Ben Bartosik

September 15, 2023

I stumbled across a post on LinkedIn yesterday that was promoting some, admittedly, impressive AI tech that could translate what you were saying and actually change the movement of your lips while you were talking on video. The person sharing it was excitedly proclaiming, "we'll never need to learn another language again!" Unless of course you're not on a video call.

It's a good example of the way tech is increasingly mediating our interactions with each other in ways that have become so normalized that we're not even noticing it anymore. The pandemic threw many of us into a remote work setting. A side effect of this has been accepting video calls as a part of our lives; and with that has come all sorts of innovations to make our video calls even better.

Yet I can't help but think about what we're losing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for a back to the office pendulum shift. I prefer remote work, it's contributed to a much more fulfilling life rhythm. No, my interest is more around the things that contribute to a meaningful life and the ways tech is slowly eroding that.

One of the books I've been reading lately is all about the way in which our environment can have an impact on our happiness and the author makes some good points around the role that other people play in that. Not just in terms of our close relationships - though those do matter - but on a societal level. By being around other people that we learn to trust, we grow in empathy, and that increases our sense of wellbeing. The author writes,

“Not only does it feel good to experience positive social signs from others — smiles, handshakes, opened doors, bargains kept, and cooperative merging in traffic — but it feels good to reinforce those feelings of trust among both friends and strangers. It works best of all when we do it face-to-face: in the kitchen, over a fence, on the sidewalk, in the agora. Distance and geometry matter.”

This is one of my main concerns with the way tech is creeping into our lives. The digital realm is replacing many of the day-to-day touchpoints we once had with other people. Shopping, interacting with neighbours, learning, even borrowing. And what's important to note is that the tech that now mediates these interactions is made for the primary purpose of extracting profit for someone else. Yes, you can argue that a grocery store is the same; but those micro interactions with real people in the store were not.

This is why truly public spaces will always matter. Parks, libraries, trails, sidewalks/streets, community centres, public schools, etc. These are the places that belong to us all, they don't exist for the sake of profit, and they're where we practice and learn what it is to be human. This is something that online will never be able to replace.