Hitting the Books: America's loneliness crisis began well before the COVID quarantine

Humanity isn't ready for a fully contactless economy.

The quarantine orders enacted in response to COVID-19, while absolutely necessary to stem the spread of the disease, have really done a number on our collective mental health. This past year of self-enforced isolation and social distancing runs contrary to humanity's deep-seated need for community interaction. We are simply hard-wired to socialize.

But the pandemic is not entirely to blame for our precipitous decline in socialization. Steady advances in automation technologies have increasingly enabled corporations to minimize human interaction as a cost-saving strategy. In her latest book, The Lonely Century, British economist Noreena Hertz takes an incisive look at the emotional, societal and political costs of a "frictionless" economy, how the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, and what we can do to reconnect with one another.

The Lonely Century by Noreena Hertz
Currency Publishing

Excerpted from THE LONELY CENTURY by Noreena Hertz. Copyright © 2021 by Noreena Hertz. Excerpted by permission of Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

East Fifty-third Street, Manhattan. I am at the grocery store. Fluorescent lights illuminate aisles filled with colorful goods. Cereal and cold drinks, vegetables and frozen food: all the usual produce is here. Apart from the sleek white barriers at the entrance, everything looks normal—just like your average city convenience shop. But look around more closely and you’ll realize there’s something unusual about this place. There’s nobody working on the shop floor—no cashiers, no uniformed workers stocking shelves, no one to come to your rescue when you can’t figure out how to scan the barcodes at those pesky self-service registers. Look up and you’ll understand why.

Dotted above you are hundreds of just-discernible cameras: your movements are being constantly monitored. So no need to wait in line. Instead, feel free to stuff packets of cookies into your pockets as surreptitiously as you like—your activity, however discreet, will be digitally noted. You won’t get chased down by security as you leave the store, but you will be automatically charged.

It is September 2019, and I am shopping at what was, back then, one of Amazon Go’s first convenience stores; by 2021 they aim to have over three thousand worldwide. At the time it felt like a very weird experience. On the one hand, I liked the convenience factor, the fact I could nip in and out with no holdup. This was something all the other customers I spoke to told me they liked very much too. But I was disturbed by the silence—the place had a Trappist monastery vibe. I missed, too, the cursory chat at the checkout counter. And it bothered me that when I approached other shoppers to ask about their experience, they seemed a little outraged, as if I’d violated their personal space just by uttering a few words.

How fast things change. For what only recently seemed so futuristic now seems to exemplify the way we live in the COVID-19 age.

Contactless commerce, of which Amazon Go is at the extreme end, was already by the autumn of 2019 a growing trend, what with increasing numbers of self-checkout counters and websites and apps that allowed us to have everything from groceries to pet supplies to prescription medication delivered right to our doorsteps. Already back then we could bypass the server at Micky D’s and order a Big Mac with a few taps on a giant screen, avoid the awkwardness of a conversation with a flesh-and-blood bookseller and instead have our reading matter “personally recommended” by Amazon’s algorithm, get hot and sweaty in the privacy of our living rooms thanks to online yoga apps such as Asana Rebel or YouTubers like Adriene, and have restaurant meals delivered to us at home at our convenience courtesy of Seamless, Caviar, Postmates, Just Eat, Deliveroo, or Grubhub.

What the pandemic did, however, was transform what was hitherto a steady but slower-growing incline into a sharp, steep ascent. After just a few weeks of lockdown, two million more people were doing yoga with Adriene on YouTube, 40 percent of U.S. online grocery shoppers were doing so for the first time, and my eighty-two-year-old father was “attending” classes at his local community center on Zoom.

Overnight, contactless became in many respects our only choice. It’s impossible to predict with certainty how this will play out in the long term. As we’ve seen, the human craving for proximity and physical connection runs deep; later we will see how a burgeoning Loneliness Economy may act as a counterbalancing force. But the reality is that new habits, once forged, can take hold pretty fast. Many people who lived through the Great Depression, for example, remained frugal throughout their entire lives.

More recently, we have seen how large discount grocery, private label, and dollar stores such as Aldi and Dollar General have remained popular with middle-class consumers in Europe and the United States long after the 2008 financial crisis demanded a cutback in household spending.

Given that consumers’ concerns about infection are likely to persist for some time yet and that many people’s experiences of contactless retail and leisure during lockdown were largely positive—a function of both the convenience and increased choice they provide—it is likely that the demand for at least certain categories of contactless encounters will remain strong as the world rebuilds post-COVID-19. Many who first experimented with contactless during lockdown are likely to continue with what might be called “low human touch.”

Especially as businesses have now invested in technology and working practices that limit customers’ interactions with their staff. Already in April 2020, restaurant chains were developing technology to enable customers to preorder and pay without contact with waiters, and apps that allowed drivers to pay at gas stations from inside their car were gaining in popularity. Many companies paying close attention to the bottom line will have good reason to maintain these changes in consumer habits, given their associated labor cost savings.

This will be particularly so while fear of future lockdowns remains, social distancing continues to be “official” advice, and the economy is perceived as fragile. The institutionalization of contactless living gives me real cause for concern. For the more the human is exorcized from our daily transactions, is it not inevitable that we will feel lonelier? If our brisk urban life is no longer broken up by chats at the cash register or banter with the barman, if we no longer see the friendly face of the person behind the deli counter making our sandwich or our yoga instructor’s encouraging smile when we do our first successful hand-stand, if we lose the benefits of all those micro-interactions that we now know make us feel more connected, is it not inevitable that isolation and disconnection will be ever greater?

Moreover, the danger is that the more we do that is contactless, the less naturally adept we will become at connecting in person. For although such innovations will undoubtedly make life safer, at least for a time, and more convenient — or, in tech-speak, more “frictionless” — our rubbing up against each other is both what makes us feel connected and what teaches us how to connect. Even something as simple as silently negotiating who passes first in a grocery aisle or where to place your mat in yoga class forces us to compromise and take others’ interests into account.

Again, this has ramifications that go beyond the personal or individual. Think back to our lonely mouse lashing out when he was “bothered” by another. Or of how much more hostile and threatening our environment feels when we don’t feel connected to our neighbors. In the contactless age, the danger is that we will know each other everless, feel less connected to each other, and thus be increasingly indifferent to each other’s needs and desires. We can’t break bread together, after all, if we’re sitting at home eating Grubhub on our own.

But contactless living is not just a function of technological advances, consumers’ craving for convenience, or even the coronavirus’ imperative. Way before COVID-19 struck, we had been building a world of separateness and atomization.

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