Forced incidental social relationships

I read an article last week by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian: Why do we feel so busy? It's all our hidden 'shadow work' (2018-10-12). I thought it was an interesting article—it explained how we might feel a little busier now because we buy products and services, we're also picking up more of the delivery, setup, service, etc. work. It seemed like a reasonable argument.

One of the references was to Craig Lambert and his book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. And at the very bottom of the Guardian article there was a link to a presentation by Lambert at Google in Cambridge, Mass. I didn't like the presentation much, and I doubt I'll read the book. Some of the ideas were interesting and unexpected—the professionalization of kids' sports affecting not just the kids but also causing an extra unpaid burden on the parents to keep up—but a lot of it seemed like it was yearning for Mayberry. I didn't agree with the screed against surveys at all. This review on Goodreads pokes at the book enough, and I haven't read it anyway, so I'll leave it there and move on.

I probably wouldn't have watched the entire video if I hadn't told myself I was going to sit on an exercise bike for an entire hour and watch it. I didn't want to break that important contract. The second-to-last question was redeeming. It didn't even talk about burdens or time or money or any of the other critical points to the argument, but rather the social consequences:

[0:52:07] Anyway, to me, though, the really interesting thing that you're getting at is the change in social relationships and a kind of atomization because I think one of the reasons people like to do this is that in many cases it saves time, but another really important reason is that a lot of people just don't like dealing with other people. They would rather check in at a kiosk than deal with somebody behind the counter. They would rather serve their own food than deal with the waitress. There's something about this that I think is kind of disturbing. A lot of people just don't want to have those kind of incidental social relationships that we used to be forced to have. I think there's something pretty disturbing about that, and I think it is changing the quality of our relationships. And one effect that it might be having is that the amount of social interaction that people of different social classes have with each other may be being reduced. I'm not sure about this, but one hypothesis, that some of these changes are basically making more of my interactions be with people of my own social class, and not as many with people of other social classes, in particular of less affluent people. And if that's really true, I think that could have profound effects on our social life.

And that made me think of a line from A.J. Jacobs in his recent stint on James Altucher's podcast 410 – AJ Jacobs: Ten Superpowers of 'Extreme Gratitude', The James Altucher Show (2018-11-15)):

The barista told me people just use her as a vending machine when they get their morning cup of coffee. Nobody looks her in the eyes.

So there's an obvious tension there. I like to save money on things, which often means doing the work myself. And companies like to save money, which often means getting me to do the work for them. But mix that all over larger and larger sets of people, and all of the connections between them, and imagine that they can opt out of those connections more frequently... and you can imagine that as an element in a feedback loop driving people to become more annoyed when they can't opt out of a connection, driving people to seek more isolation, driving... etc.

There needs to be a balance between just completing a transaction and treating a human as a human, not a human as robot. I think that feedback loop leads somewhere ugly, a one-way trip to Us Versus Them. I don't think it's reversible, but I always avoid the automated checkout lane at the grocery store as an act of harmless and mostly useless sabotage.


Postscript. What will the updated reference to the good old days that never really existed be for our generation? We should leave Mayberry to the folks for whom it was contemporary nostalgia, I think.

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