For us as a society, less contact and
seem to lead to less tolerance and understanding of difference, as well as more
envy and antagonism. As has been in
evidence recently, social media actually
increases divisions by amplifying echo
e;ects and allowing us to live in cognitive
bubbles. We are fed what we already like
or what our similarly inclined friends like
(or, more likely now, what someone has
paid for us to see in an ad that mimics
content). In this way, we actually become
less connected—except to those in our
Social networks are also a source of
unhappiness. A study earlier this year by
two social scientists, Holly Shakya at UC
San Diego and Nicholas Christakis at Yale,
showed that the more people use Facebook, the worse they feel about their lives.
While these technologies claim to connect
us, then, the surely unintended e;ect is
that they also drive us apart and make us
sad and envious.
I’m not saying that many of these
tools, apps, and other technologies are
not hugely convenient, clever, and efficient. I use many of them myself. But in a
sense, they run counter to who we are as
We have evolved as social creatures,
and our ability to cooperate is one of the
big factors in our success. I would argue
that social interaction and cooperation,
the kind that makes us who we are, is
something our tools can augment but
When interaction becomes a strange
and unfamiliar thing, then we will have
changed who and what we are as a species.
Often our rational thinking convinces
us that much of our interaction can be
reduced to a series of logical decisions—
but we are not even aware of many of the
layers and subtleties of those interactions.
As behavioral economists will tell us, we
don’t behave rationally, even though we
think we do. And Bayesians will tell us
that interaction is how we revise our pic-
ture of what is going on and what will
I’d argue there is a danger to democracy as well. Less interaction, even casual
interaction, means one can live in a tribal
bubble—and we know where that leads.
Is it possible that less human interac-
tion might save us?
Humans are capricious, erratic, emotional, irrational, and biased in what
sometimes seem like counterproductive ways. It often seems that our quick-thinking and selfish nature will be our
downfall. There are, it would seem, lots
of reasons why getting humans out of the
equation in many aspects of life might be
a good thing.
But I’d argue that while our various
irrational tendencies might seem like liabilities, many of those attributes actually
work in our favor. Many of our emotional
responses have evolved over millennia,
and they are based on the probability that
they will, more likely than not, o;er the
best way to deal with a situation.
What are we?
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at
UCLA, wrote about a patient he called
Elliot, who had damage to his frontal
lobe that made him unemotional. In all
other respects he was fine—intelligent,
healthy—but emotionally he was Spock.
Elliot couldn’t make decisions. He’d
waffle endlessly over details. Damasio
concluded that although we think
decision-making is rational and machinelike, it’s our emotions that enable us to
With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the
benefit of surprises, happy accidents,
and unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction, cooperation, and collaboration with others multiplies those
We’re a social species—we benefit
from passing discoveries on, and we benefit from our tendency to cooperate to
achieve what we cannot alone. In his book
Sapiens, Yuval Harari claims this is what
allowed us to be so successful. He also
claims that this cooperation was often
facilitated by an ability to believe in “
fictions” such as nations, money, religions,
and legal institutions. Machines don’t
believe in fictions—or not yet, anyway.
That’s not to say they won’t surpass us,
but if machines are designed to be mainly
self-interested, they may hit a roadblock.
And in the meantime, if less human interaction enables us to forget how to cooperate, then we lose our advantage.
Our random accidents and odd
behaviors are fun—they make life enjoyable. I’m wondering what we’re left with
when there are fewer and fewer human
interactions. Remove humans from the
equation, and we are less complete as
people and as a society.
“We” do not exist as isolated individuals. We, as individuals, are inhabitants of
networks; we are relationships. That is
how we prosper and thrive.
David Byrne is a musician and artist
who lives in New York City. His most
recent book is called How Music Works. A
version of this piece originally appeared
on his website, davidbyrne.com.
I’m not saying that many of these tools, apps, and other
technologies are not hugely convenient. But in a sense, they
run counter to who we are as human beings.