To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. (Paul R. Erlich, biologist/author)
On a wintry day, temperature hovering just above freezing, leaden skies overhead, I found myself sitting with about 150 other people in my regional Social Security Admin office. Waiting. And waiting. The little slip of paper with my customer service number growing damp and creased in my palm.
In setting up access to an SSA online account the week before, I had encountered a disconcerting roadblock: We have no records that match this information. Try again. So I did. Again and again.To make a long, extremely frustrating story short, every which way I tried—former hyphenated surname (marriage #1), current unhyphenated surname, birth date with zero preceding a digit, birth date without the zero —failed. We have no records that match this information.
Oh yeah? Then explain to me, please, why I’m sitting here with the annual notice you sent in 2018, reporting every year’s social security deductions from my earnings for decades!!!
Ah, modern life.
This Facelessness We Face
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. (Albert Einstein)
Thirty-five years ago, the movie Brazil, brainchild ofMonty Python’s Terry Gilliam, painted a Munch-ian (think The Scream) portrait of near-future life that is as terrifying today as it was then. A well-oiled featureless orb of a bureaucracy with no edges, nothing one can grasp. An impervious, slippery thing that eludes our efforts to interact with the institutions that shape our lives.
We’re pretty much there:
Phone bots demand we “say or enter” our answers to pre-determined questions, which often fail to address the reason we called. When we attempt to respond, these bots rap out a snappy “I didn’t quite get that. Can you try again?” And then hang up on us.
Emails direct us to links that don’t work. When Microsoft took over Skype, I had a $10 phone credit—not a lot, but I need the dough more than Bill Gates, so I clicked on the link the Microsoft message assured me would allow for the transfer of my money to their new Skype system. Another long story short: the link made no mention of transfers or phone credit. No further link to customer service, no phone number. Bye-bye ten dollars.
Online support systems launch our requests for help into deep cyberspace (we used to call this the “circular file”). Three years ago, when my email account was behaving erratically, I left Google a message on their “support” page, you know the one that invites you to “Describe your issue or share your ideas.” Never heard back from them.
The utter facelessness of modern life often renders us voiceless. As the Ghostbusters theme song asks: “Who you gonna call?”
How Did We Get Here?
Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences. (Lewis Mumford, historian and sociologist)
By the time I was born, the post-war (that’s WWII for the Gen Z crowd) economy of labor-saving gadgets was in full swing. Dishwashers. Automatic clothes driers. Frost-free refrigerators.
On a larger scale, technological advances made commercial air travel not only possible but relatively affordable, paved the Interstate highway system, and boosted healthcare for the entire planet with the mass production of antibiotics and the development of the polio vaccine.
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the march of progress continued on. Color TVs. Touch-tone phones. Copier machines. Heart transplants.
And on… Word processors. Flip phones. Affordable PCs.
Innovation. It’s a beautiful thing. Up to a point.
If you can recall life before Facebook. Before bots supplanted flesh-and-blood customer service reps. Before every transaction of life—except possibly a trip to the loo—could be accomplished by a text, a tweet, or an app. If your memory stretches back that far, then you probably recall chatting regularly with your neighbors (all of whom you knew by name), exchanging pleasantries with the (real people!) tellers behind the counter at your bank, the butcher at your local supermarket, salesclerks, your postal carrier.
In that misty, distant past, virtually all our interactions took place face to face with other humans, or at the most remote, with a real live service rep over the phone, not an algorithm designed to address the most common problems, but almost never your specific issue.
My headbanging experience with the Social Security Administration website illustrates this slippery slide into the faceless technological abyss, which was resolved only when I trooped down to my local SSA office and after half a day’s wait, spoke to a real human being. Ten minutes later, problem solved.
Humans avoid the computer error.
Cyberspace: Not-Your-Mother’s Neighborhood
Each of us is now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone. (Dan Brown)
Several months ago, a person I’m connected with on Twitter created an informal poll asking how much time people spent daily on social media. I was amazed—and let’s be honest, somewhat appalled—to learn that 6-8 hours a day was “typical” for many respondents. We’re not talking teens here. This group of several dozen Tweeters has a median age of about 45-50. Most hold full time jobs and many have families still at home.
