It would probably not come as too destabilizing a shock for one to know that I have a history of neuroses. And in my younger years they were, by very possibly every standard, somewhat eccentric. In elementary school I had a fear of dragonflies. By middle school I risked panic attack every time a classroom was handed over to a substitute teacher. I’m sure this is all very amusing; it is to me, don’t worry. But I can’t imagine it seemed that way to my parents, who had to shepherd me from therapist to psychiatrist and back, not to mention three different elementary schools to accommodate my learning disability, to put me on an even keel.
One of my more acute issues was some variant of separation anxiety. It proved rather resistant to the talking cure, so when I was about eight, my mom took a more proactive approach. On a Saturday afternoon, she drove me to the elementary school I was then attending, sat me at the front bench with a pad of paper, and left me there for some 20 minutes. Though it was a nice enough day there was not a soul in sight as far as I can recall, save two older girls who walked up, asked me what I was doing and, upon hearing my candid reply, looked at each other in understandably perplexed silence before walking away.
Having carried that experiment with the austere dignity of a John C. Calhoun portrait, this pattern would hold for much of my childhood and adolescence. Even in college I was propelled along through Mom forcing me, from 70 miles away, to join things and be social. Though the specific moments of “strong encouragement” were beneficial at select turns, it left an enduring impression on me. If I was to improve at all, it was through effort. Even misfired effort done in good faith, I convinced myself, would bare some reward. I don’t think I was quite right there, but even so, I took it upon myself to assume a self-presentation that was outgoing. I accepted invitations, solicited my time and services, developed personal charm, and traveled alone more often to unfamiliar places, all in the hope of forging a network where I didn’t always have to be so fucking gregarious.
Success was not always consistent, but every time it came it left me wondering why I hadn’t done this sooner. What a revelation it was that being normal wasn’t very hard at all with some practice. In fact I had come to realize that I enjoyed talking to people and could even be very easy going in new company. It was a slow but illuminating education on how humanity kept moving.
But every time I think I have the norm pegged, its mysterious keepers pull the rug up from under me.
“Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day,” writes Jonathan Rauch. “Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk?” This is the opening passage to his 2003 Atlantic article, “Caring for Your Introvert.” In it, Rauch declares himself and others as part of a little-known, perhaps even oppressed “orientation” (emphasis his), who are neither consistently shy nor misanthropic but who are nonetheless tired by people. And they would like some goddamn recognition.
The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”
There’s quite a bit of tongue being planted in cheek here, but it’s hard to otherwise see this as a catalytic document for an emergent national mood. I had known nothing of introverts or the Myers-Briggs test until a few years ago. Now the content farm is bountiful in the introversion crop. Psychology Today gives “Nine Signs You’re Probably an Introvert.” The Huffington Post boasted 23 more. The process, it seems, is to confirm one’s introversion and to report to Buzzfeed in perpetuity. A joke that Buzzfeed assures “will make introverts laugh more than they should” is a tweet that simply reads, “Can’t. On eternity leave.”
I suspend judgment as to whether the wave of introversion is sincerely felt or part of an ongoing trend (I can’t recall where the Myers-Briggs classifications were likened to astrology for the Neil deGrasse Tyson set, but it works). Its impact is more certain to me, and it’s proving at the very least to be competitive with other social phenomena (Trumpism, heroin) for long-term tangibility and consequentialism.
Ever since it was profiled in Fast Company earlier this week, the service startup Bodega has been pilloried without relent on social media. Founded by former Google employees, Bodega “sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the ‘store.’” The pantries are designed for multiple locations: gyms, offices, apartment and dorm complexes, etc.
