Digital Sucks – because it lets us be less human

Intentionally or not, the drive to reduce life friction digitally has made us more social isolated. Are we too far down that path, or can we turn back?

Writing for the MIT Technology Review, musician David Byrne suggests the idea that the whole trend of digital has been to reduce the amount of human interaction we need in an average day.

Most of the tech news we get barraged with is about algorithms, AI, robots, and self-driving cars, all of which fit this pattern. I am not saying that such developments are not efficient and convenient; this is not a judgment. I am simply noticing a pattern and wondering if, in recognizing that pattern, we might realize that it is only one trajectory of many. There are other possible roads we could be going down, and the one we’re on is not inevitable or the only one; it has been (possibly unconsciously) chosen.

Well, that sucks.

Anti-social media

But hang on, you might respond, one of the major trends over the last decade has been the rise of social media. Doesn’t that, by definition, facilitate human contact? Well, perhaps not:

For us as a society, less contact and interaction—real interaction—would seem to lead to less tolerance and understanding of difference, as well as more envy and antagonism. As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles. We are fed what we already like or what our similarly inclined friends like (or, more likely now, what someone has paid for us to see in an ad that mimics content). In this way, we actually become less connected—except to those in our group.

Certainly reducing unnecessary human interaction also reduce “friction” – as designers are wont to call it. And that can be a good thing. Being able to order things from Amazon or iTunes, without the hassle of trekking to the shops has been a boon for many of us, especially if we’re time poor. (And believe me, as the parent of young children in the summer holidays, I’m very time poor.)

One person’s friction is another’s bonding

But we also lose the casual bonding that intergrates us in society. I’m a home worker much of the time, and, in fact, for the work I do for NEXT, much of it never requires me to leave the house. (There are a couple of days in September that do…) But my last post was substantially written in a local coffee shop, at the price of a coffee that’s more expensive than making one at home – and a few extra calories in my system, due to a moment of weakness when I saw the pastries.

But what I gained was a deeper connection with my community, an interaction with other digital workers, and a friendship with the shop owners. And that’s important, because even the most introverted of us is, at heart, a social creature. It’s our edge.

Byrne again:

We’re a social species—we benefit from passing discoveries on, and we benefit from our tendency to cooperate to achieve what we cannot alone. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari claims this is what allowed us to be so successful. He also claims that this cooperation was often facilitated by an ability to believe in “fictions” such as nations, money, religions, and legal institutions. Machines don’t believe in fictions—or not yet, anyway. That’s not to say they won’t surpass us, but if machines are designed to be mainly self-interested, they may hit a roadblock. And in the meantime, if less human interaction enables us to forget how to cooperate, then we lose our advantage.

So, here’s the challenge: can we, as we design our products, find a way to make them facilitate human interaction in a positive way, bring us back together? If we don’t, a future of isolation and conflict as we drool into our VR headsets awaits…

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash