Connected to the world — disconnected from humanity

Thanks to antoinebarres.com for this photo

We use systems every day. Practically every aspect of our lives is governed by the rules, processes and technologies that enable us to operate in today’s world.

On the roads, we drive on the left, stop at red and go on green. On public transport we buy tickets, stand on the right, let people off first and don’t make eye contact. We’re surrounded by the ‘ding’ of phone, microwave, Fitbit and email; each requiring a specific action from us. These are systems, saving time, increasing productivity. And it doesn’t end there.

We take the kids to school, take Dad to the doctors, take ourselves to work and take Nan to bingo. These too are systems, governed in turn by the rules of money and time — the big kahunas of systems — all of them requiring specific behaviours from us for them to work efficiently. It‘s pretty amazing when you think about it — we couldn’t live without them.

However, very often, the new behaviours that we need to adopt preclude the development of what we might describe as small-but-meaningful connections with other people in the process. In fact, this seemingly valueless human interaction is often described as ‘friction’ and actively mitigated against.

That’s not to say that strangers don’t ever smile when passing on the street, or that friendships aren’t forged around the water cooler, or even that kindness isn’t shared between the direct sales agent and the unwitting mark — simply that this might occur in spite of the systems we’re engaged in, rather than because of them. In most cases, it’s when we step outside of our system behaviours that we’re able to make small-but-meaningful, empathic connections with others. We’ve even come use the term ‘water cooler moment’ to describe this type of friendly friction within the system of work.

Empathic connections are more rare that they could, and arguably should be. Many of us spend much of our days on public transport, at work, in shops and online in situations where it’s not easy to have an empathic connection with another person. But it’s this type of fleeting encounter, along with the stronger bonds of friends and family, that is a crucial element of social nourishment we need to maintain a good level of wellbeing.

This could present us with a real problem. A recent global study of wellbeing showed British young people worst off, second only to Japan. Increasing use of systems, especially digital, will mean less empathic connection with other human beings, including friends and family.

Additionally, whilst the jury’s still out on social media vs. wellbeing, multiple studies seem to point towards face-to-face contact with friends and family being demonstrably more effective in maintaining wellbeing. A recent study with older people demonstrated that they were 50% less likely to develop depression if they had regular face-to-face contact with loved ones than those who kept in touch online or over the phone.

In another, Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University, notes ‘Friendship and community are probably the two most important factors influencing our health and wellbeing…Making and maintaining friendships, however, is something that has to be done face-to-face. The digital world is simply no substitute.’ If this is true, it’s going to be hugely important to find out exactly what the active ingredient is in a face-to-face chat, that gets lost over Skype.

What’s more concerning is that it’s possible that by meeting and keeping in touch with people online, we might be unlearning the ability to form empathic connections with others — both inside and outside of systems.

Using GPS mapping as the focus of her research, Julia Frankenstein, of the University of Freiburg, suggests that deferring to that particular system can lead us to lose the ability to navigate without it. Making friends at the click of a mouse and finding a date with the swipe of a touchscreen may also have long-term consequences to our ability to form relationships any other way.

It appears that when we engage with systems, we tend to defer to the rules and behaviours of those systems above and beyond our more humane or empathic behaviours. We see this in trolling, where people engage in abuse behaviours in an emergent culture that, for many, has a different set of permissible behaviours than offline. We’ve seen it in road rage for some time where, invariably, people come to blows over a perceived infringement of the rules of the road system.

Furthermore, when our social needs are not being met, we tend to compensate elsewhere — very often within systems themselves, be that consuming (think, retail therapy), gaming or even working — with all its built-in systemic rewards. We can grow to prefer spending our time with these systems as a substitute for social nourishment — despite not receiving the same wellbeing rewards. This, in turn, might have wider implications for society at the largest scale on issues such as climate change and economic inequality.

As we’re set to spend more time using online and offline systems, we‘re likely to see a more dramatic impact on wellbeing in the next few years. We have an opportunity to address that now.

Firstly, we shouldn’t view empathic connection as being unhelpful friction to our systems’ efficiency, or even as a ‘nice to have’. Neither should we be aiming for a neutral or zero-sum wellbeing outcome from a tube journey or an ApplePay transaction. Rather, the increased wellbeing of systems’ users should be a hard-wired goal. Aiming for a state of what behavioural scientist Dr Greg Davies calls ‘optimal friction’, we must weave in opportunities for empathic connection into our systems, that will result in a wellbeing gain for everyone.

A useful starting point is to look at what empathic connections with others can look like and a system that is already fostering them, which I do here.


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