Is technology killing social interaction?

September 27, 2019 2:23 pm

Is technology killing social interaction?

Technology. It’s everywhere. In your homes. In your workplace. In the palm of your hand. Podcasts soothe you as you sleep, whilst your devices record every last heartbeat and minute of REM sleep. In the last decade alone, technology has infiltrated our homes and our environment at a rapid speed.

No talking please!

In recent years, it’s been said that changes in technology are reducing real human connection and intimacy. Shops like Tesco and Co-op have introduced apps where shoppers don’t have to talk to a single person, and instead can scan their shopping as they go, paying on their smartphones as they walk out with the goods. A very different consumer experience than even 5 years ago where self-checkout machines had just been introduced, but featured a helpful checkout assistant to help with any issues.

Amazon’s first interaction-less ‘Amazon Go’ store in Seattle

Additionally Amazon have taken it even further with the launch of their market-changing retail store: Amazon Go in Seattle, 2018. Cameras, ceiling sensors, and weight detectors on the shelves work in conjunction to analyse what customers take off the shelves and place in their bags, without the need for customers to scan anything or interact with anyone. Customers simply bag their goods and walk out, receiving a credit card charge for the exact items they ‘purchased’. The Amazon Go store has been well received by consumers which has resulted in two more outlets being planned to open in America.

It’s not only the FMCG world that is removing human interaction from the equation. Taxi giant Uber have introduced an option on the app for riders to request not to talk to the driver if they prefer a silent ride. Although it’s not immediately clear whether the need for this feature has been researched, it is clear to see across conversations on social media that people genuinely want to be able to ‘opt-out’ of conversation with their drivers. So, in true ‘Black Mirror’ style (see image below), how soon until we can ‘opt-out’ of human interactions with our friends, family and strangers in real life?

Scene from the British TV show Black Mirror (White Christmas, S2, Ep4) where characters can ‘block’ people from interacting with them in real life.

Okay, after thinking about it realistically, maybe not any time soon. But we no longer need to turn to each other to find out the answer to our burning questions, when we can ask Alexa instead. However, although Alexa does have immediate access to information, the human brain is the most complex structure in the universe, and through socialising we can unravel its mysteries.

Although Alexa may be able to one day be able to recognise the emotions in consumers’ voices similar to a human (in order to more accurately market and sell to us), Alexa cannot truly empathise and connect with us as well as evolution designed us to connect to each other.

The impact of technology on loneliness

Screen capture from the US film ‘Her’ (2013), where lonely Theodore finds company in an operating system.

Named as one of the strongest contributors of premature death,  over 9 million of us experience loneliness in the UK, which is not always helped by our artificial online interactions. By talking to people online and getting hooked on likes and retweets, we remove face to face conversation, something that we are primed to crave and seek out. With all of this talk of technology and lack of real, human connection ruining our mental health and wellbeing, some innovators have been looking to use tech to improve our social interactions as well.

Apps like ‘Say it or Not’ are helping children with autism learn to communicate easier by allowing them to strengthen their empathy and social communication skills, hopefully making it easier to comfortably interact with others face to face (on a side note, take a look at best autism apps from Autism Parenting magazine). Additionally, mindfulness, acceptance-based smartphone interventions are reducing loneliness, and scientifically improving how we relate to ourselves, our experiences and others.

With love, friendship or desire just a swipe away, you could even argue that the likes of Tinder, Bumble and Happn are claiming to do a remarkable job of increasing our social circles by widening the amount of people we can connect to (albeit even though the depth of our conversations on the platform are likely to be surface level or, if we’re on the receiving end, inappropriate). But these apps would argue that they’re helping the isolation problem as conversations should not just exist on the platform, because it’s designed for people to make the next move and meet face to face.

What UX design has to do

With so many technological advancements popping up left, right and centre that may be harmful to our health and wellbeing (minus the good products and services), it’s essential that we’re being intentional with digital design. We need to create products and services that will accelerate us in the right direction, and that aim to be inclusive to as many ages, genders, races, and cultures as possible.

However, we can have the best of intentions to minimise manipulation, loneliness and harm, and still be uncertain what the effect of the things we create will have on humanity. Your app could be the next Facebook; monetizing every smile, wink and interaction and manipulating natural reward responses to hook users onto the platform. Or, it could be the next Olio; helping to increase face to face connection, whilst helping the hungry and having a positive impact on the quickly deteriorating planet.

“User experience (UX) design dictates most of what we do. Place a big source of addictive content in the focus of attention and most people will slip into that trap. If our UX designers wise up, they can just as easily design wellness, mindfulness, self-control and other features into the devices we use. It’s possible, but the business models that fuel these companies make such steps unlikely.”

Jerry Michalski, Founder of the Relationship Economy eXpedition

Concluding remarks

The most important action to take to understand what the impact of your digital design will be, is to speak to the people you’re designing for. Speak to them before you’ve even created the product. Put pen to paper to create a low-fi prototype and get a feel for if what you’re designing will even be useful or necessary. Work out if there genuinely is a gap in the market. And then when your product or service has been released to the world, keep testing, keep researching, and keep understanding what impact your product has on its users. Make sure it’s a good one.