Every Place Is the Same Now

With a phone, anywhere else is always just a tap away.

A house behind white barbed wire.
The Atlantic

Those old enough to remember video-rental stores will recall the crippling indecision that would overtake you while browsing their shelves. With so many options, any one seemed unappealing, or insufficient. In a group, different tastes or momentary preferences felt impossible to balance. Everything was there, so there was nothing to watch.

Those days are over, but the shilly-shally of choosing a show or movie to watch has only gotten worse. First, cable offered hundreds of channels. Now, each streaming service requires viewers to manipulate distinct software on different devices, scanning through the interfaces on Hulu, on Netflix, on AppleTV+ to find something “worth watching.” Blockbuster is dead, but the emotional dread of its aisles lives on in your bedroom.

This same pattern has been repeated for countless activities, in work as much as leisure. Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?

Over the holidays, my family trekked to a suburban Atlanta mall to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It’s the closest theater to offer Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, and we decided that increased color gamut and floor-rumbling sound justified the 25-mile sojourn.

Seeing new movies is one of the few entertainment activities left that you really can’t do at home (unless you’re wealthy, of course). Even so, U.S. theater attendance reached a 25-year low in 2017. There’s so much on cable and streaming services, moviegoers need not leave the couch. With Netflix, Amazon, and Apple competing with major studios, television shows now enjoy the prestige, not to mention the budgets, previously restricted to film. Today, “event movies” such as Star Wars are the best way to lure people to the cinema. That partly explains why so many current movies are huge action flicks. It’s not that the moving image has deadened itself as art, as Martin Scorsese infamously worried last year, but that most people have shifted their attention to smaller screens. Scorcese’s latest film, The Irishman, only proves the point—it started streaming on Netflix less than a month after its limited theatrical release.

Over the last two decades, the technology of film has also evaporated into the home. Big-screen television and surround-sound receivers have been around for a while, but when widescreen HDTVs became popular (and then affordable) in the aughts, home theater became competitive with cinema for everyday use. Flatscreens quickly were attached to residential walls, in bedrooms and above fireplaces. Unlike big-action films of the Marvel or Lucasfilm persuasion, The Irishman looks great on these home-television setups, making many dens, bedrooms, and great rooms a suitable proxy for the cinema.

But the film also shows just as well on a smartphone screen. With a rectangle perched inches from viewers’ faces, sound funneled through earphones, Netflix can feel immersive. Just as home theaters proliferated, the smartphone started to bring television to the couch, or the chair, or the bed. The theater can now swim freely all throughout the house. Cinematic and televisual entertainment has been overloaded into almost every architectural space. The standard worry about home theaters replacing the cinema is about the theaters, but what about the home? The den or the bedroom has to take on additional responsibilities, haunting them with the functions of locations where other activities once took place.

Smartphones continue and accelerate this process. At least the bedroom TV had to be turned off if one’s spouse wanted to sleep. Once a show moves to the smartphone screen, every couch cushion becomes its own tiny home theater: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on a preschooler’s device, The Mandalorian on a father’s, Stranger Things on a teen’s.

Architectural critics anticipated that modern life would change the sensation of space. Almost 30 years ago, the French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the word non-place to describe a family of transitional locations where people’s sense of self becomes suppressed or even vanishes. Non-places include airports, hotels, shopping malls, supermarkets, and highways. There’s a sorrow to these sites, because unlike legitimate ones, human beings never really occupy non-places; they simply move through them on their way to “anthropological places,” as Augé called them, such as schools, homes, and monuments.

Non-places have both proliferated and declined in the decades since. On the one hand, there are far more of them, and people encounter them more frequently. More airports and train stations in which more passengers transit more often. More hotel lobbies and conference centers, many boasting their own food courts and shopping plazas, non-places nested within non-places.

On the other hand, the anonymity and uselessness of non-places has been undermined by the smartphone. Every gate waiting area, every plush lobby couch cluster, every wood-veneered coffee shop lean-to has become capable of transforming itself into any space for any patron. The airport or café is also an office and a movie theater, a knitting club, and a classroom.

Non-places always garnered sneers. Augé himself dubbed their rise an “invasion” that brought about “supermodernity,” a massive overabundance of dead space devoted to individual rather than collective activity. He predicted that the uniformity of these places—every airport and hotel is like every other—would proliferate into a scourge, a plague that would strip the built environment of opportunities for humans to express themselves.

Supermodernity did come to pass, but not in quite the way Augé and his successors forecast, and feared. You no longer need an industrialized space, such as a supermarket or a conference center, for the anonymity of the non-place to coalesce. Now, something weirder takes place. For one part, the bastions of supermodernity have become more personalized than they used to be. You might overhear a business call in the airport terminal, or witness the emotional distress of a relationship blowing up over text in the Starbucks line. But for another part, any place whatsoever—even the anthropological spaces that Augé thought gave human experience context—can become equally anonymous.

