The Shopper’s Dream of an Optimized Life

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Shopping online can seem like the ultimate way to save time and trouble. This is especially true now that we have to stay indoors to reduce exposure to the Coronavirus. From Netflix to candle subscriptions to Rent the Runway, subscription-based businesses and direct to consumer services like Warby Parker take that promise further, allowing you to both avoid a brick and mortar store and even the thought of shopping at all. Subscriptions buy you time. Think of all the things you can do with your time once you have to shop less! At Esquire, editor Kelly Stout reveals the tragic flaw in that thinking. Although, theoretically, subscriptions free up customers’ time to do other things, no one can get us to spend that newly available time more efficiently. There is no optimizing for that.

The dream of the subscription is that without having to use our brains for something as mundane as remembering to buy razor cartridges, we might do something better with our time. We might even become more optimized human beings—an economic fever dream that dates back to, I don’t know, the invention of the cotton gin. Probably earlier. In a memorable essay for The Guardian, Jia Tolentino summarized the economist William Stanley Jevons’s definition of optimization: “We all want to get the most out of what we have.” Saving not just time but effort is key to forward momentum in the industrial phantasmagoria that is, at this moment, blasting circus music into my ears. It’s a flattering proposition that implies I’m capable of something grand. Once we’ve saved all that money, all that time, all that hassle, out pops a gameshow host—his smile wider than a Smile-DirectClub member’s—to ask us, What will you do with all this time?

One answer is work. With fewer hours, minutes, or even seconds spent chopping onions and herbs for tonight’s dinner, I could be turning that extra time into money. But I had a different idea: What if, instead, I enjoyed myself? In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell makes a compelling case for leisure time—not leisure time as “side hustle” or “monetizable” or even something that will improve the self, but as recreation for no reason. This is a novel idea in 2020, even though it’s been around for more than a century. “As far back as 1886 . . . workers in the United States pushed for an eight-hour workday: ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of what we will,’ ” Odell writes. The movement inspired a poster of people in canoes and a song about feeling the sunshine and smelling the flowers. When I read that, I thought: Dang, I never canoe! Maybe shaving off a sliver of my time at CVS could add to those eight what-I-will hours. And yet I spent those extra seconds sitting on my couch. I wasn’t doing anything except scrolling through my feeds, thinking about my subscriptions, contemplating how I could optimize my life further. I wasn’t even going to the store.

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