Many years ago I worked in a supermarket. It was hard not to notice the elderly ladies, who came through the 5 items or less check out every day and who seemed to seep with loneliness and for whom, that brief interaction might be the only time they heard a human voice all day.
Now when I go to the same supermarket the equivalent check out is no longer manned by a human, but rather customers are expected to serve themselves, often while an automated voice shouts orders about the bagging area. I wonder where the equivalent lonely people go now for that brief moment of company buying groceries once provided. With half of over 75 year olds living alone, I suspect there are lots.
There is a great debate to be had about how shops somehow managed to introduce a system where customers perform the tasks workers were once paid to do, with no reduction in prices to compensate. But there must also be concern about the unseen impacts of this.
Research is indicating that workers in countries with higher levels of automation report more physical and mental distress.
But I have real concerns about the decline of human interaction we are facing – so many things we used to do that brought us into contact with another person no longer do, from buying train tickets, paying for the bus to working at home to booking appointments. Almost one fifth of UK adults report being lonely and lacking social connections is shown to be as harmful for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
There is also no doubt that new methods feel more stressful too. Now in restaurants, the cinema and even bars you can order a drink and be given a glass and expected to serve yourself, again for the same price you used to pay for someone to do it.
A trip to the bank now includes someone harassing everyone in the queue to use the machine instead and by printing our own tickets we now incur all the printing costs with the cost we used to pay to have tickets delivered now rebranded as a ‘booking fee.’
Of course, other areas which were once places of interaction are also in decline, such as pubs and clubs so it is no surprise loneliness is on the rise.
Technology marches on, with no chance to go back, so we must find ways to make sure that ‘progress’ is not at the cost of the mental health of the citizens who it claims to serve. We need to ensure we find new ways for people to connect because lives led in isolation will make us less open to positive human experiences than the robots who have taken our places.