You walk into your own living room to find your spouse or son on the couch, staring or tapping into a device. What are they doing? you wonder. Email? Television? Pornography? Shopping? Which is also to ask: What other, foreign, spaces have they conjured into the shared space of the home? The answer is often unknowable, and in any case just as quickly replaced by another space as one app backgrounds and another comes to the fore. A proliferation of non-places wasn’t the problem, it seems. Instead, technology has allowed personal intimacy and connection to flourish too much, and anywhere. Now every space is a superspace, a place that might be fused together with any other.

Superspaces have been on the rise for decades, since long before personal devices became ubiquitous. Years ago, when computers didn’t talk to each other much, my friend Damon and I would walk or ride our bikes from his place to a 7-Eleven a few blocks away to play arcade games. To play the arcade game, I should say; they had one, and the clerk would eventually kick us out if we lingered too long. “This isn’t an arcade.”

But arcades were still seedy places at the time. Some parents would dissuade or even prohibit their kids from going. And so we’d find bowling alleys (no less seedy, and possibly more), convenience stores, laundromats—places where people used to exchange idle time for diversion by dropping coins in slots.

Then Damon and his brother got a Nintendo. The purchase made the bodega and the arcade suddenly superfluous. Now we could murder ducks or pilot plumbers amid the thick pile of his bedroom carpet. Eventually they took the arcade machine out of the 7-Eleven entirely, and the arcade business collapsed. Bedrooms and dens imported the arcade into the home, like the VCR had done with the cinema. As Augé put it, people are always, and never, at home.

Bringing work home with you used to mean carting the actual work from the office to the house—files in briefcases, or lists of calls to be returned from behind a study door. Now it describes a more conceptual and holistic practice. Thanks to laptops, smartphones, broadband, apps, and cloud services, everyone can work all the time: Sending out emails under the dinner table, responding to Slack messages between closing the car door and opening the front door, processing expense reports by photographing receipts on the kitchen counter.

The disquiet associated with these activities is usually theorized as labor swelling to fill what was once private time. I’ve previously used the term hyperemployment for the endless jobs everyone has, over and above the job they may get paid to do. My colleague Derek Thompson has called Americans’ almost religious devotion to their jobs workism. But hyperemployment and workism are also partly consequences of the built environment becoming more super-spatial. It’s not just that the work comes home with you, but that the office does as well. Infinitely portable, the smartphone turns every space it enters into a workplace. Once Salesforce is launched, whatever room you occupy is a conference room.

Places exist for purposes, and when those purposes emigrate to new locations they also bring along the specters of their former homes. The bathroom is a place to shower or to cast out human waste. Bring your phone in there, and it’s also an office where you can complete procurement requests in enterprise-resource-management software such as Workday, and a theater where you can watch The Crown on Netflix, and a classroom where you can practice Latvian on Duolingo, and a travel agency where you can book a flight on Delta. And your office isn’t just at home, either: It’s anywhere. At the gym, on the train platform, in the gastropub, behind the wheel.

That capacity underlies the social and economic power of computation. It also transmutes the individuals who use smartphones into the spaces where discrete activities once took place—or the cultural memory of those spaces, at least. The executive excusing herself to send a message at dinner doesn’t just bring the work to the meal, but transports herself back to the office. The business traveler booking a flight from the doctor’s waiting room teleports to the travel agency or the airport ticket counter.

These changes hollow out the spaces where specific activities once took place. The unique vibe and spiritual energy of the record shop or the clothing boutique evaporate away once Spotify or Amazon takes over for them. Peripheral spaces also decay, such as the transit lines or roads that lead to them, and the cafés or boba joints that flank them.

But computation’s indifference to place also hurls the spaces where smartphones are used into their own chaos. The moment one of those spatial memories comes to the fore, it just gets replaced by another, competing space hiding just underneath. You might settle in to start streaming an episode of The Great British Baking Show only to have a Slack notification transform the couch into a makeshift meeting room, and then back again. But just as likely: You pull up the sheets and then reach for YouTube, where an ASMR video adds a meditation studio overtop the bedroom. Or you browse your Facebook news feed on the toilet, hoping to amend the bathroom’s quiet isolation with the social murmur of a pub or café.

It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.

Refreshed from site specificity after the Star Wars screening, my family longed to extend that sense of freedom. So we idled for a couple hours at the Dave & Buster’s, an unholy fusion of suburban bar-grill, video-game arcade, and kiddie casino. It’s the descendant of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, which Atari founder Nolan Bushnell created in 1977 as a family-friendly alternative to the taverns and arcades where video games were played.

In the din of Dave & Buster’s, we found our devices already waiting for us: large-scale renditions of mobile games like Candy Crush filled the place, reimagined at arcade scale. At one time, this would have seemed like a perverse joke. But any reprieve from superspace feels earnest now. We happily paid to idle there, tapping and swiping giant versions of the apps already in our pockets, rather than returning to the minivan, and then the highway, and then home, where everyone would recede again into the dense expanse of a smartphone.