Are Computers Causing us to "Cocoon" Ourselves?

Several people wrote in response to an off-hand comment I made in last week's feedback section on computer glitches, mentioning that I rarely go to see a movie in the theater anymore, preferring to wait for it to come out on DVD so I can watch it in the comfort of my home. Some of those readers (including a theater manager!) wrote to argue that no home theater could offer the level of experience available in the theater, but most wrote to heartily agree that the advantages of the super big screen are outweighed by the high concession stand prices, ringing cell phones, crying babies and misbehaving teenagers who mar the movie-going experience.

But one person pointed out that my (and many others') preference for staying home is part of a bigger overall trend to avoid going out in public whenever possible and "cocoon" ourselves in our homes. And this trend is certainly encouraged, aided and abetted by today's technology.

I have to admit it's true, at least in my own life. Tom and I, and many others we know, have for the last several years put our money into creating a beautiful, functional home rather than on going out to eat, taking vacations, buying fancy cars and clothes and jewelry, etc. We have just about everything we want and need right here - so why ever leave? Few resorts can rival our own backyard, with the pool overlooking the lake, and we even have a remote control for the spa and pool heater - technology we wouldn't find at most hotels (or if we did, would pay dearly for). And the sound system in our bedroom is connected to speakers on the patio so we can listen to music of our own preference while we swim, rather than something chosen by hotel staff. A computerized sprinkler system keeps the lawn and flower beds watered and looking nice.

Our home theater system may not have a screen that's as large as the one at the local Cinemark, but our sound system is better, we're closer to the screen, and we can pause the movie whenever we want and have whatever snacks we prefer while we watch instead of being limited to popcorn, hot dogs and candy.

The technology extends to the kitchen. We don't have one of those refrigerators with a computer screen in the door, but it does notify us when the filter for the in-door water dispenser needs changing. The ovens (conventional and microwave) and other appliances are programmable so we can easily make great gourmet meals without paying those not-so-great restaurant prices. And when we don't feel like cooking, we can always order pizza online.

We even work at home, so there are often times when we don't leave the house for days at a time. We save a ton of money on gas and mostly live in shorts and tee shirts from WalMart. Once again, it's technology that makes this possible: as tech writers, we conduct almost all our business over the Internet. We have an enterprise-level network in our home, with all our own web servers, mail server, DNS servers, etc. on site. And of course, there's a security system to protect all this from burglars.

Some have speculated that this sort of "cocooning" behavior accelerated after 9/11, but I think the trend started prior to that. Just as technology has made it easier for us to "hole up" in our homes, our high tech, high pressure world has also made life outside our homes more hectic and hassle-prone.

Red-light cameras, computerized toll booths and fancy traffic control devices have made driving on increasingly crowded roads more of a chore. Surveillance cameras watching us everywhere we go has made going to the mall, bank, etc. less pleasant. Computerized "self service" checkouts that unfortunately often don't work properly, making us wait for a human to come intervene and taking extra time, makes shopping a task to be dreaded. Why venture out into all that when you can stay home and do much of your shopping, banking, bill paying and other business while sitting at your computer?

Some express concern that we're becoming isolated and anti-social, but I don't think so. We have a far larger circle of friends now than we did in our pre- Internet, pre-homebound days. And those friends are scattered all over the world. We communicate with them on a daily basis, thanks to our technology. We exchange ideas, photos and videos, talk via IP phone calls and share in each others' lives far more intimately than we did with most of our friends in the past.

And just because we meet on the 'Net, that doesn't mean we never get together in person. When we attend conferences, we usually already "know" many of our fellow attendees, through Internet discussion lists and web forums. We have parties and invite our long-time online friends; next month we have people planning to fly in from exotic places like Australia, Canada and Kentucky to attend our next one. Without the Internet, we'd never know them.

What's your experience? Have you found yourself staying home more than you used to? Do you attribute that to fears of terrorist attacks, the growing hassle factor of urban/suburban living, the temptations of technology, slowing down as you age, or all, some or none of the above? Do you think "cocooning" is a bad thing, a good thing, or just one of many lifestyles available to us today? Would you stay at home more if you could, or do you long to get away? Have computers made you socialize less, or has Internet connectivity enhanced your social life?