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Sitting at home alone has become a lot less boring, and that might be bad
Over the course of history, technophobes and technoskeptics have been fundamentally incorrect. Technological advancement has enormously improved the human condition, and the onward and upward trajectory of innovation and growth is very good.
Still, not every single innovation and advancement has been good. As I've written before, the opioid crisis is a complicated phenomenon, but it has a technological root: the world has become much better at manufacturing fentanyl, which is easier to conceal and smuggle because of its higher potency relative to other drugs. Similarly, I was recently rewatching Breaking Bad, the premise of which is that Walter White is a genuinely skilled chemist and that makes him better at methamphetamine manufacturing than the average meth cook.
But check out DEA data on the purity of the meth seized over time:
When the show premiered in 2008, Walt’s “blue sky” 99.1 percent pure methamphetamine was a sufficiently extraordinary achievement to serve as the whole premise of a work of fiction. Today, though, it’s basically industry standard — that’s the miracle of productivity growth! Of course the consequences of improving this particular type of productivity are quite bad.
And I think this is an interesting lens through which to consider the enormous improvements in our home entertainment options.
Obviously watching too much Netflix is not unhealthy on the order of doing a ton of meth. But I do worry that the proliferation and improvement of home entertainment are perhaps making us more atomized, unhappy, and dysfunctional.
We live in a world of entertainment splendor
Back in 1887, Edward Bellamy wrote the utopian novel “Looking Backward” about a man who falls asleep and awakes 113 years in the future to experience life in Boston circa the year 2000, by which time the United States has become a utopian socialist society.1
His main character, Julian West, is amazed by an ordinary household’s ability to play high-quality music on demand. One of the future-people explains to him how it works:
“There is nothing in the least mysterious about the music, as you seem to imagine. It is not made by fairies or genii, but by good, honest and exceedingly clever human hands. We have simply carried the idea of labor saving by cooperation into our musical service as into everything else. There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee, and there are none, you may be sure, who do not. The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day's programme lasts through the twenty-four hours. There are on that card for today, as you will see if you observe closely, distinct programmes of four of these concerts, each of a different order of music from the others, being now simultaneously performed, and any one of the four pieces now going on that you prefer, you can hear by merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered. The programmes are so coordinated that the pieces at any one time simultaneously proceeding in the different halls usually offer a choice, not only between instruments and vocal, and between different sorts of instruments; but also between different motives from grave to gay, so that all tastes and moods can be suited.”
That of course is not how terrestrial radio works. But as a forecast of the ability to tune into any genre of music from the comfort of home, it’s not bad — and we didn’t even have to wait until 2000 for that technology. By 2000, thanks to the internet, we were on the verge of the technological transformation that created today’s streaming services — by paying a modest fee to one of several competing companies, you can access almost any music you want. And you can not only have it in your home but carry it around with you in your pocket.
And on top of that, we have streaming video.
One of my favorite podcasts (because we also have podcasts now) is The Rewatchables, a show that has a kinda obsolete premise that there’s a certain class of movie that you lock in on if you see it on cable while you’re flipping channels. The conceit is that the hosts pick a movie — the sort of movie that, if you were flipping through cable channels, would make you stop and watch — and discuss. But of course, these days nobody flips through the channels on cable. Instead, I purposefully stream the hosts’ selection before listening to the episode, or else I listen to an episode about a movie I’ve seen before and then I stream it. The hosts have a great rapport, but in terms of “jobs to be done,” what makes the show so great is that for a movie fan, it serves as a complement to streaming video.
Boredom and the single life
I’ve been noodling over a post about streaming video for a while, and what finally got me off my butt was this Charles Lehman piece alleging that childless millennials are bored, so people should get married and have kids younger.
The piece was inspired by this offhand tweet, which I think contains a lot of truth — single, childless adults often2 end up with a lot of downtime, even while working a full-time job.
Lehman is a conservative writer, so when he expanded on this idea, the article included a lot of conservative tics, like a very snide view about education, the belief that college graduates are uniquely bad, and most of all, a broadly Hegelian view in which changes in our world are driven by changes in our ideas. Lehman thinks millennials, especially well-educated ones, are too risk-averse and that this ultimately leads to a life of boredom:
High-status Millennials have been training in this approach for years. Take, for example, their college experience. One way to think about college is that attendance gives you skills. But another way to think about it is that attendance signals to future employers that you have certain qualities. As economist Bryan Caplan puts it, “a law student with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom.” The educational treadmill—and more Millennials are on it than any previous generation—is about attaining success not just through brains, but through the ability to be bored.