How do they do it? Since the day drives a hard bargain—24 hours, not a minute more!—something must be sacrificed to get that 6-8 hours of social media. That something, I suspect, is face-time with other people—neighbors, friends.
According to a Pew Center Research poll, 29% of American adults know only some of their neighbors by name, and another 28% know none, whereas the average number of friends someone has on Facebook (2019) is 338. And the average number of followers a Tweeter has is 707 (2016), a number that’s up 340% from 2012.
While these FB friends and fellow Tweeters are real people (with the exception of the occasional bot), it’s likely most of them don’t live in our community. We probably didn’t go to school with them, or raise our kids in their neighborhood. They’re not likely to come to our 50th birthday celebration. We’re not likely to attend their wedding. We click on a heart emoji to respond to their post about their child’s cute photo, then go about our day—our RL (real life)—without giving it or them another thought.
Even family—perhaps especially family—suffers from members orbiting cyberspace. Couples dine out in total silence, both partners texting through the meal. Parents take kids to the park, to the store, to a café, where no one speaks while Mom or Dad check their notifications. Sometimes they bring a screen to keep the kid busy/quiet.
Ian Bogost, writing in The Atlantic, describes his experience with the social network service Nextdoor, an app (oh irony of ironies!) designed to counter the effect of all those other social networks that take us into cyberspace and away from our neighborhoods.
So, what do neighbors chat about on Nextdoor? Do they discuss their day at work? The kids’ experience at the local school? Who’s looking like a winner for the Yankees? The funny joke they heard on Colbert last night? According to Bogost, his Nextdoor neighbors have reported a fallen tree blocking a major road, someone seeking belly-dancing classes, lost cats and dogs. They also complain about a variety of things, especially the sending of “urgent” alerts by other neighbors in the wee hours.
Nextdoor’s VP of policy, Steve Wymer, told Bogost that pretty much the same topics arise everywhere: Service requests/recommendations and real estate discussions make up about 50% of the buzz. Noise complaints are another hot topic, and more disturbingly, the sightings of “suspicious” people, i.e., people of color in white neighborhoods.
Though one may learn the actual names of their neighbors on Nextdoor, it seems a poor substitute for a personal relationship. Regular face to face contact. The shared laugh. The visible smile. The sympathetic hug or pat on the shoulder. A neighborhood barbecue. The annual block party.
The Impact of Technology on Our Humanity
Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it. (Max Frisch, playwright and novelist)
In my first “real” post-college job as an editor, the industry journals I read were white-hot about the coming thing, the revolution in the wings that would render us one happy globally-connected world: The Internet! How exciting to think we in the States would soon be able to “talk” to people in India, in China. What no one envisaged back then was how much we would stop talking to the people around us—the people we pass on the streets of our neighborhood, in our local park, the town beach. That while “chatting” to thousands of strangers on FB, we would avert our eyes and zip our lips when passing the actual people in our neighborhood, our community, avoiding all contact as if we were all continually riding a crowded subway car in Manhattan.
Much has been inked about the spike in our stress levels and its possible sources: threats of gun violence, environmental poisons, climate change, racial and social/political divides. All this is very real, but I believe the biggest single stressor of all may be the social isolation we experience in Real Life.
Ask yourself: How much energy is consumed in NOT looking at or speaking to people we pass in our daily life?
Of course, technology is just a tool, and like all tools it can be used for good or bad. A hammer, for instance, can repair a broken fence. Or it can bash in your skull.
James Surowiecki, writing in the MIT Technology Review stresses that contemporary criticism of technology is not so much about specific technologies but about the impact of technology on our humanity. That “technology is central to the increasing privatization of experience [my italics], which in turn is creating a fragmented, chaotic society, in which traditional relationships are harder to sustain, community is increasingly an illusion, and people’s relationships to each other, mediated as they often are by machines, grow increasingly tenuous.”
