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The Other Environmental Crisis

Post image for The Other Environmental Crisis

During a holiday get-together, several times the topic of conversation became, “Things that have quietly disappeared from ordinary life.”

We had been playing a word game that requires you to come up with examples from obscure categories of nouns: shampoo brands, film directors, types of fish. When “fashion model” came up, we noticed nobody could name one from this century.

In the 1990s, some of the most famous people in the world were fashion models, but at some point the world-famous model must have become an obsolete institution. Nobody was sad about this, but it seemed interesting that we hadn’t noticed their disappearance till twenty years later.

Earlier, my mom had been unable to make a particular recipe because she didn’t have enough sugar, and didn’t want to make a trip to the store just for that. Someone asked, “Hey… why don’t people knock on the neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of sugar anymore? When did that stop?”

This did seem like a shame. Again, nobody saw it disappear, we just knew that the tradition of neighborly ingredient-borrowing stopped being a thing at some point.

I didn’t notice this theme before. We tend to notice when novel experiences enter our lives—the smartphone, Uber, Google Home—but not when old familiar ones stop happening. I remember my family’s first touch-tone phone, but not my last rotary phone call.

In 2017 David Byrne published a blog post warning of another familiar experience that’s quietly disappearing from our lives: in-person human interaction.

He pointed out that new technologies meant to streamline our lives—Amazon Prime, Airbnb, self-checkouts, streaming music, social media, DoorDash—tend to do so by reducing the need for a human interaction to take place.

What much of this technology seems to have in common is that it removes the need to deal with humans directly. The tech doesn’t claim or acknowledge this as its primary goal, but it seems to often be the consequence. I’m sort of thinking maybe it is the primary goal.

-David Byrne

Airbnb allows you to book accommodation, check in, and check out without even seeing another person.

Spotify gives you access to virtually unlimited music, and even recommends music you’d like. This eliminates the record store, any interactions that might have happened there, and any need to talk to other music fans to learn about new music.

When you book a taxi or a ride-share using an app, you no longer have interact with the driver, even to tell them the address. They already have the data they need. Soon you won’t even have the option of chatting, because there will be no driver.

Amazon is testing automated stores. You scan yourself in, take what you like, and walk out with it. Your account gets billed automatically.

Most people have by now had their first disheartening encounter with an “airport ipad restaurant,” where you sit down ungreeted, swipe your card, touch an image of a the meal you want, and at some point a person appears and places it in front of you. Even eye contact is unlikely, unless something goes wrong.

Imagine another ten years in this direction. Imagine fifty.  

Human interaction probably isn’t in danger of extinction, but it is quietly losing great swaths of its natural habitat. Technology is making real interaction less necessary at work, home, and everywhere in between, which must mean there’s simply less of it in the world than there was a decade ago.

This loss is due to environmental degradation, just of a new sort. The environments life happens in—workplaces, homes, public areas, airports, stores—are becoming less hospitable to the natural proliferation of eye contact, meaningful dialogue, and empathy than they once were.

So maybe we should be thinking about conservation efforts. We can’t opt out of automated technologies completely, but we can re-establish the board game night, the potluck dinner, the block party, the book club, and other environments where real interaction thrives naturally.

I’m only sort of joking. It may not be a global crisis yet, but human interaction is definitely becoming rarer, and it’s hard to see how the trend will reverse itself, if each generation grows up less accustomed to face-to-face exchange than the last. I just think we should keep a protective eye out for human interaction, so it doesn’t slip away while we’re doing something else.

One of the buildings I pass on my walk home is a knitting supply store. Almost every time I go by in the evening, the store is bright inside, and there’s a table of six or eight women, teens to octogenarians, making hats and scarves, and chatting. It’s a reassuring sight.


Photo by Clay Banks

Soraia January 10, 2020 at 2:37 am

Hi David, Happy new year!

Such an important and urgent topic to discuss.I have been following the work of the Centre for Human Technology for a while that refers to some of these themes. Their podcast is particularly powerful and looks at things like the digital world and the isolationism it causes amongst many other things.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 9:27 am

I will check it out Soraia. Thanks.

Brian January 11, 2020 at 12:40 pm

I clicked through to this one too day something about convenience and isolation and how all these clever technologies disrupt what it means to *be* by reducing our every need into some kind of commoditized micro-transaction.

Not sure if the podcast is the solution, but to find such a reassuring thing in the very first comment is pretty incredible.

Each new convenience touting time savings opens up more time for what? Consumption of ever smaller conveniences? Sad to think we allowed our lives to become so granularly regulated and monetized like some kind of white label, sweat shop assembly line.

The irony in feeling so busy, so overwhelmed with so little substance or meaning or value for anyone other than shareholders, ya know?

