our obsession with automating everything

This summer, I’ve embraced the ultimate 2019 cliche: I’ve been finding ways to automate more things in my life in an effort to save some time. I got a robot vaccuum so I could spend less time vaccuuming up dog hair. I subscribed to Hungryroot, the healthy meal delivery service with 3-ingredient plant-based meals that can be cooked in 5 minutes, because I haven’t felt like spending an hour making elaborate dinners. I ordered small sundry items I needed, like beauty blenders and tupperware containers, on Amazon because it was easier than going to the store. I considered signing up for Amazon Subscribe & Save for things like toilet paper and paper towels so I never have to run out to buy them again.

I personally hate shopping in stores, and these days prefer to buy as many things as I can online without having to make the trip to a store to buy or return something, which always feels like such a time commitment, such a hassle (yes, I’ve probably internalized the idea that I should always be doing something more productive). But I’m far from the only one: this piece in the New York Times today about the fall of Dean & Deluca and Barney’s, two stores that were once New York institutions, does a great job of examining how our shopping habits have changed in our modern culture of productivity and convenience. Ginia Bellafante writes:

Despite these abiding economic truths, it is also true that the city that produced a retail culture focused on discovery and experimentation has become a place with Amazon boxes on the stoop of every brownstone. We have allowed our habits to become so effectively manipulated toward convenience that is hard to imagine appreciating idiosyncrasy if it returned.

I, like everyone else these days, want everything to be convenient and want to find every possible way to save time. Shopping as an activity — just browsing and letting myself discover things — feels like an almost quaint, outdated concept. To me, shopping has long felt like a waste of time; on the rare occasions that I do go into a store, I go in with a clear purpose and a list and only buy the exact things I need so I can get in and out as fast as possible.

But what has our obsession with convenience done to the retail business? It’s hard for me personally to feel nostalgic about Barney’s and Dean & Deluca — I’ve never shopped at Barney’s and I’ve been to Dean & Deluca maybe once out of necessity because I was in Soho and it was the closest thing, but I found everything to be wildly overpriced (I always think of Adrian Grenier in The Devil Wears Prada complaining “I went to Dean & Deluca. It’s like $6 a strawberry there!”). But they represent a time when shopping was fun, was a leisure activity, not a chore to be managed and automated and optimized. (I did spend lots of time in malls in my teenage years, and America’s malls are dying too.)

I also feel slightly guilty about the effects of my convenience obsession on the environment: all the packaging waste created by meal deliveries and the constant pile of Amazon cardboard boxes that seems to magically reappear every time we’ve taken the last stack out to the recycling. Not only are we killing the retail industry, we’re also hurting the environment! How do you square our overscheduled lives and desire for efficiency with its impacts on the world? Is Amazon dependence unethical? Is there any solution to this? I have no idea! Read Ginia’s story though, it’s a very good read.

What I’m reading

Athleisure, barre, kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman, The Guardian. An excerpt from Jia Tolentino’s new book (which I am reading right now, and is excellent).

We’re giving our baby my wife’s last name. Here’s why, The Lily.

Canned cocktails give millennials what they’ve always desired, The Atlantic. “The middlebrow fanciness of cracking open a cold Moscow mule in a friend’s backyard might be just the thing to satisfy a generation whose desires often outpace its disposable income.”

One is Chinese. One is American. How a journalist discovered and reunited identical twins, LA Times. This story is incredible.

I gained 20 pounds before my wedding and it was perfect, Glamour. The only correct take on wedding diets (in response to the NYT publishing a guide to the “perfect wedding dress workout” this week).

You can’t stop mass shootings by punishing people with mental illness, Washington Post. A harrowing first person account from a woman who was a danger to no one, but was still involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

Elizabeth Warren’s classroom strategy, The Cut. Rebecca Traister profiles Elizabeth Warren.

I’ve picked my job over my kids, New York Times. This is a really lovely essay.


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