Smart Cities For Humanity: Loneliness In An Automated Age

It is a lonely, lonely age we live in. In the UK, one in eight people say that they have no one to consider a close friend. Almost two-thirds of 16 to 24-year-olds say they feel lonely at least some of the time; a third say they are lonely all of the time.

In an age where we have the tools to communicate constantly with people we know and to meet new ones on social media and dating apps, why do we feel more isolated than ever before?

The resounding answer is that technology is to blame. Those very social networks online upon which we can never lose touch with anyone we have ever known appear to have the opposite effect. The superficial interactions – likes, one-sentence comments, political rants – do not bring us together. We gain no closer connection through simply typing a few random thoughts. These conversations are shallow; they cannot compete with the depth offered by real life interactions.

Even having the phone nearby, as researchers at the University of Essex have found, can exacerbate our disconnection from others. They found that a person need not even check their phone to lose connection. You stand in queues checking your Facebook, rather than striking up a conversation with the person next to you. You go to a coffee shop and stare into the void of your laptop screen.

Identity and Isolation

The culture of social media sharing even isolates us from ourselves. The public self relegates the private self; we display only what we want to show the world. As Mat Collishaw put it in our recent interview:

“There’s this growing emphasis on displaying our every moment to the world, sometimes in a way that can be degrading or self-defamatory, whether implicitly or explicitly. People now try to portray themselves in a particular light to meet some prescriptive standard that’s set within the digital space of the internet. So where does the self sit within that? When we spill everything outwards into the world, we are left hollow.”

Identity and the Self are not necessarily the same thing anymore. We have become more performative than ever before. This dichotomy is just one of the factors contributing to the dramatic rise in mental health issues in recent years – we just don’t know who we are anymore, let alone anybody else. We are already merely avatars, and tech is only going to make this worse as its pervasiveness grows.

The Problem With Smart Cities

Smart cities are coming, creeping slowly into our homes and public lives. Soon, everything will be digitally connected. Some of us already have a smart thermostat, a smart fridge, a smart TV. Millions of units of connected home assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices have been sold within their first year of release. It is clear that we welcome the IoT revolution, in the interests of making our lives easier. Beyond our homes, the next step is our hospitals, our cars, and our shops.

Customer service robots and chatbots online and by phone are fast gaining in popularity. They are more efficient than human staff; more cost-effective for businesses. Soon, we may never have to deal with another human to get stuff done again. And, of course, there’s the matter of automation wiping out vast swathes of jobs.

With smart cities and increasing automation clearly not going away any time soon, a solution to the loneliness epidemic is critical. So how can we counteract it and come together once more?

The Post-Work Solution

The solution may be the post-work world, in which our need to work is acceptably eliminated. A progressive government, recognising that there is little alternative, will liberate us from the bonds of obligatory labour. Clearly, as technology continues its inevitable march into every area of our lives, it will be unavoidable for politicians to seriously reconsider the structure of society. In an age where much of the current labour force is surplus to requirement, a new economic model, a new political future, must emerge within the smart cities of the world.

It is undeniably clear that this is not yet being considered with any serious by governments on either Left or Right. The imperative of capitalism, growth and profit, would be thrown into disarray. How will the status quo function? How will the 1% retain their hold on their wealth, generated through the labour of the many? They have no other solution beyond plunging the entire existing workforce into poverty than the post-work alternative.

Smart cities, beyond their ostensible benefits to everyday life, are actually part of a wider exercise in driving the purchase of goods. The connected home exists for the purpose of selling us products. The digital advertising age is evolving into the era of ambient advertising; the insistence on purchasing products that are deeply linked to the preferences demonstrated by the vast reams of data being collected on us, brought to bear on every waking moment of our lives. But without work, how will we afford those things targeted to us? Indeed, the advertisers themselves will be replaced by more accurate algorithms, capable of creating and executing campaigns more sophisticated than those created by even the most talented ad execs.

This is the great dilemma, but within it lies the solution to loneliness in the automated age of smart cities. Beyond the complex nature of the post-work problem, the answer to loneliness is a comparatively easy one to answer. If we assume that the powers-that-be enact a workable solution that is properly executed, the smart cities will run themselves. Machines work the machines, machine learning algorithms teach other machine learning algorithms, driving an explosion in artificial intelligence. For those of us not working in containing the threat of superintelligence, freedom may be on the horizon.

Rather than paying out for childcare, whilst we ride packed trains and tubes rubbing against glaze-eyed strangers to spend the day staring at a screen, we will be at home. We will have the time to raise and educate our children, to be with our families. We will walk through our smart cities to meet friends in the park, or at a restaurant where we are served by a robot. But though we may not share a joke with the bartender, we will be with our friends and loved ones, interacting and engaging in a way we thought we had long forgotten how to do.

This idyllic prospect may be the only answer. Though it feels like an impossible pipe dream, the chance to have our humanity and our relationships restored to us could be the only feasible option for our future. Here’s hoping.