This ends with a call to embrace risk in the form of children:
The same thing is true for an expected child, though: no child is truly planned, because all children bring unexpected and enormous changes. It is however out of this unpredictableness—this “alterity”—that the meaningfulness of family life is derived. A child is not a diversion, something which exists wholly to stimulate our individual selves; it exceeds ourselves, and so provides meaning.
Of course that experience is risky, and so alien to a group so comfortable in their risklessness. But a life without risk is a boring life. And Millennials are, as we’ve established, terminally bored. So perhaps more risk is what they need.
While I think the risk thing is a red herring, the initial point about boredom is right on.
But I would stand the analysis on its head and note the change over time. How bored one is at any given point in time depends a lot on the context, but the basic trajectory of technological change has been to make life less boring than it used to be — even the most screen-averse parents I know make an exception for a circumstance like a plane flight where there is genuinely nothing to do.
Back in 2017, some economists published a paper arguing that the decline in labor force participation was due to improved video games. I think time has shown that the real issue was mostly sluggish demand. But what their theory had going for it is that the causal direction goes the right way. Sitting at home alone on your couch has become less boring than it used to be, so the opportunity cost of doing basically anything has risen. You would expect this to manifest in people doing less stuff, which is basically what’s happened — church attendance is down, participation in sports leagues is down, and people have fewer friends than they used to. Broadly speaking, we are doing less stuff.
The video games theory of the 2008-2012 decline in labor force participation was wrong (note that it turned around as the labor market improved), but the long-term decline in the share of men who are working fits the picture of idleness becoming less boring.
By contrast, I don’t think these ideas about education and risk-aversion add up at all.
Delayed marriage and childbirth are happening across the board
Less-educated women have children at a younger age on average and also have slightly more children. But the trend toward falling birthrates is happening at all levels of educational attainment; it’s not particularly concentrated among some risk-averse or hard-to-bore segment of the population.
Meanwhile, better-educated men are actually more likely to be married. That’s not the case among women, but I think that’s because women prefer partners who are at least as educated as they are, and not because the better-educated women have different attitudes toward risk or boredom. In other words, highly educated men are very likely to be married because women like to marry them — educated women would probably get married more if there were more highly educated men around.
So while it’s clearly true that the childless twentysomethings are disproportionately college graduates, I don’t think the trend toward more twentysomethings being childless has anything to do with education. It’s definitely not driven by the compositional shift toward a higher level of education in the population, because despite the compositional changes, it’s happening for both college graduates and non-graduates.
It’s hard to know for sure, but I think the broadness of these trends really does on some level reflect the fact that our home entertainment options have gotten better.
This doesn’t seem great
I’m obviously not going to give up the convenience of streaming home video, and neither are you.
But it is true that if my home viewing options were worse, I’d probably be inclined to ping friends a bit more frequently to see if they want to go see a movie. And those friends would probably be a bit more inclined to say yes to such invitations. They’d also probably be a bit more inclined to ping me about going to the movies. So entirely separate from movie snob discussions about “the big screen experience” or whatever, the fact is that I would probably spend more face-to-face time with friends if we reverted to the home entertainment technology of 1992.
And I’m inclined to say we’d probably all be better off for it.
You look at any one of the things that are on the decline and it’s easy to say, “there’s more to life than marriage and kids, lots of single childless people have happy and fulfilling lives.” Or “there’s more to life than work, so many jobs are just aimless drudgery.” But if you’re looking at a reduction in marriage and a reduction in children and a reduction in work and a reduction in friends all simultaneously, well, I’m really not so sure that there is that much more to life than family and friends and work combined.
To sit home, alone, and stream (which, to be clear, I do a lot!) is fun and easy and convenient. But it strikes me as potentially fun and easy and convenient in the same sense that it’s easy and convenient to not exercise or fun and easy to gorge yourself on Pringles. We’re weak creatures and can be easily tempted into patterns of behavior that we would reject if we had the ability to program our short-term behavior to align with our long-term goals.
Apologies if I’m wildly misdescribing this book; I was assigned to read it like 20 years ago for a class but really only kinda skimmed it and only kinda sorta remember what was going on to the point that I don’t even remember the name of the professor who taught the class — sorry, Mystery Professor!
People’s individual circumstances vary of course, and some people have family obligations other than parenting or personal health situations that are extremely time-consuming, and I don’t want to sweep that away. But I think it’s the typical case.