Game night. Potluck. Now they sound like even *more* effort than they used to. And we’re all SO busy. But these things need to happen. I’m going to make them happen.

Anne January 10, 2020 at 4:11 am

Yes to all of this. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently in my lack of a sense of belonging, being part of something. I’ve lived in my community for 30 years but know – really know – very few people. (Im an older person living in a young, vibrant city community – wouldn’t have it any other way, but it can isolate me a bit). I’m not a member of any groups. My family – a small one – is at the other end of the country. I have a network of very good friends, but again, they’re scattered, and each is an individual friendship – on the whole, they don’t know each other. I’m not writing this with self-pity – it’s taken me a while to realise that this has happened, given that I’m an introvert who needs a lot of time alone. All the same, I now feel quite disconcerted by the lack of community in my life, and will have to consider how I can remedy it and find somewhere I can feel some belonging and rootedness.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 9:32 am

It does creep up on you, especially for those of us not particularly habituated to being socially proactive. I’m lucky to have benefited from having certain people in my life who have connected me to a small but solid group of friends. But that’s just luck. I am slowly learning to create these connections on my own. Best of luck finding a little more rootedness.

Nat January 10, 2020 at 11:16 am

Hi Anne. I’m just responding to commiserate that I could have written this myself. I hope that you find your community

Ana January 10, 2020 at 4:24 am

On the positive side, it makes life much easier for people with autistic traits.

Peter B January 10, 2020 at 6:43 am

I don’t have the data, but I wonder if there’s a link between the folk that work at the Silicon Valley companies and the types of technology they create. It’s a popular notion that the technical whizzes are often more likely on the autism spectrum and perhaps the technology they end up making is to ease their journey in this world. Of course, removing humans from services lowers cost so this also benefits the profits; also a prime motivator.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 9:41 am

In David Byrne’s article, he mentions this particular possibility. If we assume silicon valley engineers are predominantly male and socially-averse, and they’re designing life-shaping technologies for everyone, those technologies may be moving us towards a version of the world they’d like to live in, but most people would find is missing something important.

Emily January 10, 2020 at 7:14 am

Hi there. In response, I’d like to say that first of all I am not in a family with anyone on the spectrum. I work with some children who are, though, and I would hate to see us lose our humanity – avoid all conversation & interaction – for the sake of ease. I think it’s important to do hard things, and if that hard thing is also strengthening to our society that’s a marvelous sacrifice to make. I can try to make things easier for my autistic friends without losing interaction completely.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 9:38 am

Byrne mentions this connection in his article. He says he is on the spectrum but that he has overcome a lot of his social difficulties over the decades. I don’t think I have autistic traits but normal socialization was always difficult for me due to anxiety and resulting lack of social skill development due to avoidance behaviors. So a lot of these technologies have made things easier for me in one way, but also made it even harder to connect in the long run. If I could buy something without dealing with a person I would, even though it would be healthier (in my case) if I didn’t have the option.

There’s also an important difference between having options for the purpose of accessibility, and a society-wide loss of the face-to-face option.

Linda January 12, 2020 at 7:21 am

“If I could buy something without dealing with a person I would, even though it would be healthier (in my case) if I didn’t have the option.” –> this is so me. I haven’t been to a mall in years, and I love online shopping, even though I’m very cognizant of the environmental concerns. I will almost always choose the self checkout option if there is one, though this for sure is more of a convenience factor than interaction avoidance. I’m that person who procrastinate on making phone calls and in turn, almost never answers when my own phone rings (thankfully, very infrequently). And yes, I do think this has gotten worse over time, as it has become easier to avoid interaction. That being said, I have also pushed myself out of my comfort zone more than a few times, to attend workshops or lectures on my own, and I am part of two wonderful knitting groups (though I’ll admit it’s hard to get myself out the door some days).

Rocky January 10, 2020 at 4:37 am

Howdy David….I run a very old school bar and grill. It’s been in my family since 1943. When I first took over from my uncle 30 years ago, he told me “A lot of times the only reason a guy comes in here is to “shoot the bull.”
As human interaction becomes ever more rare… It’s value continues to rise.
“A man without a smile should not open a shop”
Thanks David !

