Machines dehumanize people. I’ve long had a mental experiment in mind that I’d love to pull off one day — force people to walk at a grocery store the way they drive on a highway. You know: cut each other off, flip the bird, breathe (literally) down someone’s neck on line. It would all look and feel absurd, at least for most. All this to show people that we do things when we are in control of machines that we’d never do in “real” life. In other words, the machines control us, not the other way ’round.
Another easy thought experiment: a real-life mall where everyone says the things they’ve said (or heard) on Instagram or TikTok comments. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consult a woman.
This is bad for our souls. When you treat another person like an object, you’re a jerk. But I believe it also rebounds into you, and a piece of your humanity dies every time you dehumanize another person, even if it “feels” good at the moment. And this is how humans lose the robot war, without ever firing a shot. We just surrender our humanity and take the robots’ side. So if you are worried about ChatGPT, I think we have a lot more to worry about.
Cars, naturally, were just the beginning of this underhanded “invasion.” Smartphones have become a far more potent weapon in this dehumanization effort. I don’t have to work hard to make my case – we’ve all seen someone staring down hypnotically at a handheld screen while a store clerks ask, “Can I help you? CAN I HELP YOU!?” a dozen times.
I saw a survey this week that provides a bit more evidence for my concern. It was sponsored by a website named PlayUSA.com, which describes itself as a news service that provides independent information about the legal U.S. gambling industry. The survey was designed to examine the impact of tech products on loneliness and it found:
- 62% of respondents like that tech is replacing social interactions
- 60% use self-service kiosks and mobile apps to skip talking with people
- 75% report a decrease in social skills due to tech
- 74% made a delivery driver leave food outside even if they could have opened the door to grab the delivery
- 30% say they give drivers better ratings for not talking
As always, there’s a host of caveats to this survey. It was conducted online, using Google forms, which does not produce the best random sample. The company told me it conducted four different surveys from four different age groups to ensure balanced generational perspective — so it tried. That doesn’t give you a sample that’s truly as diverse as the U.S. population, of course. Doing so is tricky even under the best of circumstances.
Still, the results ring true. They do not necessarily prove my thesis — that tech is making us more lonely – or worse, dehumanizing us. After all there are plenty of other explanations for this behavior. It can feel safer to avoid meeting in person with a delivery driver; plenty of women will tell you chit-chatting with a driver can turn into something more uncomfortable very quickly; and self-checkout is often quicker than waiting for a cashier. Plenty of people with crippling social anxiety now have an avenue for living that has made their lives infinitely better, and I don’t mean to discount that.
Still, for most, our lives are designed to be full of human interactions large and small, or at least I believe they should be. I’ve written before about Eric Byrne’s theory of transactional analysis — that the sum of your everyday hellos and goodbyes and “how-are-yous” really do add to or subtract from your mental health. The pandemic severely limited our ability to engage in such daily niceties, but technology is keeping us that way. There are plenty of studies suggesting younger Americans are suffering from depression and social anxiety at rates we’ve not seen before. Tech clearly enables isolation.
But I worry about something more.
Tech tends to put a great distance between powerful people and weak people. It enables abuse because it can make abuse invisible. You would never yell at an older person in a grocery store for taking an extra moment to be sure-footed while stepping forward in a line. You probably wouldn’t hesitate to scream at that same person when behind the wheel in a car.
One more thought experiment: The next time someone drives or cycles dinner to you, imagine if you would do the same for them. I venture to guess you’d never directly ask someone you knew to cycle in the pouring rain for 15 minutes to bring you ice cream – but it’s sure easy to click “deliver” on an app and have the goodies left by the door.
I’m not saying food delivery is evil, or even bad. But I am saying that it’s unhealthy to avoid looking another human being in the eye when you make them do something for you. And my real fear about artificial intelligence? It’ll put yet another layer of 1s and 0s between powerful people and weak people. Another victory for robots in this war we are losing.