Rebuilding the human factor…

Events of the past two years have demonstrated that thanks to modern technology and the increasingly individualistic nature of modern western society it’s now perfectly possible, especially if you live in an urban area to go for days and even weeks on end without any meaningful contact with other human beings.

We can do our supermarket shopping online and have the groceries delivered to our door by an anonymous delivery driver on a zero contract. In fact we can now buy almost anything at the click of a mouse. Even if we do bother venturing out to the shops we can avoid human interaction by using the self-service check-out. We can watch the latest films on Netflix or Amazon on our 44-inch flatscreen TVs rather than make the trip out to our local cinema. The books we borrow from the library can be checked out by a scanning machine rather than a living breathing librarian. We even communicate with our work colleagues in the same office by email rather than face to face.

Social media has become a substitute for real-life conversation. We’ve reached the point where we judge our local café on the quality of its wi-fi coverage rather than its cappuccinos. Decades, if not centuries of migration from the country to the cities have uprooted local communities and created an impersonal sense of individualistic existence.

As David Goodhart in his acclaimed book The Road To Somewhere points out:

“As people have become richer and more mobile, and as families have become looser, the personal diasporas, the chosen networks of friends, interest groups, workplaces and cyberspace have become more significant alongside the given communities of neighbourhood and family. It is often said that our social relations have become shallower but our networks wider.”

So while technology has certainly made life easier it hasn’t necessarily made people happier. It may be a slight exaggeration to say that the dystopian sci-fi nightmare of humans being largely replaced by automatons in the mould of “Man-Machine” by German electro-rock outfit Kraftwerk has finally arrived, but we’re not far off that point.

The COVID situation has brought this issue into sharper relief. Loneliness has become the ultimate urban disease of the modern age.

Earlier this year the decomposing remains of an elderly man thought to have died up to 12 months previously during lockdown were found in a Dublin house

A similarly gruesome recently occurred in London – with the alarm only raised when neighbours complained about the smell – despite the unfortunate individual having lain there dead for over two years. The idea of anyone dying alone without anyone noticing would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago.

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett makes the following observation:

While we’re undeniably social, humans also evolved in a tribal setting, where a few dozen individuals stuck together their whole (short) lives.

This has undoubtedly shaped how we work and what we’ve become. In the grand scheme of things, until relatively recently, in the developed world at least, your average human lived an existence which didn’t much deviate from this. We typically lived, worked, and raised families as part of tight communities, where everyone knew everyone and there was always someone around.”

The days of tightly knit communities and knowing everyone on your street are long gone.

Is it a failure of modern society? Have we become too selfish and inward-looking?

On an opinion piece about mental illness on this blog two years ago one commentator offered the following succinct analysis:

“…people continue the retreat into their self-contained bubbles: door-delivered pizzas to fuel binge-watching of the latest acclaimed TV series. People living in characterless identikit homes in culs-de-sac with names like “Oak View” (viewing no such thing), furnished with mass-produced IKEA&Q furniture, paid for by salaries taken from dispiriting semi-careers. Church attendance falling off to nothing as people continue to cook up personalised boutique “belief” systems which amount to little more than humanist aphorisms devoid of any spiritual dimension whatsoever. Places of usual community gutted and destroyed by the demands of Big Line Go Up: pubs, corner shops consigned to history by a combination of punitive rates and out-of-town TescoMarts.”

But it doesn’t have to be like this….

Although the pandemic certainly exacerbated the effects of mental health and social isolation, it also played a part in bringing communities together. Amidst the isolation of lockdown sprung new shoots in the form of mutual aid groups.

In my adopted home city – the normally unfriendly, impersonal metropolis of London where next-door neighbours can live beside each other for years yet hardly know each other’s names let alone ever exchange a word – local WhatsApp groups connected residents to street level communities with volunteers offering assistance to elderly and vulnerable citizens, including co-ordinated food bank deliveries, assisted shopping and moral support.

We’re now seeing a similar phenomenon with regard to the various ventures aimed at providing relief to Ukraine. The White Eagle (Klub Orła Białego), a Polish social club in south London has had a phenomenal response to its appeal for donations and volunteers to transport emergency supplies to the beleaguered country.

Local business sponsorship of local charities, neighbourhood wellbeing projects, local gardening initiatives in public parks and communal gardens, community art schemes, mutual aid groups, measures to reduce digital exclusion by loaning laptops out to deprived households, bringing IT literacy to older people so they can connect remotely with family and befriending services – to which all residents within a given urban area can potentially contribute to, or benefit from – continue to flourish.

There are also the small steps we can all take to make our society more personable and community-focussed.

While many of us no doubt regularly check up on our elderly neighbours or offer to do their shopping, we could also rather than instinctively rush to the supermarket’s self-service till (which I’m often guilty of myself) make the effort to use a human check-out – and engage in the brief 20-second window of small talk while we’re at it.

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