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 9:46 am

That is one light of hope in all of this: human interaction is always going to be extremely valuable, and the more aware we are that it’s disappearing, the more obvious that value will be. Would love to visit your bar and grill someday :)

Rocky January 10, 2020 at 10:53 am

Check out Owl Cigar Store on Facebook
It’s in Cañon City Colorado. If you come this way,
I’ll totally hook you up :)

Josephine January 10, 2020 at 4:57 am

Technology is what you make of it. I have a friend abroad who I miss every day, but we share a spotify playlist and it makes me happy when I discover a new song in there that she thought I would enjoy. Then I listen to it while working and think of her. And when we finally do meet again we already have a playlist to accompany our dinner, so it’s a lovely feature. Also Airbnb can be a very social experience, you can book a room where you stay in the house of total strangers and maybe even share the kitchen or living room. Usually I love your posts but this is very pessimistic, and another generalising “technology bad, phones bad” kind of story. It’s true that we shouldn’t replace human interaction, but we can use social media and other services to enhance them. If we recommend a netflix series by text, next time we meet we already have something to talk about other than the weather for example :)

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 9:51 am

Clearly these technologies have upsides, I don’t think anyone is questioning that. Here is a point Byrne made in his longer article that I probably should have echoed:

“I am not saying these developments are not efficient and convenient; this is not a judgement regarding the services and technology. I am simply noticing a pattern and wondering if that pattern means there are other possible roads we could be going down, and that the way we’re going is not in fact inevitable, but is (possibly unconsciously) chosen.”

Christina January 10, 2020 at 11:31 am

I really appreciated what you point out in your post, David. On the other hand, I have an experience similar to Josephine’s. I have two sisters and a cousin who is like a sister, and as adults we have almost always lived in different cities and countries, so our face-to-face interaction was quite limited. But about a year ago, we started having a weekly meeting using Zoom, and it’s really deepened our relationship. One of us is in Washington, one in Oregon, one in New York, and one flips around between various cities, but we always have the weekly meeting to look forward to. Also, I always make it a point to chat with Tech Support people and other people that I have to deal with by phone. I now know what the weather is like in many parts of the world! And from a Tech Support person in Guatemala named Omar, I found out why his name is a popular one in Latin America (because of the popularity of Omar Sharif in the movie Dr. Zhivago many years ago. :-)

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 2:02 pm

Hi Christina. I’m not denying the usefulness of new technologies, and not all technologies fit the trend. Zoom and Skype clearly aren’t the types of technologies that provide their benefits by reducing human interaction.

Janet Wilson January 10, 2020 at 6:25 am

Loved that closing image David…come to a quilt guild meeting! We carpool, chattering all the way, have dinner together before the meeting, and then the meeting itself. There is something about hand-work that engages people: when on plane flights I often do a hand stitchery project and when I am in the aisle seat, people often stop to smile and chat about what I am making. Social media does make possible staying connected with friends and loved ones who are not local…but we all need our village, non?

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 9:53 am

I have never done any knitting or needlework, but there is something life-affirming about making things with your hands in a roomful of people.

Jeff Cordiano January 10, 2020 at 6:43 am

I’m 73 and grew up with the term “nuclear family”.

There are several aspects to the definition. One result of a nuclear explosion is that it spreads out in all directions very quickly…in all directions..covering great distances.

The family unit has developed these same aspects ( although more recently more adult children are living with parents).

I grew up with neighborhood schools and shops, only left home to go to another state for college…and… never looked back, through the military and then private industry.

My parents stayed together for us kids, but as soon as I was up and out at age 18, they split and divorced. I used to come home for holidays, and then that stopped too when they split.

I had my job elsewhere, my family elsewhere and friends scattered all over the globe.

BUT…the one thing that has not changed throughout my life has been my attachment and participation with and in my spiritual home. My denomination was, and is, centered around loving community, engagement, and activities. I have visited many UU churches around the country and get the same sense of family and community from each one. This one family has not changed.

Levi January 10, 2020 at 6:45 am

Hi David!

I was quickly picturing another dark episode of “Black mirror” on Netflix and was getting kind of sad.

But then I saw Rocky’s comment above and remember that we still have those places that specialize in this kind of interaction like restaurants, but even more so bars and clubs – all about meeting people. Many people go to bars and hang out just hoping to meet interesting people – sometimes the drinking is even just an excuse to be there. I guess some people treat art galleries the same way. Parks is another such place, beaches and so on. So I’m thinking that all of this technology is there to help you spend less time in the grocery store and more time where it counts.

There is a small risk that it allows us to choose our human contact mroe carefully and thereby reinforcing our existing filter bubbles – but hopefully those bars and parks and blogs like this one can help remind us to connect with strangers as well, and to be kind to others even if we don’t meet each other in the grocery stores anymore.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 10:07 am

Yeah sorry — the tone of this post got away from me. I didn’t mean it to be sad, but more of a “hey look — this thing we love needs attention.”

I like your insight here. Time-saving devices can save time for whatever we like. I suppose it’s a matter of keeping track of how new services actually do change our lives.

Pam January 10, 2020 at 6:51 am

My college experience was 2005-2009: the last era before smartphones became ubiquitous. My method for making friends was, I would go to the cafeteria, get my tray and then ask someone if I could sit at their table. We would talk the whole meal and I met so many interesting people this way! Some of them became my life-long friends.

