As newly engaged people often do, my friend Joe described the moment he knew his fiance was something special. “She told me she changed the head gasket on her car by just following the manual.” He continued, “I thought, ‘Yes! she knows how to do things!’”
So few of us, male or female, seem to know how to do things anymore. I thought back to when I was a teenager, and how I used to change the oil in my car. These days it goes straight to the shop without a second thought, and the idea of doing an actual repair is a nonstarter.
Our economy has become so service-oriented that we now have a service for just about everything. And no industry is more hellbent on rolling out more and more ways for us to sit at home and do nothing than the consumer Internet. Need to schedule a maid without getting off the couch? Check! Too lazy to cook dinner? You have your choice between restaurant delivery or a custom prepared “meal kit” that you can just pop in the oven. How about a handyman to come over and assemble that IKEA desk? Two clicks away!
Internet entrepreneurs have even stepped in to save us from the horrible burden of buying underwear by offering to deliver it on a monthly basis. Never mind that only the incontinent needs that much underwear.
Not only can we farm out all manner of chores and work, but we’re now outsourcing our decision making on the most basic and personal items. We have websites that pick out our clothes for us because we’re too lazy to decide what we should wear, and food services that tell us where and what to eat. If for some reason the algorithms and personal shoppers of the Internet fail us, we can Tweet and post to the social Web for instantaneous advice on any choice. The services for offloading work were just the first step. Now we can also offload anything that requires even a modicum of mental effort.
Where does this lead us? At best, it strips us of our individual taste. With our personal style handed over to a monthly box curated by someone else and every choice subject to the approval of our social network, we risk becoming generic and devoid of originality.
Even worse, I fear we are fast evolving into a people incapable, or at least unwilling, to do anything ourselves. With the Internet providing everything we could ever want at the touch of a mouse click, we’re becoming a kind of distorted version of the idle rich.
Many people, especially economists, would argue that specialization is the best way to maximize productivity. While this may be true in the strict sense of economic output, offloading every chore and decision outside of our narrow area of expertise threatens to leave us so limited that we may end up handicapping ourselves in the real world, incapable of functioning without a vast array of people and services to deliver our most basic needs. Taken to an extreme, an extreme many now appear to be approaching, this total reliance on others serves to limit our knowledge and skills.
Of course nobody is fully self sufficient, and that’s not what I’m arguing for. The efficient division of labor is why we live in cities, and before that, in villages and tribes. But a full life requires the experience of living. Having others provide all of our needs, including our food, our clothes, even our potential mates without any effort of our own, makes us narrow. It strips us of our taste and of the experiences of a full life. What we think are timesavers end up being missed opportunities to learn or do something new.
Unlike Joe’s fiance, who knows how to do things on her own, we won’t have to learn how to do much of anything. Two clicks of the mouse and everything will be decided for us and delivered to us. We can just sit back, relax, and enjoy being a do nothing nation.