Increasing privatization of experience. Our hectic skeds (would they be so hectic if we weren’t spending gobs of hours online?) create a ready market for convenience services. Daily Harvest, one of many such services, brings food right to your door: “No shopping, chopping, or prepping.” Similarly, supermarket chain Stop & Shop offers two “convenience” options: Food ordered online is either delivered to your door or ready for drive-by pick-up at one of their “click-and-collect” locations. But no shopping means you won’t run into old friends and acquaintances: your child’s former teacher or the woman who coached your daughter’s softball team.
In his book To Save Everything Click Here, Evgeny Morozov argues that we must take control of technology—make decisions and set limits as a society—rather than allowing it to control us. It’s a valid and important argument, but in the seven years since Morozov published his book, our society, our world has splintered further still. While demanding (and voting for) some kind of accountability from Big Tech, we need to start talking to one another again. Go out into our neighborhoods, parks, and town centers to rediscover and reconnect with the people behind the faces we pass by every day.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important. (Fred Rogers)
Growing up, during my family’s annual pilgrimage to visit relatives in Ohio, my Aunt Marg often took me to the park, a short bus ride away. Each time we boarded that bus, she greeted the driver. “Hey, Oscar, how’s the family?” or “Oscar, did you catch the Reds’ game yesterday?” I liked that she knew his name, knew he had a family, knew he enjoyed baseball. It made me feel like we were part of something larger than two people on a bus, that we were part of a community with everyone on that bus.
At age 5, I was not a stranger to this kind of bonhomie. In my small Michigan town, neighbors chatted with each other while mowing the lawn or raking the leaves or taking a walk. They also banded together in emergencies. During one terrible winter storm—snow drifts to the top of our back door, impossible impassable roads—my dad and our neighbor, Wally, took my Flexible Flyer sled and headed into the sleet for the store a mile away where a helicopter was delivering emergency basics like bread and milk.
It was neighbors I sold nickel subscriptions to for my first “newspaper”—a weekly two-page rag full of local “scoops”: Who’d just had a baby, who was painting their house a new color. When my best friend Mimi and I put together an acrobatic show (all the latest gymnastics we’d learned at school), it was neighbors who bought tickets. As Mimi and I tumbled rather gracelessly about our yard, I remember the women sitting in lawn chairs, chatting happily, pausing only to applaud our efforts. I later babysat for many of these families. They knew me, knew my parents, knew that in an emergency my parents would be available.
This was my model growing up. You interact with your neighbors. You talk to people. And even if you don’t know someone, you nod and smile as you pass each other in the coming and going of daily life. It was a model that extended seamlessly into my early adult life. Our family was part of a neighborhood babysitting co-op who swapped childcare favors, held neighborhood potlucks, barbecues, and New Year’s Eve parties. My kids attended the family daycare of our neighbor, Judy, across the street. On a sub-zero Saturday night in January, when our furnace broke down, her husband Bob came over and helped me get that cranky old heatbox re-lit. The night severe gastroenteritis necessitated an ambulance ride to the ER at 1 a.m., it was another neighbor, Paul, who came over to stay with my one-year-old son. When Nina, one street over, traveled, we fed her cats.
In recent years, it has been disheartening to see how fewer and fewer people respond to a smile or a “hello” in passing, but the ones who don’t respond seem more puzzled or startled than annoyed. So I keep smiling, I keep saying hello. Because I don’t want to live in a faceless world. And sometimes the human beings behind those glazed-over “masks” respond in delightful ways: The day after Christmas, I was taking a walk on the bike path with my daughter, her partner, and my son. We encountered a cyclist and when I commended him for braving the ice-encrusted pavement, he laughed: “So far, so good.” He later caught up with us at the cross-light. “It’s an amazing day, isn’t it,” he said. “More like late-March than December.”
We just feel better when we talk to one another, when we acknowledge each other. Even in that cattle pen of the social security office, once I started talking to the folks next to me, several more people joined the conversation and suddenly everything felt better, the time went faster. It returned our humanity to us. And when my number was called, I was grateful to explain my problem to the real person at the service window. After we got it straightened out, I thanked her. “You do your job very well,” I said. She smiled. A short ten minutes in which we shared a bit of human helpfulness, human kindness, human gratitude.
A small exchange. And a vital one.