In my study of time, I realized that these so-called conveniences were not actually saving me any.
Jan. 20, 2020
Three months ago, on Oct. 18, I ended a five-year relationship with my provider of on-demand clean underwear. I did this first by deleting the app and then later throwing out three bags imprinted with their name. Every week since, I have been tempted to get back together with them.
We met in the spring of 2014, just as I was just starting to dabble with online services that promised to make my life easier: a little Amazon for a $5 loofah here; a little Instacart for groceries there.
All of this was O.K. because my girlfriend and I had recently become obsessed with an essay by two Nobel Prize-winning economists, who had achieved professional success and marital bliss by prioritizing time over money through their 30s.
They believed in outsourcing all that could be delegated, no matter the cost. If their savings account was measly, so what? The payout would come later. (I recently revisited the link; it was not an essay and they did not have Nobel Prizes, along with other key differences. Oh well.)
Still, I was committed to my laundromat. It was right across the street. Until, one day, it wasn’t. Its lease was up. There were plenty of other laundromats nearby, and yet I spent more than a few days that spring wearing bikini bottoms under jeans, promising to develop a new washing routine tomorrow.
It was around this time that I first noticed the vans with a slogan promising clean underwear on demand. A cartoony drawing of white briefs reinforced the point, even from a distance. And in Brooklyn that year, there was always at least one of these vans in the distance.
The price seemed a bit steep. But as our favorite economists (to misremember) said: time over money! My girlfriend and I fell in love almost immediately. We would open the app, press a button and sometimes within minutes there would be a man bounding up the stairs.
Within hours, we would get an alert that our laundry was available for delivery. “How is this sustainable?” I wondered, but only briefly — because I was so very busy with all the future-enriching things that outsourcing enables.
One of those things was making a podcast about time. But even though, by 2017, I was obtaining most things in life — toothpaste, tacos, taxis — with two clicks, I was having trouble digging in.
“Where are the hours hiding?” I asked Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at N.Y.U.
Modern conveniences rarely save time, she told me, directing me to the work of the technology historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan.
In the 1983 book “More Work for Mother,” Dr. Cowan shows that the 19th century was brimming with oodles of innovations that promised luxurious downtime. “There were hand-driven washing machines and taps for indoor cisterns, eggbeaters and pulley-driven butter churns,” she writes.
Based on her analysis, however, none of these made life “one whit more convenient or less tiring during the whole of the century. What a strange paradox that in the face of so many labor-saving devices, little labor appears to have been saved!”
In the 20th century, just before World War II, automatic washing machines promised elusive blocks of nothing-to-take-care-of. What actually shifted was that people changed their underwear and sheets more often, creating more work of a different kind.
I was not sure how the laundry service was altering my behavior. Mostly I noticed other people’s socks. There was something charming about finding them amid our belongings. Some of my own clothes went missing, too.
But when you love someone and they are growing quickly, silk pants get lost. And if my darling was not maturing, then, to be fair, neither was I. Sometimes when I accused them of losing my shirt, they had lost my shirt. Other times it was just hiding in my closet.
And then one day I realized that most of my best clothing, along with my now-wife’s, was gone. Where was that jumpsuit?I hit “Schedule Delivery.”
“Error,” the app said.
I called and emailed and no one responded. A week passed, and then several more days. I wish I could tell you this was the moment I decided it was over. But no, that was just the moment I decided to become a hostage negotiator. I put in a fake order, gathered my cash and waited.
Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the famous (and possibly discredited) Stanford prison experiment, has a theory that people have different time perspectives — not totally unlike sexual orientations. Some are focused on the past. Others on the future.
I am a person of the present. And initially with the rise of on-demand apps, I convinced myself that this was the people of the present’s moment to thrive. If we had forgotten to do absolutely everything until it was too late, there was an app for that.
These companies were doing such a great job rebranding procrastination as efficiency that I actually believed it.
It was comparably convenient for me to believe the man when he arrived at my house and told me everything would soon be resolved. He then pointed to the service’s signature bag across the room. Did we want to put in another order? I am so very, very busy, I told myself. And when it goes well, it is just so very, very easy. We said yes, despite the fact that our clothes were still missing.
Of course, the app was not fixed.
I timed my walk to my new laundromat: 13 minutes there and back. Drop-off service is cheaper than my beloved app and technically available sooner. It has also forced me to get some exercise, the one task I have never figured out how to outsource.
I have come to see that for temporal anarchists, on-demand services only enable our worst tendencies, magnifying our chaos. That satisfying sense of completion we get just from clicking the button — it’s often a trick. Though we resented it, being tethered to old-fashioned commercial space and time was good for us.
And yet when the service finally returned our clothes, after nearly two weeks, I was tempted to try again. I told myself it was O.K. because they were dealing with a change in ownership. Also no one in history had ever willingly given up a timesaving convenience even if it never saved them time.
Right? Not exactly, Dr. Cowan told me when I called her. In the 1970s, as microwave ovens ballooned in popularity, many people were convinced that the home-cooked meal was over.
But though there was a period of frenzied experimentation with cooking everything and anything in microwaves, now they are used primarily for heating stuff up. As I write this, I can proudly say that I have not gone back to the service and the clothes I’m wearing are mostly clean.
Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times