Quarantine orders passed in response to COVID-19, while absolutely necessary to stem the spread of the disease, have really done a number on our collective mental health. This past year of self-imposed isolation and social distancing works against humanity’s deep need for community interaction. We are simply wired to socialize.
But the pandemic is not entirely to blame for our precipitous decline in socialization. The constant advancements in automation technologies have increasingly enabled companies to minimize human interactions as a cost reduction strategy. In his latest book, The lonely century, British economist Noreena Hertz takes an incisive look at the emotional, societal and political costs of a ‘frictionless’ economy, how the pandemic has exacerbated the problem and what we can do to reconnect with each other .
Excerpt from THE LONELY CENTURY by Noreena Hertz. Copyright © 2021 by Noreena Hertz. Extracted with permission from Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.
East Fifty-Third Street, Manhattan. I’m at the grocery store. Fluorescent lights illuminate the aisles filled with colorful products. Cereals and cold drinks, vegetables and frozen foods: all the usual products are here. Other than the stylish white barriers at the entrance, everything looks normal, just like your average convenience store in town. But take a closer look and you will realize that there is something unusual about this place. There’s no one working in the shop – no cashiers, no uniformed workers stocking the shelves, no one to come to your aid when you don’t know how to scan the barcodes on those bulky free ledgers. -service. Look up and you will understand why.
Above you you’ll find hundreds of barely noticeable cameras: your movements are constantly monitored. So no need to queue. Instead, feel free to put packets of cookies in your pockets as surreptitiously as you like – your activity, however low-key, will be noted digitally. You will not be chased by security when you leave the store, but you will be automatically charged.
It’s September 2019 and I’m shopping at what was, at the time, one of Amazon Go’s first convenience stores; by 2021, they aim to have more than three thousand worldwide. At the time, it looked like a very strange experience. On the one hand, I liked the convenience factor, the fact that I could get in and out without delay. This is something that every other customer I’ve spoken to has told me they like very much too. But I was disturbed by the silence – the place had a Trappist monastery feel. I also missed the superficial chat at checkout. And it bothered me that when I approached other buyers to ask about their experience, they seemed a little indignant, like I had violated their personal space just by saying a few words.
How quickly things change. Because what recently seemed so futuristic now seems to illustrate the way we live in the COVID-19 era.
Contactless commerce, of which Amazon Go is at an extreme, was already a growing trend in the fall of 2019, with a growing number of self-checkout counters and websites and apps that allowed us to have everything from groceries to pet supplies to prescription. drugs delivered directly to our doorstep. Back then, we could bypass Micky D’s server and order a Big Mac with a few clicks on a giant screen, avoid the awkwardness of a conversation with a flesh-and-blood bookseller and instead ask to “recommend.” personally ”our reads by The Amazon Algorithm, get hot and sweaty in the privacy of our living rooms through online yoga apps like Asana Rebel or YouTubers like Adriene, and have restaurant meals delivered to us at home at our convenience thanks to Seamless, Caviar, Postmates, Just Eat, Deliveroo or Grubhub.
What the pandemic has done, however, was turn what was heretofore a steady but slower growing slope into a steep, steep climb. After just a few weeks of lockdown, two million more people were doing yoga with Adriene on YouTube, 40% of American online grocery shoppers were doing it for the first time, and my eighty-two-year-old dad was “following” classes at her local community center on Zoom.
Overnight, contactless became in many ways our only choice. It is impossible to predict with certainty how this will play out in the long run. As we have seen, the human need for closeness and physical connection runs deep; later, we’ll see how a booming loneliness economy can act as a counterbalancing force. But the reality is that new habits, once forged, can take hold quite quickly. Many people who lived through the Great Depression, for example, remained frugal throughout their lives.
More recently, we have seen how popular large discount grocery stores, private labels, and dollar stores such as Aldi and Dollar General have remained popular with middle class consumers in Europe and the United States. long after the 2008 financial crisis demanded cuts in household spending.
Given that consumer concerns about the infection are likely to persist for some time to come, and many people’s experiences with contactless retail and entertainment during the lockdown were largely positive – depending on both the convenience and the increased choice they offer – the demand for at least some categories of contactless dating is likely to remain strong as the world rebuilds itself after COVID-19. Many of those who first experienced contactless during lockdown are likely to continue with what you might call “weak human contact”.
Especially since companies have now invested in technologies and work practices that limit customer interactions with their staff. Already in April 2020, restaurant chains were developing technology that allowed customers to pre-order and pay contactlessly with waiters, and apps allowing drivers to pay at gas stations from inside their cars were growing in popularity. Many companies that pay close attention to bottom lines will have good reason to maintain these changes in spending habits, given the labor cost savings associated with them.
This will be all the more true as the fear of future lockdowns persists, as social distancing remains “official” advice and the economy is perceived as fragile. The institutionalization of contactless life really concerns me. Because the more humans are exorcised from our daily transactions, isn’t it inevitable that we feel more alone? If our hectic city life is no longer interrupted by discussions at the checkout or banter with the bartender, if we no longer see the friendly face of the person behind the deli counter making our sandwich or the encouraging smile of our yoga teacher when we do our first successful helping hand, if we lose the benefits of all those micro-interactions that we now know we feel more connected to, isn’t it inevitable that isolation and disconnection will always be bigger?
Also, the danger is that the more we do this without contact, the less naturally adept we will become at connecting in person. For while such innovations will undoubtedly make life safer, at least for a while, and more convenient – or, in technical terms, more “frictionless” – our friction against each other is both what makes us feel connected and that teaches us how to connect. Even something as simple as silently negotiating who comes first in a grocery store aisle or where to place your mat in a yoga class requires us to compromise and consider the interests of others.
Again, this has ramifications that go beyond the personal or the individual. Think of our lonely mouse who lashes out at another when he’s been “bothered” by another. Or how much more hostile and threatening our environment feels when we don’t feel connected to our neighbors. In the age of contactless, the danger is that we know each other all the time, that we feel less connected to each other and that we will thus be more and more indifferent to the needs and desires of the other. We can’t break bread together, after all, if we’re sitting at home eating Grubhub ourselves.
But contactless life is not just a function of technological advancements, consumers’ thirst for convenience, or even the coronavirus imperative. Long before COVID-19 hit, we had built a world of separation and atomization.