IN the community where I live, I continually get invitations to take advantage of time-saving services. For instance, a company called Peapod, based in Skokie, Illinois, and allied with supermarkets across the country, would let me shop for groceries over the Internet. Several nearby companies want to ferry restaurant meals to my front door, saving me the inconvenience of eating out. Just recently I received a colorful brochure from a company called Streamline.com, which takes the family-helpmeet concept to its logical extreme. Streamline promises to handle virtually all the logistics of my daily life.
"Let Streamline lend an expert hand," I read. "Let us do your grocery shopping. Make the bottle returns. Drop off the dry cleaning. Rent the videos. Lug the bags of pet food. And much more." They'll also pick up packages, get my film processed, and even buy firewood. The flyer includes a fill-in-the-blanks calculator to demonstrate that I waste about five hours a week performing the chores that Streamline will do for just $30 a month.
"At stake is your time," the company warns. Streamline suggests that I can use my recovered five hours "to make a home-cooked meal, bake cupcakes, or get some exercise." But it is more likely that I would use the time to watch sports on television, evade garden work, or explore new arenas of conflict with my spouse of many years.
My generation's frenetic busyness is the great market opportunity of our time. Intelligent men and women don't read newspapers -- they won't even sit still for thirty minutes of television news -- because they are so busy. Leave the house for a nice meal? Who can spare the time? Social theorists observe in hectoring tones that we parents are too harried, and that our children are mortally overscheduled. Right around the time that Streamline approached me, President Bill Clinton complained in a speech that today's parents spend twenty-two fewer hours a week with their families than their mothers and fathers did. A service like Streamline must be the answer. If only we could contract out the drudgery. If only we had more time ...
Part of me bows to the accumulated expertise of the social engineers who have targeted my ZIP code with their $30 cure for social anomie. But -- could they possibly have it backwards? I like shopping for groceries. I'm a flinty trader in the supermarket aisles and am notorious for bringing home "deals": ten boxes of what Calvin & Hobbes used to call Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs at $1.10 per (which of course no one will eat). Where I live, many families hire a minivan service to drive their children to school. But I enjoy driving my boys to school (although we all agree that they would be better advised to walk, preferably through sheet rain or blinding snowstorms); I can talk with them in the car. I don't even mind going to the video store. Would the Streamline drone have spotted the 1966 surfing classic The Endless Summer on the documentary shelf? I don't think so.