Fast forward to 2016 when I started my new job at a huge company where I knew no one. I tried the same method: go to the cafeteria, get my tray, and ask to sit with someone. It worked…sometimes. It was hit or miss though. There was a 50/50 chance that the other person would stare at their phone the whole time in silence. It was awkward. Eventually, I just started sitting by myself and looking at my own phone.

I’m still at the company and I haven’t given up! I’m trying a new approach. Today is the first meeting of a lunch-time sign language group I’m starting. Seven people RSVP’d. I’m cautiously hopeful.

Kevin January 10, 2020 at 10:01 am

We have one breakroom table, and all have lunch at the same time. Ten years ago, that was a time to talk or watch TV together. Now almost no one interacts, other than to share a meme from their phone.

Good luck today!

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 10:19 am

Don’t give up! I’ve always appreciated anybody who says “Hey, mind if I sit here?” because their willingness to be vulnerable made it feel safe for me to chat to them without so much fear of indifference or rejection. I always found that so hard to do myself, but whenever I did I usually met a new person. So I guess I’m saying that it is greatly appreciated by some people. I hope your sign-language group goes well.

Pam January 10, 2020 at 12:56 pm

David, the sign language group went SO WELL! Eight people came and it was the most fun I’ve ever had at work!

Susan Fiore January 10, 2020 at 7:00 am

This tells me why quilting retreats are important to me!

Emily January 10, 2020 at 7:18 am

P.S. – I live in a small town (roughly 7,000 people) and I still know most of my neighbors well enough to borrow a cup of sugar! The problem is, most of them work & aren’t home when I need it!

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 10:21 am

That might be much of the reason right there. Compared to the ’60s or ’70s, fewer people are home during the day, and if they are, they probably have access to a vehicle and could just go to the store.

Aga January 10, 2020 at 7:50 am

I have to share an opposing view – my work puts me in contact with many young people, university students and recent graduates, and perhaps because they tend to be first generation Canadians, or perhaps simply because of their demographic, they are utter crap at responding to texts on the phone, and tales of their weekends routinely revolve around gathering at board game cafes, which have been proliferating here in Edmonton, and board game nights at each others homes. (Whoa, that was a LONG sentence.) I see a lot of craft shows and art gatherings where young people collaborate and support one another. I have great hope in both the millennial generation, which brought back respect for craftsmanship and old timey skills like making jam and pickles and bread, and the generation that follows. I think people are tired of the faceless techno-life (although I’m the first to admit I shop on Amazon because it means I don’t have to deal with crowds) and are moving back to some of the old fashioned pastimes, like the stitch’n’bitch that you closed with – typically filled with people of all ages where I live.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 10:27 am

I don’t think it’s opposing really — there is a lot going on at once. Clearly there is a lot of fatigue around social media, and a lot of resistance to increasing automation. Board games have made a comeback while at the same time mobile phone games are a gazillion dollar industry. I hope there is a generational bounceback effect afoot.

Vilx- January 10, 2020 at 8:08 am

Disclaimer: I’m a computer programmer myself, so my opinion is naturally more in favor of technology.

I don’t quite share your pessimism about human interaction, David. We have a thing in our family that on Fridays we go out and get food from McDonalds. When they introduced the new ordering machines, I was so excited! Same when my local supermarkets introduced self-checkouts. And you know why? Precisely because they reduced human interactions. When at the register, I always feel pressured for time. I’m, like, standing there at McDonalds and going “Yeah, uhhm, I’ll have… uhmm… I think…aaaah…” all the while my mind is going frantically on, trying to select what I want, trying to remember what my family members ordered… At the machine, there’s no such stress. I can take my time. Browse the menus. Select things. Maybe change my mind. Check out the coupons they’ve given to me in the app and try to figure out the best deal. Etc. And all the while I don’t need to feel like I’m wasting someone’s time. Hesburger has gone even a step further and instead of a machine I can just order from an app on my phone. That way I don’t even need to worry about a potential line forming behind me (happens rarely at the machines, but still does sometimes).

I think what your’re missing is that there are (at least) two _kinds_ of human interactions. The “business” interactions and the “personal” interactions.

The business interactions are, well, about business. It’s the cash register in the store; the travel agent when you’re making vacation arrangements; the flight attendant in the airplane; the waiter who serves your table. You don’t go into small talk with these people – that would be just awkward. You don’t know them and they don’t know you; you each have your own private lives and those are none of the other one’s business. At most there can be some chitchat about the weather or latest news or something, but even that is pushing it. Now, I don’t mean that you should be rude – on the contrary, politeness is super important. But also – a respectable distance. Getting too close and personal _is_ impolite. That’s how it has always been even before technology came along, and replacing these interactions with machines really allows both sides to breathe easier.

