Everywhere you look, there seems to be a new product or service designed to get people to talk to each other less. Or, to put it another way, services to help people overcome the extreme struggle of having to talk to people—because who wants to do that? From the long established robo-operators, to the ubiquity of text messaging, to a new service, aptly titled “Service,” that handles the burden of having to speak with customer service agents for you, the business of not having to interact with others is going strong.
In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle, the well-known MIT psychologist, sheds some light on why these replacements for human interaction have become so ubiquitous. According to her research, primarily made up of one on one interviews, the fear of interacting with people stems from an unfortunate feedback loop around technology which then gets in the way of normal parent and child interaction, which she argues is critical for normal empathetic development. The development of empathy is, in turn, required for normal human relationships.
Turkle describes the cycle in this way, “Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.” If Turkle’s analysis is true, then future generation’s fear of talking to people is likely to accelerate, which ought to in turn increase the number of services designed to replace human interaction. It’s a great time to be a robot!
Not everyone agrees with Turkle’s assessment, though. Claude Fischer points out that people have been complaining about a lack of human interaction since the days of Edward Hopper’s Room in New York. Moreover, that while the interviews in her book may be true, “systematic, reliable evidence that Americans converse less in person than before is hard to find.” Indeed, twenty years ago Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, blamed a reduction in America’s “social capital,” i.e. human interaction, on the rise of the television. So is there really anything new or different about the phenomenon as Turkle seems to suggest? New or not, eternal or accelerating, the larger point remains, the market is certainly moving toward less and less human interaction. Time will tell what newfangled ways people will come up with so as to avoid people in the future.