There was a moment last month, during Apple’s event showcasing its forthcoming watch, when the company’s Vice President of Technology, Kevin Lynch, got up on stage and showcased an app from Starwood Hotels to an audience full of technophiles. He was highlighting the watch’s NFC capabilities, the technology that allows people to use their phones to do things like pay for their morning coffee or cab rides.
“I can bypass the front desk entirely, go directly to my room, and then my watch is my room key. I just wave it in front of the door and go into my room,” Lynch explained to loud applause. “Isn’t that cool?”
Yes, I'm sure it is. But when Lynch said that we'll soon be able to "bypass the front desk entirely," I cringed. There's a troubling and accelerating trend in the tech world: We are inventing and embracing new ways to eliminate human interaction from our lives. This is hardly a new phenomenon, and Apple's watch—presale of the device starts on Friday—isn't the worst offender. But Apple’s keynote presentation was telling for its open-arms embrace of the idea that avoiding human contact is a marketable feature of new technology. It's also important to note that there's one group who will be disproportionately affected by that erasure: those workers who make your coffee, give you your room key, and drive your cabs. What happens when they disappear from view?
“The touchpoints for connection, even with strangers, are going to be minimized the more tech is maximized,” said Boston-area psychologist Dr. Kate Roberts, who works closely with people suffering from technology addiction. “The more that we rely on that, the less we are relying on human interactions, which I think are very important in a very basic and primitive way.”
Plenty has been written about the toll that phone separation anxiety takes on our relationships with friends and family, but perhaps more troubling is how successfully we’ve ridded our daily lives of strangers.
“The ability to go for a day, or days, without interacting with another human being is very isolating,” Roberts said. “It can affect how people perceive themselves, and people can actually get disconnected from their own humanness.”
The unintended consequences can be profound, especially in younger children. “The way we foster development and social skills is with how we interact with people in general,” Roberts added.
This move away from human interactions has been decades in the making, but its pace has quickened as technology advances and its cost decreases. In just the last few weeks, companies like Amazon and Starbucks have announced new innovations that cut the need to see and talk to other people even further. Though online shopping still sometimes requires you to open your door to a deliveryman, even that basic interaction is under attack—from drones, no less.
Often, these features are sold as matters of convenience. And sure: There’s a lot that’s appealing about placing my morning latte order on my phone and having it waiting for me when I get off the Metro. But just as frequently, the elimination of human interaction actually slows down our daily routines.
Think back to the last time you paid for groceries in a self-checkout line. Instead of having a person trained to scan and bag your groceries, you’ll almost invariably find yourself behind someone on their phone or—heaven forbid—buying alcohol, which requires a clerk to wander over and check ID, slowing down the process even further.
Or, as another example, calling customer service: How many times have you found yourself in an endless maze of automated messages, seemingly none of which can provide much service at all? There are now entire websites devoted to compiling step-by-step instructions for how to get a human being on the phone as quickly as possible.
No, convenience isn’t so much the raison d'etre of automation rather than the occasional, happy byproduct of it. For companies, there’s obviously an economic motivation: more automation means fewer people they have to employ. And for customers, argues Roberts, there is a sense of self-reliance and independence that comes from being able to take care of business alone, which feels empowering. It may be the case that one day our automated systems will truly be more convenient, but that day is not today or tomorrow or April 24, when the Apple Watch officially goes on sale to the masses.
In the online magazine Matter, writer Lauren Smiley sorts out the details of what she calls the “shut-in economy”: An entire population of mostly young, tech-obsessed, middle-class-types who turn to a bevy of apps to accomplish just about anything without leaving the confines of their apartments. From food to dry cleaning to veterinary services, nearly everything is two swipes and a tap away.
And Smiley touches on another, darker point: The people we are tuning out of our lives—baristas, grocery store clerks, hotel front desk staff—are largely lower-income workers who can ill-afford to be ignored, or to have their jobs eliminated. The disrupters in Silicon Valley are even erasing these people from our commutes: startup Leap Transport has introduced a swanky single-route bus line catering to those San Franciscans who can't be bothered to use public transportation to get from their Marina District residences to their Financial District offices. We run the risk of becoming further desensitized to the plight of poorer workers living in our communities because it is now easier than ever to pretend like they don’t exist at all.
“You’re going to have less and less of a connection with people,” said Roberts. “The walls we’re building are going to be so thick, we’re going to start to have problems interacting in person.”
Paradoxically, the same technology that is enabling our anti-social behavior can also be used to ameliorate some of its effects. Early reviewers of the Apple Watch have commented that after wearing the device for a few days, they began to notice that they were spending significantly less time checking their phones. Staying in touch with friends and family is easier than ever thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and the services that run on them.
It’s not the new devices that are to blame. It’s how we choose to use them.