The Journey to Elsewhere, U.S.A.

A professor explains how new technology drastically altered the modern American family unit

New technology, with all of its conveniences, has created a new society called Elsewhere, U.S.A., according to professor Dalton Conley. (morganl / iStockphoto)

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You talk about the stigma of leisure, and how leisure has become something for the poor.

It used to be as your income rose you bought more leisure – leisure was like a color TV or a car, a good you consumed, time you took off. Now when you earn more money you think about how much more it costs you to take off because you’re worth more. Opportunity cost trumps the desire to take time off. Standing still means falling behind.

What did your field trip to the Google headquarters teach you?

They were really ahead of the curve in terms of making their work environment very homey. They provide everything a 1950s housewife would have provided. Do your laundry. Give you a massage. Great food for free. At first glance it seems like a very expensive strategy, but I think it’s brilliant. People don’t want to go home. There’s a volleyball court and board games around. It feels like a college campus. And Google gets more out of each worker.

You mentioned the urinals at Google.

In English or Irish pubs they pin the sports pages over men’s urinals so you can read while relieving yourself. At Google they put up coding advice. It felt a little 1984.

You discuss “two-rooms,” day care centers-cum-office buildings where parents can watch their children while working. How else will the physical architecture of Elsewhere be changing in the near future?

I might imagine that you’ll find more integration of housing and firms, the return of the 19th century “company town.” A place like Google could start building housing, like dorms, around their campus, for underpaid programmers, rather than have them waste all this time commuting. They could just live there.

How do we return from Elsewhere?

It’s not an option, I’m sorry to say. It’s not going to go in reverse. It could be that we have lower inequality because of the decline of the stock market and so on, but I think that will be a temporary blip. What we’re really going to see is this trend going forward.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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