The “personal” interactions however are what you’re talking about. They are with people you know or would like to know, they are not about a job, but rather about the people themselves and their lives. They’re also a bit trickier because the other person might not _want_ to talk to you, but then it’s your job to pick up on those cues and leave them alone. These conversations are also the ones that are rewarding. There is no sense of “yay, I talked to a PEOPLE” after receiving a pizza delivery (or if there is, something is definitely off). That’s just… a business transaction. Emotionless. But personal interactions are about showing other people that you care about them, and receiving the same care back, so that’s what makes you feel good. These are the visits to your neighbor (“just to borrow a cup of sugar”) and the game nights and chatting in the lunchroom, etc.

I have to admit, now that I wrote this I realized about a third category somewhere inbetween these two. “The colleague”. Those are still fairly reserved and not as close as with friends or family, but also not as formal as pure customer service. There’s still some chitchat about personal lives on a regular basis, even though it won’t be too deep.

Perhaps there are other levels too.

But my point is – the same technology that is removes human interactions from business interactions also often servers to add human interaction where there previously was none, or maybe enhances the one that was there. I don’t think it’s gloom and doom.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 10:45 am

I take your point about transactional interactions versus more social ones — not connecting with the McDonalds clerk may not be some great cultural loss. It’s a very blurry line though. McDonalds was one of the early examples of hyper-optimizing the money-in-product-out process, and I’m surprised they even have human workers still. But with friendly neighborhood shops closing because of Amazon, or record stores dying because of streaming music, something valuable is being lost, because real interaction took place there.

When it comes to respecting boundaries with people at work — not asking a busy flight attendant what their favorite color is — I think that’s all a function of being familiar with human beings, and if we dealt mostly with robots, the problem you describe would only be worse. You don’t need to cross any lines to have a warm and genuine interaction with someone who is working. The business and the personal are not categorically different unless the employee and customer already see each other as nothing more than “an entity I must transact with.”

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 10:59 am

By the way I share your discomfort of deciding an order in front of a waiting clerk, but there is a simple solution to that. I stand off to the side while I look at the menus, then get in line once I know what I want. If I have a large order I can write it down. Robotic solutions can save us from many instances of social discomfort, but it creates a big problem in the background — you never learn to navigate that situation except by removing yourself from the live pressure of a human interaction. It might be a sore spot for me in particular, because I know now that nothing has cost me more in life than habitually avoiding these sorts of tiny social challenges. I would never call when I could email, or talk to a person when I could talk to a machine, and all it has done is made life harder.

Catherine January 10, 2020 at 12:50 pm

It is precisely in the area of “business” transactions that we can practice connecting with other people, and recognize how such small actions as a smile, eye contact, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ or simply making eye contact reinsert us into the human race. Kindness and concern are muscles that need to be exercised every day in small and large ways.

I like this quote from Brian Eno: “One of the unsung benefits of public transport: people relate to each other and have a chance to be nice to each other.” I’ve had some amazing conversations on the bus with people I would never have spoken to otherwise. The more you do it, the less “awkward” it feels.

kiwano January 21, 2020 at 4:45 pm

While I can certainly appreciate a temptation to dismiss business interactions as inferior interactions, and an acceptable loss, I can’t say I really agree with such a dismissal.

Reflecting on one side of the interaction, I can remember quite clearly that when I bicycled across Canada after finishing my schooling, I’d have stretches of at least a few days at a time, where I hardly spoke to anyone — days where the only person I spoke to was the cashier at the gas station where I was asking to use the toilet to defecate, maybe a supermarket cashier too (or instead) if it was a day when I needed to buy more food. Even though I’m usually rather quiet, withdrawn, and even shy, I would talk at length with these “business” interactions, because any human interaction at all was so precious to me.

On the other side of such interactions, I worked sales at a bicycle shop in the year after my ride (I finished school just in time to essentially graduate into the ’08 recession, and was kindly informed by the cashier at my usual bike shop — also incidentally a neighbour of mine — that business at bike shops picks up during recessions). Obviously, since I was paid for all the time that I was there, regardless of whether there was anyone to sell to, the times that there weren’t any customers were spent topping up the tires on the floor-model bikes, straightening out shelves of merchandising, restocking shelves, dusting things, etc. While I didn’t have the same acute sense of the preciousness of human interaction, I still much preferred having a customer in the shop to talk to (even if only about what they were maybe looking to buy) to the other necessary tasks of the shop. And this is coming from someone who’s quite deeply introverted.

I guess my point is that although a commercial interaction is unlikely to be as intimate as a social interaction, the intimacy of a social interaction is not at all necessary for an interaction to be meaningful and beneficial.

