#111: Indoor Kids

Happy New Year! This week is an opportunity to ponder decade-long trend arcs and make grandiose pronouncements of what the last ten years were “about,” and I’ll gladly indulge. During the holidays, I usually watch more movies and TV shows than I do the entire rest of the year (time I’d otherwise spend reading tweets), so I’m particularly attuned to the meteoric rise of Netflix this decade, which I’ll come back to soon. At a glance, however, this was the mobile decade: In 2010, Apple sold more iPhones than in the prior three years of the device’s existence combined, and acquiring one marked the dawn of the decade for many of us. Back then, the iPhone seemed like a mechanism for getting us out of the house and living more of our lives in public. Not only did smartphones let us accomplish mundane tasks like replying to emails without running home to our desktops, they transformed our relationship to the urban environment with unprecedented navigational tools (Google Maps, Yelp, Uber), spatialized social networks (Foursquare), and perhaps most importantly, the camera.

The dream of 2010, at least as I interpreted it, was a reinvigoration of public space that might counteract Facebook’s damage from the prior decade, in which social life had reoriented itself to screens that stayed inside our homes and kept us glued to our chairs for hours on end. And that did happen, in a sense—we probably already forget how much we can do from anywhere that we couldn’t without our smartphones—but something else also happened: Mobile devices massively increased the amount of time we could spend online, and this transformed the internet into a robust universe of its own that finally came to rival meatspace as a real place we could continuously inhabit and consider primary. Digital and physical reality flipped, in other words, and the latter has increasingly become a support system for the former. What follows from that inversion is that one’s physical location matters less and less, thanks to near-ubiquitous connectivity: Getting out of the house doesn’t matter as much as it seemed like it would in 2010, because more of what we formerly went outside to find is online now. We’re already everywhere at all times. And if that’s true, then we might as well go online in the most comfortable physical conditions available, which we’ll probably find at home. The ultimate result of unlimited iPhone-supported mobility, in other words, is domesticity—an erosion of place that makes it harder to justify going anywhere at all.

This decade, then, the home actually gained importance relative to other physical spaces. If tweeting from the bar was what we did in 2010, tweeting from our beds is what we do in 2020 (and not just because we’re all ten years older). Netflix is obviously an important pillar of this transition: Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are ideal for small screens and fragmented concentration, but if we’re at home with bigger screens and fewer distractions, our appetite for higher-fidelity material grows accordingly. After a brief era of history in which “not owning a TV” was a common refrain, TV is back, big time. The Netflix version is higher quality along many dimensions, but it’s even more atomizing than traditional TV, lending itself to asynchronous, individual consumption rather than communal viewing. Homebound and antisocial, Netflix is the anti-Foursquare, with each of us the permanent mayor of our own solipsistic content universe. One thing I love about watching sports is that they’ve retained the temporality and collectivity that have receded from other entertainment, but saying that I still watch sports in public environments is yet another reminder that we don’t really agree upon a meaningful definition of “public” anymore.

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