The outcome, as it is framed in the article, is to offer a more convenient alternative to the convenience store. But Bodega was very quickly taken down several pegs by the fact that Bodega sounded like a glorified vending machine, and that similar, less convoluted pantries are already in place in offices and hotels. Helen Rosner at Eater agrees that Bodega is ridiculous. Its business model is a mess. But Rosner pushes back against critics saying it’s just another redundant product like Juicero. “I think a better analogy is Blue Apron,” she writes:
Like Bodega, Blue Apron took something that involved leaving the house and engaging in moderate human interaction — in their case, grocery shopping for dinner — and slickly repackaged it in a way that it seemed actually to be selling a balm for recipe anxiety. Bloomberg’s always very smart Matt Levine called it “a tech company in the sense that its product is not meals, or ingredients, but simulacrum.” The problem was that the simulacrum wasn’t proprietary. As soon as it became clear that there was a demand for meal kits, everybody else got in on the action, too. (Emphasis mine.)
Companies like Bodega and Blue Apron are, as Levine puts it, “virtual-reality companies,” curing modern life of once-unavoidable daily hassles like shopping. But as Rosner points out, Blue Apron is struggling in an oversaturated market, and so will Bodega. I would not dare to question the more immediate and far more sophisticated analysis of these two, but I find the essence to which they cut both services down hard to overlook. Indeed, to look at the creators of Bodega as actual businessmen, with a practical strategy to turn a profit, is a mistake. Many entrepreneurs go out of their way to pose simultaneously, perhaps primarily, as visionaries. For once this might actually be the case.
If the Bodega creators and other internet and tech titans lack any feasible way of doing actual business, they have at the very least a coherent understanding of where society wants to go: nowhere. It wants to stay in, to curate, and to exclude. The problem of overstimulation is eased by the ability to manage stimulation. The freedom of access gives way to the power to mute, even to block. The global village of Marshal McLuhan gives way to E.M. Forster’s machine-dependent, physical interaction-repulsed cell dwellers in “The Machine Stops”:
There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
This is the shut-in economy. It will come about gradually of course, and with little to no enabling of a devastated earth as it had been in Forster’s story. One botched beta test or sunken IPO will, in time, give way to a genuine article. And then another. And then another. Each inconvenience falls like a profane icon. Soon the personal population of one’s life is brought down to the most brutal of bare minimums. Soon neighborhoods will become quieter, and homes less lively, evinced with no greater activity than the glow patterns in the windows. Soon no one may notice when one goes completely dark.
The shut-in economy is not steeped in laziness but in hyper-minimalism, first of the material kind. “The cyber-lords have already convinced us that maps, paper, pens, and even push buttons are somehow incredibly inconvenient and clumsy, leaving us scraping and pawing like drooling bug life on their flat digital dildos,” writes Ian Svenonius. “Google’s search engines and applications have likewise taught us to refrain from using our apparently out-of-date and hopelessly inefficient brains.” And then of the emotional kind. We would be cleaned of all unnecessary strain on our social graces and patience. This hits service, retail, and shipping first and ruthlessly. Then it eats into relationships. What is a relationship? It is at once right next to you and passively filed away somewhere, to be accessed as need dictates.
We’ve become accustomed to a great deal of this already. The power to while away weekends with whole televisions seasons that melt time almost in an instant is an impressive gateway drug. But people looking for a sudden reversal or “cure for convenience” are encouraged to read, I don’t know, Matthew Crawford and not me.
My history of anxiety is ongoing. And though my current afflictions are less comical than they once were, they remain burdensome. I am afraid of driving, not the right thing to be in the suburbs. My journey to get my license was long, ending after two attempts on the road and as little as five attempts on paper. But anxieties can invigorate as much as cripple. One thing I didn’t see coming as I sat stiffly on the school bench was my aversion to inertia. These are never easy to reconcile, but a world with far fewer people and far greater space might be the surest way to their management.
Even with easy sociability I still take pleasure in near-empty consumer spaces. I go to the diner, the grocery store, the library, and sometimes the movie theater outside of peak hours. I am tantalized by the prospect of a society where all hours are off-peak, and where the new norm is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Not that this is sustainable, of course. Each business will vacate in time, leaving plaster and concrete husks to the elements and to a social being made new thanks to the retiring multitude. I will miss their company. But if they want to live vicariously through my Instagram feed that is their choice. Thankfully for them I would be able to take it further than I thought possible.