Contemporary Western society has a problem with connection. It has been explored in various think-pieces and books. The British parliament has a dedicated Commission on Loneliness and there are now numerous awareness-raising campaigns around mental health. In fact, two-thirds of young adults in the UK feel they have no one to talk to about their problems.
The economic policy of austerity in the UK and elsewhere in Europe has had the effect of reducing an already inadequate mental health service. At this same moment in history, Silicon Valley has emerged with a few digital solutions: Talkspace and Betterhelp are paid apps that facilitate instant message exchanges with licensed professionals. The fees are lower than face-to-face therapy and it’s billed as a chance for therapists to work under more ‘convenient’ conditions.
The chillingly titled Invisible Girlfriend offers lonely men fictive pillow talk, powered by an army of remote, crowdsourced workers (don’t worry, there’s also an Invisible Boyfriend). The ‘Invisible’ conversation is maintained by numerous flexible workers rapidly clocking in and out. Their only qualification for the role is a short copyrighting test to verify their literacy.
There are also AI-driven caregivers. Woebot is a chatbot that allows users to share their problems without judgement to a robot that responds with understanding and cognitive tips. Woebot’s founder compares the predictable experience of the bot to a tennis ball hitting machine. In other words, users who usually have difficulty opening up about their woes can practice their swing.
Mend is a ‘personal trainer for heartbreak’. Enter the details of your break-up and the app provides a customised self-care routine, replete with Spotify playlists and reading suggestions. Mend performs the role of a friend with your best interests at heart, keeping you from indulging your sorrow. Facebook’s algorithms encourage us to impulsively message an ex, check their new partner’s timeline and generally scratch the itch. While Mend’s aims seem wholesome, it’s easy to forget that it is exactly this kind of technology which has accelerated our indulgences.
So yes, loneliness and heartbreak are two problems many of us can relate to, but what about work? As comfortable as gen Zers can be with technology and AI being implemented into their workday, few companies have yet to offer them easy to use and simple tools to improve their productivity. That’s where ZoomShift comes in by allowing companies to build their own work schedule in minutes, reduce payroll costs, and have confidence their team will actually show up on time, which sounds like an impossible task for most.
Because gen Zers rank their relationship with their work team as one of their top concerns, ZoomShift offers them more than just a scheduling and time tracking tool—it gives them a better way to work together and increases company productivity and organisation. Because better communication means more efficiency.
What all these products offer is a sense of being held; knowing someone is looking out for us is a fundamental need that begins as soon as we leave the womb. Loneliness is alleviated by a human, or at least, in this case, human-like, connection. But is it sustainable for this basic human need to be fulfilled by such inconsistent, data-driven services?
Alongside the rise of these care-economy apps, a few other trends have emerged. Available work has shifted from manufacturing to retail. Conditions have shifted from regular, contracted employment to flexible gig-economy freelancing. Generally speaking, capitalism has become very emotional, appealing more to our basic psychological needs. This is widely apparent, from the whimsical jokes on the side of Oatly cartons to the evident success of political campaigns which utilise affective rhetoric (does ‘Take Back Control, For The Many’ ring any bells?).
Uber drivers can now receive ‘compliments’, emphasising a positive aspect of their experience such as ‘entertaining driver’, ‘good conversation’ or the exalted ‘above and beyond’ for ‘drivers who go beyond expectations’. These badges appear on the driver’s profile and improve their chances of attracting more jobs. In a competitive environment, where supply outweighs demand, ‘above and beyond’ becomes the minimum requirement.
Online therapy company Talkspace has an advert that features a woman holding a miniature Sigmund Freud doll in the palm of her hand. The voiceover says: “The sooner you can get help, the more effective it is. So if something comes up, you can deal with it right there and then.” On the one hand, mindfulness apps like Headspace remind us that our thoughts are mere post-it notes in the wind, to be regarded with a calm detachment. On the other hand, the vast majority of social networks encourage us to share what’s on our mind immediately, reifying those emotional impulses at the click of a button.
Talkspace appeals to this desire for immediate recognition, promising to deal with the problem ‘right there and then’, without any reflection phase. Of course genuine mental health emergencies require immediate support. But in the case of phases of anxiety, which is what Talkspace aims to address, the users may get what they want but not what they need. A fast online response can satisfy short-term cries for help but it lacks the boundaries and body language of what Talkspace calls ‘Traditional Therapy’. On the physical couch (or armchair) involuntary behaviour is more visible and there’s a clear agreed-upon time limit to the interaction.