K MacGregor January 31, 2020 at 3:35 pm

I get the impression you live in a big city, where people maintain firm social barriers. No such barriers in small towns, at least where I’m from. ;) The business/personal transaction line is very blurry.

Suzie Doyle January 10, 2020 at 8:11 am

Happy New Year and Decade,

Your post raises the alarm bell to the importance of human interaction. Slowly, and without notice I want to keep it happening in my life.

Thanks for sharing your thought provoking words.

Bob January 10, 2020 at 9:09 am

Keep an eye out for the sex robots. That’ll be the real death of human interaction :)

Sharon Hanna January 10, 2020 at 9:41 am

I have to disagree with Vilx- (?) who commented that there is a difference between social and business transactions. Have had some life-changing ‘business’ transactions – both in person and on the telephone. Loving kindness is needed everywhere at this time on the planet – whether business or social or whatever ;-) I live in Vancouver in an area called Kitsilano which has recently become pretty gentrified meaning everyone works and has nannies. However there are still a few neighbours at home and we do borrow cups of sugar and more. I have a driftwood bench on the edge of the sidewalk plus a ‘library’ for books which is used by neighbours regularly.

Rick H January 10, 2020 at 9:44 am

The crisis in Japan is proof positive to your observation.

Camille Hoff January 10, 2020 at 10:08 am

This is such a timely post for me! I can go for days or even weeks without talking to anyone in person except my immediate family living in my house. Recently, I started a book club at my local library because I wanted to talk about books in person with other interested readers, only to find that the only people interested in an in-person book club are sixty-five or older. My husband advised me to start a virtual book club on-line, but that doesn’t have the same appeal for me.

As for super models, I can name several, and was surprised that you thought they had disappeared. Bella Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Doutzen Kroes, Gigi Hadid, Gisele Bundchen, and Kendall Jenner are the top models that come to mind. I would even argue that models are more visible these days because they have their own Instagram and Twitter accounts and can speak directly to the public. Of course, if you don’t read fashion magazines or read about these women in the news, you may never hear of them. So often our experiences are just a product of our environment and with whom/what we surround ourselves.

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 11:10 am

I suppose we all live under a kind of illusion that we are seeing the same pop culture as others. Thirty years ago pop culture must have been much more unified, because we were all watching the same channels, and big data had not yet begun to personalize what we see based on our online behavior. This also means that no one star can get quite as big as was once possible. There will never be another Michael Jackson in the music world, or Cindy Crawford in the modeling world. Our attention has too many places to go.

Nat January 10, 2020 at 11:07 am

I’ve travelled to lots of tourist hotspots over the past 20 years. While the crowds have steadily grown, I get approached by fewer and fewer strangers asking me to take a picture for them. This was especially noticeable after the selfie stick became a thing. I’m not big on photography, but it was nice to be trusted by another person to capture that memory

David Cain January 10, 2020 at 11:13 am

Pictures in general have changed a lot. The ability to take limitless digital photos means we take a lot more of them, but we also seem to treasure them less. We don’t get prints much anymore, and it’s also a lot less exciting to see another person’s vacation photos, because whatever it is, we’ve seen it before.

Denise January 10, 2020 at 11:20 am

To the point that technology has many benefits: Yes, I agree that quick transactions are more efficient using technology – and I often use the auto check out line at the grocery store, especially when I’m in a hurry. But I think a 3rd category of interactions beyond the two that that Vilx mentions, Business and Personal, is Unexpected Connections with Strangerd—when you’re going thru your business in life and suddenly you have a moment with a stranger. A warm conversation with the Lyft Driver or the grocery checkout person or even the person on the other end of the tech help line…Or a compliment just when you need it…or a kind smile that shows complete understanding in the moment.

If we’re always connecting with machines—and our own phones—we are missing out on these connections. And maybe we undervalue them. It’s not a matter of either/or, I think. Use the tech when needed—but for me, I hope to first be aware that I value both personal connections and unexpected connections, and then second to be proactive in choosing opportunities for human connection in all its forms. And I also hope to be a part of a society that values and furthers human connection—not just technology.

David Cain January 11, 2020 at 12:31 pm

Well said Denise. I do think these “semi-social” interactions with people at work are vital to our sense of belonging to a society, and it would be a shame if they went away.

