How Internet services erode society by depriving us from being helpful and feeling useful.

July 30, 2017

A few days ago I was strolling around my home town Groningen, when a family asked me the directions to the Dutch Comics Museum ('Stripmuseum'). As this had been a particularly unproductive day so far (a lot of thinking without getting anywhere, really), I felt very happy to be of service. Silly as it may sound, it actually made me feel good.

This was an important lesson for two reasons.

First of all for me personally as I am not the kind of person that easily asks for help or directions. It made me realise that instead of looking stupid, feeling dependent, or being a burden, helping out may actually make people feel useful.

Pondering on this I realised something else. With the ubiquitous availability of all kinds of Internet services to make our lives easier, to reduce friction, we interact less with each other and more with some smart algorithm running on some centralised computer. With Google Maps you no longer need to ask directions in person. With Yelp you longer need to ask for a nice bar or restaurant in the area in person. With Peerby you no longer need to ask your neighbour for help in person.

(Coincidentally, the day after I was reading the Volkskrant (a Dutch newspaper) and came across an article about the downsides of free roaming in Europe. Because people can now use the cellular data network on their mobile devices as if they are back home, with no additional costs, people buy way less city maps and city guides from the local kiosks. Instead, they use online services like Google maps and Wikipedia to get the information they need.)

Does Silicon Valley, the tech community, perhaps perceive personal interactions as friction? (In a way similar to my own personal reluctance to ask for help?) Because people may misunderstand each other, things may get lost in translation, because it may make you feel uneasy, especially when interacting with other kind of people you usually do not interact with, those outside your bubble? I don't know.

But I believe reducing that kind of friction, those kind of spontaneous interactions with people you do not know, has a negative impact on society. First of all because it further strengthens the bubble we are in, reducing our interactions, and hence our understanding, of all those people outside of our bubble. Second of all because it deprives us from opportunities to be helpful, to feel useful. As a result the number of people asking something from society and the number of people contributing to society are both in decline. In the long run we will therefore perceive society to be less useful to us. As a result we will retract even further in our bubbles (that at that time will be more like personal fortresses, our hardened cocoons) further eroding both solidarity and trust.

Sometimes, a little friction makes us all feel better in the end.

Also it puts the quote below into a different perspective.

Our problem today isn’t just that people are losing trust, it’s that our environment acts against the evolution of trust. Aral Balkan

In case you spot any errors on this page, please notify me!
Or, leave a comment.