Automating Our Way Out of Interaction

We don’t want to talk to the cashier at grocery store; instead, we long for a community of people like us.

Our economy is automating itself out of the need for human interaction. Despite this—or maybe because of it—our yen for a sense of community seems ever stronger. We crave interaction, but on our own terms. Writing on this month’s theme of opposing trends, I examine how new innovations are being designed to pull us together while others are driving us apart.

Automation continues to creep into every realm of our economy – I’ve written about it as it relates to broad sectors like retail and manufacturing, as well specific transformative examples of automation, including self-driving cars and drones. Frankly, it’s a difficult topic to avoid when you’re writing about economic development.

Automation, by definition, removes the human element from tasks and processes. It means that increasingly, we can go about our daily business without having to interact with a single human. I can order my meal at Panera or McDonalds through a self-service kiosk, I can use a Wi-Fi-enabled Amazon Dash Button to reorder household products and have them delivered to my door, I can custom design my complicated pizza order on the Domino’s website with a much reduced risk of a mix-up, I can summon an Uber and communicate my desired destination without having to talk to the driver, you get the idea….

Another very visible example of automation that has been in the news lately is automatic checkout. While self-checkout stations have been common in supermarkets and other stores for over a decade, automatic checkout takes the concept to the next level. Some retailers have been testing out automatic checkout systems that obviate the need for customers to check out at all (with a human or otherwise) in order to pay for purchases. 

Amazon, for one, has opened a grocery store in Seattle called Amazon Go, which uses this model. Sensors are used to detect whether a customer has picked up an item from a shelf and automatically charges their Amazon accounts (they can also sense whether an item is put back so a customer does not get charged). Automatic checkout changes the way that people interact with each other when they shop. It means that you can go into a store, pick up what you need, and leave, all without interacting with another person.

And while this and other automations are in large part implemented as cost-reducing measures (human labor is expensive), I would argue that consumers increasingly prefer them. Maybe I come from a generation of misanthropes, but sometimes it’s nice to not have to engage with other humans.

So, we have this growing list of examples of automation that we as consumers are embracing. But at the same time, we are inherently social creatures that need interaction. While technology is allowing us to isolate and anonymize ourselves, we’re simultaneously devising mechanisms that help us find our place in society. We want interaction, but not with just anyone. We want a network of people tailored to our unique interests and values. We don’t want to talk to the cashier at grocery store; instead, we long for a community of people like us.

An illustrative example of this trend that has recently been gaining traction is the concept of “co-living.” Though co-living has been in existence in various forms throughout history, it has been packaged and branded as of late in large cities as a way to pool resources, cut costs, and build community. Co-living is billed as more than just sharing an apartment with roommates—it is a form of housing where residents share not only living space, but also a set of interests, values, or intentions. Co-living arrangements can be informal or formal and run the gamut from bare-bones to luxury.

This trend is being driven by none other than Millennials, and many startups are jumping on this opportunity to provide co-living housing options. Some higher-end co-living facilities provide hotel-like amenities, including furnished rooms, cleaning service, TV and internet, recreational facilities, and programmed activities for residents. While co-living housing with these kinds of amenities is by no means inexpensive, in large urban markets where it has taken hold it is typically cheaper than a studio or one-bedroom apartment of much lower quality. This appeals to price-conscious young professionals who want high-quality space and amenities with a more affordable price tag. It is also a flexible option for short-term housing, and perhaps most important to its proponents, it provides an immediate sense of community and belonging. You’re not just a renting a room; you’re buying into a community.

At first the growing popularity of a phenomenon like co-living in a society that whole-heartedly embraces any technology that eliminates unnecessary human interaction seems paradoxical. But upon closer inspection, it makes sense: We want meaningful interaction with people we find interesting, not routine transaction-based exchanges. Maybe it’s that we want to be surrounded only by people who agree with us, a notion that has serious implications for our increasingly stratified, polarized world. But until there’s a way to automate respect and empathy, we should be keenly aware of the way new innovations are shaping the way we interact.

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