Sam Fellin January 17, 2020 at 8:18 am

I just wanted to chime in and concur with your sentiment! I actually have an example to share, as I just had a job interview this past week, and as I was waiting in the lobby, an older woman sat beside me and started chatting away. We talked about my earrings (I wear big, statement-y earrings and people often comment on them, they’re a surprisingly good ice breaker!), and other small talk for a few minutes. At the end of our interaction she told me I had a beautiful smile, and honestly it made my day on what was an otherwise stressful and crappy Tuesday. It’s nice to have those affirmations of a shared humanity, a sense that the perceived divisions between us aren’t as solid as we think they are :)

anna January 10, 2020 at 11:23 am

I answered an ad in the boulangerie to look after a half blind old lady. I find it sad that she has to pay someone to look after her. In the old days some stay at home mother or neighbour would go round there to check on her everyday and bring her food. This would be normal. Now we are all too busy working or watching netflix and even her young next door neighbours never go round… (she is extremely grumpy and ungrateful and complaining which may be part of the reason they stay away) I stay way over the time she pays me for because it is normal and a pleasure to be of service. I heard on the news that there is an old peoples home that has got robots in to chat with the old people. They can’t find people that are willing to give up their time to chat.

Brady Faught January 10, 2020 at 12:48 pm

With a new baby, we’ve had these sort of conversations “our child will likely never have to ask a stranger for directions.” Especially when travelling, will never experience the excitement of learning and trying a foreign language.

One tiny bastion of hope in our lives is our cohousing project in Vancouver. It’s 27 families in what looks like a regular condo building, but it’s an intentional community where borrowing sugar, board game and potluck nights are all par for the course.

Gary Coy January 10, 2020 at 12:54 pm

I now have “Once In A Lifetime” roiling through my head. I have to listen to it now… :) Thanks for that – I love that song.

Cecily Sanford January 10, 2020 at 1:49 pm

Hi David,
I’ve just got to say that of all the blog sites out there, and admittedly, I’ve only been to a few greats, like Daily OM and On Being…. (since I am working at not being hierarchical)… I am really enjoying yours, immensely. Great work. Thank you!

David Cain January 11, 2020 at 12:18 pm

Thanks Cecily :)

Elisa Winter January 10, 2020 at 6:37 pm

Last night in Albany, at the Cohoes Music Hall, I saw the movie “Peaceful Warrior” based on Dan Millman’s book. In the movie, there’s a gas station and one of the two main characters (Socrates) pumps gas, cleans windshields, chats a bit with the drivers. And I had the same thought that you write about here. When I was growing up on Long Island, we knew the guy who pumped the gas at the station closest to our house. Knew him just from the twice a week fill ups. A friendly face and shooting the breeze for a minute. The hairdresser, grocery checkout lady, the postman, the kid who delivers the paper. I no longer have these “regulars” in my life. It’s weird and sad to think about. I am getting friendly with the local librarians though!

Jo January 11, 2020 at 10:33 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately. One thing I’ve been wondering about is whether or not our number of interactions with other humans is really decreasing when you take a longer view. When people lived on farms and not in dense cities, did they really have that much human interaction? They’d see their families every day but social interaction was often limited to Sundays when they’d meet up with others in their community for church, and maybe a quick run to the village store once during the week to stock up on supplies. I’m not a historian so I could be way off but I’m thinking that having to interact several times during the day with a variety of people (commuting to work, at the coffee shop picking up coffee before work, at work in the cubicle farm, etc.) is a relatively new phenomenon and that opportunities to be alone are less than they used to be…I’m also an introvert who finds that the world right now is geared towards the preferences of extroverts so that also colours my perspective. If you enjoy being alone and find interactions with others exhausting, are these side effects of the new technologies so bad?

David Cain January 11, 2020 at 12:08 pm

I suppose it depends on what each person is moving from and towards as technology changes. Obviously the long-term change from agrarian to urban lifestyles made all sorts of huge differences to daily life. Things were gained and lost. I’m talking about a more specific trend, having to do with increasing automation and integration of transactions that used to require people to interact personally but now no longer do.

Janet Hayes January 11, 2020 at 4:22 pm

Thanks for the topic David. I too have noticed the loss of human interaction. I, child of the 60’s, remember standing with my parents out and about in the world. Perhaps it was a line at the super market or waiting for an elevator. I just remember the ease at which complete strangers would strike up a conversation. My dad would start it, “Crimanitly, if I stand here much longer I’m bound to forget why I’m in this line in the first place!” And then there would be laughter and agreement and some more funny wise cracks and a sense of shared human experience. The other day I was in a line waiting and I looked around to start up a conversation…but everyone around me was looking down in their phone and oblivious to me standing there. It was a very lonely time for me, just looking around at everyone else on their smart phone. I have one in my pocket, but it’s not my think to pull it out when I’m surrounded by people. I’m not knocking smart phones or the use of them. I think they are an amazing advancement for us. But with every new advancement we loose something cherished from the past. I think back in the day when you had nothing but the stranger next to you to talk to, we had a better sense of connection to mankind. I think we had more hope and less fear of all those humans we didn’t know standing there in the same predicament as us. I think we had a better connection to them and their welfare. The world was a larger place back then and we reached out to others around us with ease. I still find you can start up a conversation with a stranger, but your best bet if you choose not to interrupt what they are doing on their phone is to take advantage of the person checking out your groceries or taking your money at the hardware store.

