Introverts, Unite! The Rise of the Hermit Economy

On-demand startups are marketed to ease the burdens of our busy lives, but convenience technology seems to be giving us little reason to leave the house.

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“There’s a great, big beautiful tomorrow… shining at the end of every day!” sings the animatronic family of Walt Disney’s “Carousel of Progress.” The rotating robot stage show premiered alongside “It’s a Small World” at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Audience members ride around scenes depicting an American family in four eras of technological innovation, and the ride culminates in the future in an electric home that affords its inhabitants leisure by performing their time-consuming chores.

Dr. Larry Rosen remembers visiting “Progressland,” the original name of the General Electric-commissioned ride, at the World’s Fair in 1964. Rosen remembers that, ironically, the visionary experience offered an optimistic glimpse of a future in which innovation would free up our time for more socialization. “The intention was always that it would do the menial tasks we didn’t need to do,” he says, “but who knew the menial tasks would be connection and communication?”

Rosen is a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. He says we’ve reached a point where technology is making hermitry — not human interaction — easier.

In a way, Progressland’s promise of convenience technology has come to fruition. With even the slightest smartphone savvy, you can hire out all of your pesky chores: shopping for groceries, walking the dog, washing the car, assembling furniture, waiting in line at the DMV. Running errands could become a thing of the past, for some, if current trends keep up, leaving us with tons of time for… what, exactly?

Picture it: you wake up and cook your breakfast from groceries delivered via an app like Instacart or Shipt before settling down for a long workday-from-home — as 115% more Americans have been doing since 2005. Then, a stylist — from an app like Glamsquad — makes a house call to give you a blowout and a manicure while Booster is gassing up your Subaru outside. Now you’re finally ready… to binge on an entire season of a Netflix drama and settle in with some sushi delivery — ordered through your Seamless app, of course.

“These kinds of services drive us away from face-to-face interactions,” Dr. Rosen says. “If you’re spending four to six hours each day on your phone (as we’re finding that people are) making short connections that aren’t real relationships or meaningful connections, you might be much more prone to stay inside.”

According to surveys from Rockbridge Associates, the on-demand economy grew 58 percent in 2017, with sectors like housing and food delivery more than doubling. All of these on-demand startups are marketed to ease the burdens of our busy lives, but convenience technology seems to be giving us little reason to leave the house. A sort of “hermit economy” has taken shape for those who can afford it.

Dr. Damian Sendler, a digital epidemiologist with Felnett Health Research Foundation, says the hermit economy could have long-term consequences in terms of social interaction. “Once you begin relying on this nonverbal communication of sending orders on your phone, you forget how to interact with other people,” he says. “When you do have to deal with customer service or go somewhere to get something done, you might develop anxiety and a fear of interacting with people.”

The chicken-or-the-egg question is relevant here: does increasing “APPization” of services cause reclusiveness or is it welcome technology for those already desiring a more cloistered existence?

Americans have displayed introverted behavior, at least to some extent, for centuries. Reclusiveness in America has inspirational legacy — as in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden — as well as tones of pathology and domestic terrorism in the case of Ted Kaczynski. Lately, self-proclaimed introverts have been declaring the virtues of holing up at home for their health, with scads of online articles offering “signs you might be an introvert” and an introvert Facebook page with 2.5 million followers declaring relatable maxims like “Sometimes I stay inside for an entire weekend and I regret nothing.”

Popular psychology presents introversion as the perfectly natural state of being “drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits.” Instead of the conventional opinion to advise socialization at every turn, a lot has been made of the need for societal accommodation for introverts, particularly in education and the workplace.

Andrew Becks, a 33-year-old digital advertising C.O.O. from Nashville and self-proclaimed introvert, says he is emotionally drained after an entire day of being “on.” Becks says, “The last thing I want to do is interact with people sometimes. I’m a lot less stressed when I feel I can use my evenings as a kind of detox from socialization.”

Becks admittedly utilizes convenience technology often. He and his husband used the app TAKL in their recent home renovation. The platform allows users to post a job and receive proposals and prices from vendors, mostly through text interactions. He’s been a fan of online food ordering ever since it came around about a decade ago. A typical night in with friends entails getting some drinks, ordering food delivery — from the vast selection of online options — and watching TV or a movie.

“The idea of going to a nightclub or a bar just does not appeal to me, but that we can leverage technology to have people over and do more than just order a pizza is pretty cool,” he says. “It allows people to maintain friendships with like-minded people in environments that are more comfortable for them.”

Becks likes the increased accountability that comes with online ordering, and he doesn’t mind losing some human interaction day to day. In fact, he says it helps him to appreciate it more, and to be more receptive to it, when he does have meaningful connections with people.

He admits that there are drawbacks to this kind of encompassing technology though. With so many opportunities for cyber consumerism, the Nashville millennial says you could get stuck in a virtual rabbit hole where you’re beholden to an algorithm to present all of this information to you: “It helps the company’s revenue and it creates a personalized experience, but it’s a kind of vortex where the brands people interact with are controlling the experience on a scale we’ve never seen before. It’s helpful to remember that we’re interacting in an ecosystem that’s designed to extract as much money out of us as possible.”

A bump in at-home services could be a sign of the market fulfilling a need, but the line between healthy solitude and socially anxious hiding can be a fuzzy one.

In Japan, the latter has been observed as a widespread trend called hikikomori. In the last decade or so, more than half a million Japanese people, ages 15-39, have been observed to live drastically reclusive lives, spending most or all of their time in a bedroom. The hikikomori, mostly men, are thought to be traumatized by social pressures, abuse, or failure, so they have resigned themselves to a life of lying around, reading, and browsing the internet indefinitely. A leading researcher of the phenomenon said global changes in social life and family are behind hikikomori, a condition that looks a lot like an exacerbated case of Social Anxiety Disorder.

Social phobia is linked to high-income countries, according to the World Mental Health Survey Initiative. The survey found that these countries (like the U.S. and Belgium) face prevalence of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) at rates more than three times higher than low-income countries (like Iraq or Ukraine). The United States has the highest rate of people who have experienced SAD at some point in their life at 12.1 percent, and that number is up from 5 percent in 2002.

It would be difficult to deny the connection of the rise in reported social anxiety to fundamental changes in daily communication via tech use. How the creeping transformation of the service economy enters into it is up for discussion. Dr. Sendler says aspects of the gig economy can create a superficial, unequal division of power between convenience-seekers and service providers that divides communities: “From a mental health perspective, what we see is an escalated division between people and the social problem of actually connecting with people with boundaries that we didn’t have before.”

Dr. Rosen says technology is embedded in culture, and, while an influx of digital services can create an environment for isolation, it ultimately comes down to our own willingness to salvage a tradition of community in the face of a reclusive future. “Part of going outside is that there’s always a chance to have an interaction, but many people avoid these opportunities,” Rosen says. “Social anxiety is part of a larger anxiety constellation” that he says is ubiquitous.

There is precedent for such public health interventions. Campaigns against tobacco use and bullying, as well as ones for wearing seatbelts, have shown positive results. It is likely trickier, however, to meaningfully advocate for something as nebulous as quality human interaction.

The Carousel of Progress still spins Disney visitors through its idealistic portrayal of American innovation each day. It even proclaims to be the longest-running stage show in America despite the lack of actual human beings onstage (perhaps an apt undertone for futurism). The attraction hasn’t undergone any major changes since 1994, so it currently exists in the name of nostalgia. An android family forever singing in unison about “the great, big beautiful tomorrow” increasingly feels like wishful thinking from another time.

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