App-based delivery and service providers will furnish you with a stranger to run your errands for you, easing one quandary of modern life while exacerbating another. Is it really freeing up more time? Isn’t our chronic busyness making us even more socially isolated from each other?
After my father died in April, I received a phone message from my bank.
It wasn’t about money.
No, it was my favorite teller, Yolanda, her voice stippled with empathy:
“This is from all of us up here at Santander: me and Geoffrey and Diane and Sharif. We just want to say how sorry we are to hear about your father, and that we’re praying for you and your whole family. You call us if you need anything, okay?”
You don’t get that from an ATM.
The human investment
I swore off automatic tellers years ago, after my partner was robbed, at gunpoint, while trying to withdraw vacation money. And because my paychecks arrive erratically, because I work at home, because the four-mile round-trip walk to Santander allows me to cross “vigorous exercise” off my daily list, I visit my branch at least two times a week.
Twice-weekly meet-ups for 16 years: That’s more often than I see my mother. Long enough for Yolanda and her colleagues to follow my family’s trajectory: the purchase of our house in 1999; the birth of our daughter two years later; the home equity loan that financed Elissa’s car; the bat mitzvah that necessitated frequent withdrawals.
I carried Sasha in a Björn to that bank, pushed her in a leopard-print stroller, panted up the hill with both hands on the baby jogger. Later, I hurried to fill out deposit slips while urging her not to swing on the lane dividers or dart out the front door.
Sasha grew old enough to choose green lollipops from the basket Yolanda proffered. Then — flash! — she grew out of lollipops and into her own bank account, birthday checks she endorses with a still-tentative signature.
And when my father died, and I walked to the bank alone, Yolanda took one look at my swimmy eyes, came out from behind the counter to hug me, then fetched a tangle of toilet paper from the employee bathroom to swab my tears.
Solving a problem to create another
I thought about all of that when I read recently about Instacart and TaskRabbit, two of a fistful of app-based delivery and service providers that furnish — for a fee, natch — workers who will fetch your organic kale from Whole Foods, assemble your IKEA bookcase, wait in line for you at the DMV, or frost the cupcakes for your kid’s birthday party. All brought directly to you by a stranger with a smile.
It’s the stranger part that worries me. Not because I fear Instacart might send some disarming psychopath across my threshold with a sack of hormone-free hotdogs, but because these apps ease one quandary of modern life while exacerbating another.
We’re crunched for time. We’re lonely as hell.
Want the numbers? Adults employed full time in the United States report working an average of 47 hours per week. Nearly 40 percent of them clock at least 50 hours weekly, according to a 2014 Gallup survey.
But surely those ubiquitous iPads and smartphones make us feel more connected, even as we toil away? Maybe not: The National Science Foundation found in 2006 that Americans were far more socially isolated than they were two decades earlier; one in four people said they had no one in whom they could confide.
Apps like Instacart claim to offer an escape hatch from chronic busyness — at least, for those who can afford to pay others for life’s routine tasks. The service, now in 15 cities, including Philadelphia, employs shoppers who receive your grocery list via smartphone, zip off to the market of your choice and deliver those avocados or Tastykakes within an hour, for a $10 fee (plus tip).
And what is the purchaser doing with that precious, freed-up hour? Playing peek-a-boo with the baby? Having sex with her beloved? Plotting the next Great American Novel?
We wish. More likely, she’s shopping by smartphone while sitting on the toilet, a multitasking habit shared by 38 million Americans.
Here’s the rub: These apps do save time, and maybe even aggravation. Let somebody else choose the ripe cantaloupe or copy your kid’s school enrollment forms at Staples; pay a twenty-something grad with a B.A. in philosophy to wait in line for you at the Shake Shack. You’ll gain some convenience. But what will you lose?
The people in your neighborhood
Not long ago, I applied for Pennsylvania child abuse clearances and had to list all my addresses since 1975 — including four different dorm rooms, an illegal sublet in Boston from the summer of 1983 and the Victorian fix-up in Portland, Oregon, that my friends bought for an astonishing $50,000.
I was peripatetic — a dozen addresses in 24 years — before coming back home to roost. Now, I’ve lived here long enough to see an empty storefront become a popular coffee shop, then a less-popular coffee shop, then a so-so noodle house. Long enough to see the house next door shift from a carefully tended twin to a rotting haven for squatters to — hallelujah! — home for a pair of Chicago transplants who share beer with us over the back fence.
Long enough to be on a first-name basis with Yolanda, Geoffrey and Diane.
But it wouldn’t matter how many years I lived here if I never left my house, if instead I perched on my lazy tuffet, pecking away at delivery apps and ordering others to pick up my dry cleaning, ferry my cats to the vet and mail that package to my sister-in-law in Hawaii.
Maybe you’re busier than I am. Maybe you work 70 hours a week as a neurosurgeon or a hedge fund manager. Maybe you have five children, two still in diapers, and no time to walk to the bank.
Or maybe you, too, have been suckered into the modern American vortex, where those with money can outsource ever more of their daily functioning, where we can conduct not only global commerce but local transactions without leaving the couch. Where digital devices promise us leisure that we promptly squander by spending more time on those very devices.
The same day Yolanda consoled me at the bank, I was a block from home when I heard a raspy voice: “Hey, I heard about your father.” It was the woman from the corner drugstore, the grumpy one who used to fuss every time I wrote a check. We got to know each other over the years. It turned out she had a soft spot for the pharmacy’s overweight cat. And there she was, hollering her condolences across the street.
A few days later, that tiny pharmacy closed. Gone: the strange proximity of condoms and jump-ropes, denture cream and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. Gone: the people who’d processed my photos, filled my prescriptions, furnished my bus tokens, watched my kid become a teenager and felt sorry about my father’s death.
Gone: a nexus for the surprising, annoying, sustaining things that happen when human beings bump up against other human beings, day after day after day.
Those smartphone people are pretty smart, themselves. But they still haven’t invented an app to replace that.