David Cain January 13, 2020 at 2:56 pm

There are many layers to the change we’ve seen, and you’ve pointed out another. There’s a kind of shared “us” experience people standing in line together can feel if their attention remains in the room. But phones allow it to tunnel out into some other place in the world, and we all end up a little lonelier in public, even though our bodies are still there.

Nathan St. Pierre January 11, 2020 at 7:50 pm

You get a taste of your knitting scenario at game stores – either standalone or in the mall (board games and/or video games). There’s one board game store in the mall near me, and in the back they have a few tables pushed together to make one big one, and they play old-school D&D there, plus smaller board games on individual tables in satellite around it. Boys and girls, kids to adults. You love to see it!

Also my cousin ran a used video game store for a decade, and he had a few systems set up with a couch and chairs over to the side, where people could hang out a bit and play. Good stuff :)

(but seriously I’m really excited for the iPad-only restaurants and stores)

David Cain January 13, 2020 at 2:52 pm

I really do think board games have a significant part to play in fending off the apocalypse. D&D also.

paulina kay January 13, 2020 at 12:04 pm

Great article as always. What I know is that this attitude of disconnections is becoming unsustainable. Our brains got dangerously hooked on the survival mind and has been impossible to evolved emotionally this way. Consequently in spite of getting worst, it is also becoming harder and harder to keep it together. I can smell it, the change is happening.

Derrick Whyte January 13, 2020 at 12:26 pm

An interesting topic that obviously has a wide variety of opinions. Technology definitely has numerous benefits. I feel we do need to recognize as human beings that we don’t lose the “being” in our lives. I realize to each his own. But as in many facets of life we don’t stop and smell the roses until its too late. Everyone has their own story and I find them very interesting to read or hear. As I wind down my 35 year career as a Psychiatric Nurse I cant help but notice I spend more then half my day on non patient centered care. When like the gentleman early who owns the pub said most people just want to talk or be heard. So in my profession I see a need to create all these non personal tasks to show how we do things so well. When in fact there is no time to do our job. Helping people in difficult times. Spending time just listening and validating them.

David Cain January 13, 2020 at 3:15 pm

I think being understood, even about the smallest things, is a pretty deep human need, and if we’re spending less face time with each other, we’re not feeling understood as often. It’s hard to live without that.

Laura Homer January 17, 2020 at 11:21 am

No matter one’s view of technology, this discussion is important to keep having. It’s not doom and gloom, in my opinion, to count the cost of something that has disrupted our normal way of living to such a degree as the iPhone has. Your most poignant observation was in one of the comments, when you said that the tiny challenges are very important to developing social courage and resilience. This is so true. I was reminded of my son, whom we took to see an occupational therapist a few years ago because of weakness in his hands and core muscles. It became clear, after a few weeks of exercises, that his weakness was caused by a persistent avoidance of doing difficult things with his hands and arms rather than by a physical disability. He would run but not climb or swing, and all those tiny choices that he made at the playground grew into an avoidance pattern that has had an influence in his normal life. Not terrible, but noticeable. I think our technology patterns are like that—they cause us to choose the easier path increasingly often—and we don’t always recognize the weaknesses these choices cause. Focusing on the absolute best case use of technology I don’t think is very helpful when trying to evaluate your daily usage patterns. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism was helpful for me in this regard.

Sylvia February 4, 2020 at 11:51 am

Thank you for bring this up. I’ve noticed this more and more in the past years. Casual conversation with strangers seems to be going extinct.

I’m a member of a community association that’s been around for many decades. Here’s an account from the newsletter of how newcomers to the neighborhood were welomed back in 1963:

“A May coffee hour was held by MARILYN SNODGRASS to welcome MAXINE SCOTT and DOROTHY HEARN to the Somerset
[and lots more names]. While the children enjoyed juice and cookies in the rec room, the women met their new neighbors and
became better acquainted.”

Today, in 2020 – there’s no more welcoming committee. And it’s very difficult to find people to serve on the community association board at all.

Not to be a gloom and doomer, but this seems like a very negative trend. Personally, I’m actively looking for more social connections.

David Cain February 4, 2020 at 1:51 pm

In doing some genealogy work, I’ve learned a lot about my ancestors’ circles of friends through newspaper announcements similar to what you’ve shared here. They describe baby showers, community meetings, and other local get-togethers, listing attendees by name, and even what they wore. Things have definitely changed, but I’m happy to say my neighborhood is very big on community activities. We don’t have a welcoming committee but there are community meetings, an annual sidewalk supper and block party, and (naturally) a facebook group.

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