whether Amazon was a cause or a symptom of our tech-enabled consumptive habits is irrelevant. For better or worse, it’s here to stay.

When coupled with subscription services, at-home delivery can be especially ensnaring.

Between Blue Apron and Dollar Shave Club and Birchbox and BarkBox (yes, that one is for dogs), it’s a wonder we ever get outside at all.

I was about to predict that maybe postal workers would eventually be the only people who ever needed to go outside, but then I remembered that SV is also working on self driving cars and delivery drones. It’s not unimaginable that within 10 years, we’ll simply never need to leave our homes.

This should be at least a little bit alarming.

Maybe a completely tech-mediated future isn’t what we should build, just because we can.

Yes, in any one sector, it makes sense to embrace consumptive automation. After all, if you can find an “inefficiency” where people are leaving their homes to buy prescription meds at a pharmacy, then why not invent Capsule? But taken together, these services produce widespread unintended consequences.

Do I exaggerate? I’m not even so sure. A cursory internet search revealed hundreds of subscription + delivery services for everything from perfumes to board games. Why go to Sephora or your local game shop when you can have everything delivered?

The biggest winners are ostensibly the individual consumers who no longer need to schlep to the mall, and the malls seem to be the biggest losers from this shift to online commerce.

But I’m not here to lament the death of the mall — I never liked malls anyway.

The biggest loss isn’t being felt by malls or local business owners or Amazon warehouse workers. No, the biggest loss is being felt by us, the consumers!

We are social animals, and the feeling of alienation from our fellow humans is starting to become even more palpable. Thanks to consumptive automation, the communion with other humans is lost — and I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I sometimes feel as if hanging out with friends on a sunny day in Prospect Park is an act of resistance.

The revolution starts here!

To be clear, I am no Luddite, and I am not saying that we should ditch online services because they’re somehow unnatural or immoral. Rather, I’m saying that we have to consciously choose the society we want to live in.

I would love a society in which all of our basic desires were met through some techno-utopian delivery drone that could 3D-print anything on command, but I also want a society with connection between other human beings, with shared commons and group rituals, and a genuine sense of community and belonging.

Yes, this is being written in the time of Coronavirus, where we all have to be indoors and separated for the sake of our collective health, and I’ll admit that I’m particularly grateful at this time for services like Board Game Arena (hit me up if you want to play together!).

But when this is over, will we return to a world in which we actually hang out and play board games? Or will we be so cocooned in our homes, where every whim is met, that we’ll see no reason to leave?

I’m approachable!

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