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How Long Until I Never Have to Leave Home Again?

• August 05, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: BRIAN A JACKSON/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Paul Hiebert wants to know when he’ll be able to do everything from the comfort of his couch. The day is coming, and it doesn’t appear too far away.

Some days I don’t leave my apartment. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for a few days to go by without my feet touching a sidewalk even once.

What am I doing in there? I’m working a fulfilling job. I’m buying a new pair of super bass headphones. I’m eating fresh sushi. I’m talking to and laughing with friends from Canada. I’m watching the latest Hollywood films. You know, just regular everyday stuff that people typically do outside the home.

Besides occasionally having to throw out some trash, do laundry in my building’s basement, or go for a run in the park to retain a modicum of health, I could live quite comfortably in my apartment for months at a time. (If I had more money and room, I suppose I could hire a laundry service and buy a treadmill, thus scratching the last two items from my already thin list of reasons to leave.) Sure, if I stayed inside I would be deprived of many in-the-flesh experiences and miss out on certain happenings around town, but people can be mean and waiting for the bus is boring. Plus, someone is bound to post a couple of Vines capturing the highlights of whatever major event just occurred, anyway. My point: If I wanted to, I could stay home pretty much indefinitely, and I’d be just fine.

IF YOU LIVE IN a big American city and work in a growing number of fields that allow you to operate from your living-room couch with no more than a laptop resting on your naked thighs, my situation shouldn’t sound unfamiliar. If anything, it’s an increasingly common arrangement—so common that one day in the future it’s perhaps possible that the majority of Americans will never need to leave home again. I mean, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors already.

Consider the following points:

1. WORKING FROM HOME IS ON THE RISE
One study has found that the number of employees who telecommute has risen from 1.8 million in 2005 to 3.1 million in 2011. While that might not be an impressive number given America’s total adult workforce, it doesn’t include the self-employed, a group Forbes states has “swelled by 1.3 million since 2001 to 10.6 million” in 2012. According to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year the self-employed logged nearly three times the hours spent working at home than those on salary or paid by wage.

“All the infrastructure and technology is already there for large swaths of the economy to move to remote working,” David Heinemeier Hansson, tech guru and co-author of the upcoming book Remote: Office Not Required, wrote to me in an email. “What’s not there are the social norms, expectations, and other inter-personal adjustments. We’ve been used to the commute-office-commute-home drill for so long that it’s hard to break the spell.”

Sure, if I stayed inside I would be deprived of many in-the-flesh experiences and miss out on certain happenings around town, but people can be mean and waiting for the bus is boring.

For Hansson, there are simply too many benefits involved in the telecommuting movement for it to regress. For employers, the movement means access to the best-suited employees across the globe; for employees, it means access to the best-suited employers. No one has to uproot. No one has to dedicate a portion of her day to sitting in traffic or reserve a chunk of his earnings for monthly subway passes. No one has to think about what to wear on weekdays.

While it still will take time for working at home to reach mainstream levels, Hansson believes time is the only major obstacle left. “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed,” Hansson said, borrowing the quote from novelist William Gibson.

2. ONLINE SHOPPING IS EVOLVING
Forrester Research forecasts that U.S. online retail sales will grow from $231 billion in 2012 to $370 billion in 2017, accounting for 10 percent of all retail sales across the country. While the industry is constantly incorporating innovations to push more sales, such as at-home body scanners so shoppers can measure themselves before buying items of clothing and social-media elements to make the experience of consumption more collaborative, Dr. Esther Swilley of Kansas State University believes the most radical change is yet to come.

To Swilley, who specializes in e-commerce and marketing technology, the industry’s next giant leap forward is something called “metaverse retailing,” which essentially involves transforming customers into 3-D avatars capable of making real purchases in virtual stores run by various companies. Imagine Second Life or World of Warcraft, but with shopping for paint and brushes at Home Depot.

With pixilated characters roaming about a virtual mall trying on different baseball caps or spending more time in the perfume section as opposed to, say, the shoe section, the idea is that retailers will be able to gather additional data on customers’ preferences and behaviors. This information can then be used to encourage more shopping in both traditional and online venues.

“A lot of people just don’t like the idea of a virtual world—it scares them,” said Swilley, who admits the technology still needs to improve and become less expensive for retailers before the idea takes off. “You’re always going to have those who say, ‘I’m not going to do it,’ but I think you’re going to get less and less of that as younger people grow up.”

