#ThePodiemPapers are an ongoing series of short essays aimed at heightening the public conversation around core issues intersecting journalism and social media.
E.O Wilson said it best. “We are a civilization of Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”
In Silicon Valley, this line is now as overused as it is prescient. One imagines it almost succinct enough for a Tesla bumper sticker. What is worth noting though is that no one ever goes on to clarify what “god-like” technology is actually referring to. All of it? Nuclear Weapons? The new iPad Air?
I would venture that Wilson was referring to our hassle-free reality-on-demand personalized universes. The brand new Economy-of-Now. The “god-like” power of simply imagining a “thing,” and within minutes, the “thing” shows up at your doorstep. Whether the time between “purchase” and “doorstep arrival” is 5 minutes or 5 hours is irrelevant. What Wilson is alluding to is existence without friction. A world where we never have to “deal” with anything.
Netflix tailors its algorithms so as to ensure you don’t waste a single extra minute more than you have to on a show you might not enjoy. Amazon shuttles every conceivable consumer product on earth in through your front door, oftentimes within the same day. (*I recently attended a party where the host ordered 50 lbs. of live crawfish to their front door via Amazon Prime.) Tinder and Bumble and Hinge et al. have turned romance and love seeking into a sanitized, crowdsourced, swapmeet. Postmates has turned Michelin star restaurants into pizza delivery outposts. It is only a matter of time before we are all ordering young aspirational college graduates to come into our homes to brush our teeth for us while we’re sleeping because you know, efficiency.
The app I feel best epitomizes this frictionless “reality-on-demand” phenomenon is Instacart. The grocery store shopping app where you choose your groceries online, and they are delivered to your door a few hours later. Your only interaction with sentient life coming in the form of a phone call from an overqualified part-timer calling to say, “I’m sorry Mr. Healy, the Sour Patch Kids watermelon candies you selected are unavailable. Would you like me to exchange them out for the original Sour Patch Kids non-watermelon flavored option or would you prefer that I source an alternative off-brand sour patch option?” If you’d like, this whole interaction can take place via text.
What I want to argue here is that this solipsistic trend toward isolated, immediate gratification, without any human interaction in between, is exacting a spiritual tax. A tax that has disastrous downstream consequences.
This new immediacy economy is antagonizing the worst psychological aspects of consumer capitalism. The angst plaguing most millennials and Gen Y/Z culture today is, I believe, a direct result of this consumer contact-emptiness. Meaningless exchanges with transactional actors, hidden behind screens, passed off as meaningful interaction. A disease of disconnection spread willingly, all in the service of “utility” and “convenience.”
What we are experiencing now is the inevitable endpoints of an efficiency curve that was set in motion many years ago. Asking a farmer to kill our cattle, a butcher to cut it up, a store to package and sell it, and an errand boy to bring it to your front door, all so we can distance ourselves from the messiness. Free from friction and effort. Free from the chaos of the outside world.
All of this ultimately limiting our ability to make any sense of our place and purpose inside of an interconnected supply/demand web. Feeling less like humans in charge of our own destinies and more like endpoints of some MegaCorp’s transglobal supply chain. Multiply this across every domain of a free-market economy and then we feign shock when rates of depression, loneliness, and dislocation begin to skyrocket.
Imagine the following hypothetical example: It’s a Sunday morning in a pre- Postmates/Instacart world and you are curled up on your couch, nursing a semi-serious hangover. Your body craves caffeine and carbohydrates in equal measure.
So you sort of struggle your way off your couch and you make the whole six-minute walk to the boutique coffee shop at the end of your street that has some hipster name like “Drip.”
You get to the front of the line where you are greeted by a college-aged Danielle. Danielle has brown hair, faded freckles, and a few leftover acne scars that let you know she probably wasn’t bullied in high school but probably wasn’t the homecoming queen either. This automatically makes you like her more. Danielle greets you with a smile and asks how your Saturday is going. You don’t go into the gory details.
You look in the glass pastry case as if scanning a cage of puppies at a mall pet store hoping one of them calls out and connects with you. You ask Danielle, “Any recommendations?” She tells you that the new blueberry scones are “AMAZEBALLS” and that the owner just pulled a new batch of them out of the oven like 30 minutes ago, so they “are like still pretty warm.” It’s almost as if an old friend was just letting you know how great a new movie or restaurant was.