Social media companies driven by profit and market share cannot be trusted to ensure the wellbeing of their users. I believe that these platforms are wholly inadequate for addressing rising loneliness in our society. They exploit precarious workers only to provide highly compromised experiences of connection. Companies create new problems that other companies attempt to solve. With faster, larger networks for communication, our desire for connection is more visible than ever—but the struggle comes from within a system that has different priorities.
There is a sense in the air that 2018 concludes on a bitter note. It seems that people either replay in their minds the series of catastrophic and daunting incidents that blemished this year, or are rather in a state of complete denial—hoping that by squinting and blocking out the noise they could be siloed from the collective sense of anxiety. For days I’ve been wavering between the two mindsets, but found that neither gave me much comfort. Finally, only a sober look and an honest reflection on where we stand as a human race and where we can go from here proved to be an effective method of quelling the inner storm.
So where are we, then? America is in a state of social, political, and economic instability. So is Britain. And the rest of Europe. And large swaths of the Middle East. And Africa. And several countries in Asia. Central America is ablaze and Brazil may morph into the world’s next dictatorship. I honestly have no idea what’s up in Australia, but I hear they’ve been facing some of the usual issues as well: rising right wing and anti-immigrant sentiments, government corruption scandals, and waves of “toasty temperatures” due to global warming. So yay.
But if we were to dissect the chaos and broaden our perspective, we would come to realise that all events are, ultimately, inextricably linked. The looming recession in the U.S. (indicated by sharp undulations in the stock market) is directly connected to trade wars waged by the current administration, and its effect will be amplified by the gutting of the middle and working classes through draconian fiscal policies and the ruthless domination of the country by corporations.
In the Middle East and Central America, what perpetuates war and civil unrest in countries like Syria and Ecuador is often the interests of power-hungry leaders situated thousands of miles away from the actual area of conflict. These wars ultimately spawn waves of migrants seeking safety, who then feed the narrative of nationalistic factions in the host countries that drum up race-based paranoia among the locals.
Finally, it all boils down to climate change, and 2018 constituted a dismal indicator of the consequences of global warming. Signals came both in the form of alarming reports compiled by scientists, governments, and organizations such as the UN, as well through devastating droughts, floods, and wildfires that resulted in dire humanitarian and economic crises.
The destruction of dear mother Earth is thus undoubtedly the most crucial challenge, and risk, facing us. As indicated by the IPCC report in October, failure to get emissions under control in the immediate future and transition into a more sustainable economy will render the vast majority of this planet uninhabitable sooner than we think. Yet, leading governments, pressured by major corporations, do all in their power to scale back on climate policies and accelerate production of oil, placing the short term profit of a privileged few over the wellbeing and future of the entire human race.
It is not unreasonable to think, then, that a global bubble is in the process of bursting. Whatever is happening—it just isn’t working. Climate change ravages. Inequality cripples. Wars devastate. And perhaps what we are witnessing is not merely the spattering of governments and economies, but that of an ideology; a socio-political ethos that turned on its people and left the majority of humanity bereft and angry and hungry for change. Any change.
Will 2019 bring us a step closer to a global transition? And if so, what would it look like? Will right wing nationalists have their way? Will oil giants succeed in quashing the sprouting climate policies? Or will those pushing for more humane and sustainable agendas manage to tame the horror and damage?
Although we often forget it, the answers to such questions ultimately lie with us. It is easy to feel intimidated and overwhelmed by world events; yet as humans we are endowed with tremendous power to challenge and inquire and demand. History shows that such powers can translate into significant action once people are united in their message and goal.
And so as we stride into 2019, let us be conscious of our agency. Let us remember that our fates and paths are intertwined. Technology, and smartphones in particular, seem to wrap us in bubbles of loneliness and indifference. Yet, if we choose to, we can utilise them to achieve just the opposite: a global network comprised of individuals who are alert and engaging and committed to the prosperity of all.
In his book The Age of Discovery, the economist Ian Goldin contends that there are enough resources on the planet for us all to share. He argues that the inclination of most of us is to reach a state of cooperation and that globalism is on a trajectory that’s expected to further evolve and expand. Yet he also mentions that this phenomenon will inevitably result in forces pulling us in the other directions, namely separatism, protectionism, and nationalism. I suppose it is up to us to determine which of the forces will prevail. It all depends on how calm and aware we can remain throughout this turbulent process.
I, for one, have hope for our future.