3. AMAZON, WALMART, AND OTHERS SEEM TO BE GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT DELIVERING GROCERIES
Most people are aware that Amazon is hugely successful at making money from selling and shipping books, toys, sporting equipment, and other pleasant yet non-life-sustaining products, but now the company is aiming to change that. This past June, AmazonFresh, which has been offering same-day grocery delivery services to residents of Seattle since 2007, launched in specific Los Angeles ZIP codes and is expected to expand to nearly a couple dozen other urban markets by the end of 2014.

Walmart, too, has also started experimenting with delivering perishable goods in both San Francisco and San Jose. Even Google is testing an idea along similar lines.

Although the online grocery industry is notorious for its low margins, and the Wall Street Journal reports it’s currently worth only $6 billion (less than one percent of the estimated $850-billion U.S. food retail market), experts expect this number to increase to $9.4 billion by 2017 as consumers adapt their habits.

“Amazon really could use this as a means to drive sales of general merchandise, which may have better margins than groceries,” Matt Nemer, a Wells Fargo analyst, told the Journal. “That’s what could really set them apart from the pure grocery delivery guys—they might not need to make a lot of money on the groceries themselves.”

While many companies have failed in the past, organizations such as Peapod and FreshDirect on the East Coast, Pink Dot in Southern California, and Gopher Grocery in Minnesota appear to be making the business work. So what happens when a multi-billion-dollar behemoth like Amazon gets involved? Probably yet another reason to stay at home, I’m thinking.

4. THE INTERNET CAN PROVIDE ENDLESS HOURS OF BOTH ENTERTAINMENT AND EDIFICATION
With Skype, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Wikipedia, Tumblr, and hundreds of thousands of other places to read, write, watch, and listen to things on the Web, there’s enough content online to fill the evenings and weekends of several lifetimes. For example, in 2011, the Pew Research Center reported that 48 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube every minute. Today, YouTube’s own statistics put that number at 100 hours.

So whether you’re into the philosophy of Aristotle, the humor of Ellen DeGeneres, the music of Daft Punk, or the science of Marie Curie, there’s most likely an established community of enthusiasts or burgeoning MOOC that could always use another member. Indeed, nearly every day there is less and less you cannot do with an Internet connection—and that includes both interacting with friends across town and keeping up with family members on another continent.

OF COURSE, UNTIL SCIENTISTS invent a machine able to fill potholes independently and smart cars capable of delivering my order of tomatoes and headphones without a human driver, someone still has to go outside. And as long as people enjoy rock climbing or playing pool with a stranger at the bar, they will leave the house every now and then.

Still, that’s not my primary interest here. While some people presumably always will go outside, I’m curious to know if, in the year 2377, Americans will ever need to.

Again, according to a 2011 nationwide poll conducted by the Nature Conservancy, only about 10 percent of kids between the ages of 13 and 18 said they spend time outdoors every day. The rest, it seems, prefer playing video games or staring at their iPad in a weather-controlled, climate change-proof environment where no bugs can come in contact with their skin. Sometimes it also comes down to a lack of nature near the home, and I’m pretty sure that’s not an issue that’s going to get resolved anytime soon.

Adults aren’t much better, either. Last summer, researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles’ Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) released a book titled Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, which is the culmination of a rigorous nine-year project studying 32 middle-class families living in the Los Angeles area. Among several other neat things, the study found that though these families felt their leisure time at home was limited, they spent the majority of it watching TV, and adults used less than 15 minutes of their week enjoying their yards, despite the nice weather and some owning comfortable porch furniture, trampolines, and pools.

So will we as a society continue to gravitate toward the indoors? Will the appeal of staying within the confines of one’s own home grow stronger with every new generation and every development in, say, online communications and personal 3-D printers capable of producing a vast array of items?

“I certainly do more shopping on the Internet than I did in the last two years, which was more than the two years before that,” said Jeanne E. Arnold, a professor of Anthropology and one of the lead authors of the Life at Home study. “Personally, I’m seeing that the ease with which that can happen is very attractive, and I think that would definitely be true for these families that started to express dismay at all the time spent grocery shopping and going to big box stores and standing in line.”

The notion that one day everything will come to our front door as opposed to us having to go out to get it is one Arnold finds tenable—at least she agrees there are lots of trends supporting the potential for society to move in this direction.

So buckle up, America. Install seat belts into your couch and love seats if you haven’t yet, and get ready to not leave your house.

Paul Hiebert
Paul Hiebert is the editor of Ballast, a Canadian-centric Website about culture and politics. Follow him on Twitter @hiebertpaul.

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