So you oblige and order the scone. As soon as you place it in your mouth, you proceed to spit it back out into your hand, albeit politely. Danielle automatically presumes that she is the one accountable for your regrettable purchasing decision.
The exchange then turns to, how Danielle, as a friend, not an employee, can repay you for having just led you astray. Danielle is actively trying to correct the situation, not for economic reasons but for social ones. You pick up on this and try to assure Danielle it had nothing to do with her. That it was your fault. Nonetheless, Danielle makes sure not to charge you for the scone and apologizes again.
The mere gesture of Danielle’s attempt to make up for the lousy scone recommendation is enough to balance back out the customer/employee relationship. Your faith in her and Drip’s merits as a coffee house that deserves your money and your six-minute walk start to feel a bit more justified.
You not only begin to empathize with Danielle as an employee trying to make rent and get through her day but more importantly, you empathize with Drip itself. A sense of solidarity and duty to help keep this coffee shop in business washes over you.
You feel for Drip’s battle against the big chains. You commiserate with the owner’s dispute over rental fee hikes on their lease deal because the neighborhood is gentrifying so rapidly. You start to get a sense of how difficult it must be for the owner to juggle between keeping her employees covered on Drip’s medical insurance while also having to throttle everyone’s hours to make up for those rent increases. You are made tender just considering the fact that the owner of Drip is literally making blueberry scones from scratch every weekend.
And all of this because Danielle made a food suggestion that didn’t agree with you. Unironically, Danielle will be the driving impetus for you to return to Drip in the future. You will both joke about the blueberry scone incident and will build on that moment and start crafting smaller interior “inside jokes” about her recommendations and how she can’t be trusted. Before long, you will be asking her how her day is going and where she’s from and how many siblings she has. Background information that allows you to see Danielle as more than just a prompt asking if you want a different kind of watermelon sour-patch kids.
Granted, none of this is necessarily breaking news to those who grew up in small towns across America where these kinds of social interactions are part and parcel of daily life. Although, I do think the research has convincingly shown that the forced “niceness” that permeates small-town America has sufficiently disbanded the idea that everything is always cherry pie in Leave-it-to-Beaver-Ville. The cliche about small-town gossip is grounded in some measure of truth to be sure. The point being, this essay is most definitely not a siren call for all cosmopolitan urbanites to take up shop in the countryside tomorrow.
What I am getting at though is that I don’t know any other way of cultivating a sense of community, any sense of belonging in capital R-Reality, without the Danielle face-to-face interplay.
The blueberry scone mishap is obviously not an intentional outcome. We can’t engineer these moments. But that is precisely the point.
The Drip incident instead is an unintended outcome whose synergistic effects have exponential payoffs. An accident that forged a friendship and loyalty to a store. An accident that placed the buyer in a more fluid and humane relationship with the seller.
The elemental difference between Drip and Postmates or Instacart is that Drip is about keeping the possibility for serendipity open. The possibility to remind ourselves that our entire daily life shouldn’t have to be about optimizing for efficiency or ease of use. Optimizing so that never again are we forced to suffer one minute of our taste buds suffering because of a crumby scone. Drip is about keeping the door open for a crappy experience to turn into a human one, and discovering a sense of community through that.
Our obsession with friction-free utility functions is spiritually bleeding us dry. Depriving us of the texture necessary to actually discover ourselves. The friction required to quite literally “know what we’re made of”
One of the confounding beauties of living in the “real world” is that it is chock full of disappointment. Nine times out of ten, we are let down by our interactions with strangers. Punished for being too trusting. Ripped off for being unaware. Someone, somewhere always trying to take advantage of our good natures. And so the compulsion to innoculate ourselves completely from ever feeling let down or taken advantage of is a real one and no one could say that it isn’t merited.
But that compulsion is now disguising itself as “time-saving” and “hassle-free.” “I use Tinder because I just don’t have the time to go on a bunch of dates.” No, you use Tinder because getting rejected in the real world is hard. And being let down over and over again after getting your hopes up is even harder.
But if we shut out any possibility for that 10th interaction, the Danielle interaction, we preclude any chance, however small, for humanity to take root. Any opportunity to be reminded that we are more than just soulless consumers inside an increasingly robotized marketplace.
Afterall, Drip was never about the blueberry scone. The scone was always just an excuse. Drip was about seeking out a human moment instead of a utility optimization curve. It was about hoping for a “Danielle” mishap inside a world of Sour Patch efficiency.