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Can We Eliminate The Human Element?

Taxis park along the footpath in Adelaide, Australia. Alva Noe asks: Do taxi apps make people interact less — or better — with their drivers?
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Taxis park along the footpath in Adelaide, Australia. Alva Noe asks: Do taxi apps make people interact less — or better — with their drivers?

We are a social animal. Indeed, it is our sociality, and everything that it demands of us — such as the ability to make sense of each other, to communicate, to work cooperatively and, finally, to create culture — that marks us off from other animal species.

These days, more and more thinkers are arriving at the same conclusion. That rather than it being the case that we were so brainy as to be able to invent our distinctive manner of social organization, it is the other way around: It is culture — the massive leg-up that language and technology and shared undertaking makes possible — that made us so smart.

But then why are we everywhere striving to increase our isolation and limit our contact with others?

As musician David Byrne argues in a lovely essay in the MIT Technology Review published last month, it is a striking fact about the new technologies that have so come to shape our lives, that they have precisely this effect: They limit our need for human contact. Online shopping? Check. No need to ask a bookseller to look up a title that you may not quite remember or know how to spell; search algorithms do away with any need for that. Automated check out? Check. You can scan, swipe and grab with nary a "How do you do?" Ride hail apps? Check. No need to tell the driver where you are going, how to get there, or to engage him on such prickly matters as payment and tip. Online pornography? Byrne doesn't mention this one. But check. All pornography perhaps tends to be solitary by nature. But it's hard not to be struck by the efficiency with which online porn can lure people into an erotica devoid of, well, other people.

Efficiency is the key word. We purchase efficiency by limiting the human aspect. This is perhaps even more pronounced with new technologies looming on the horizon. Take driverless cars. You might think that this frees you up to be social while the car does the driving. But, as Byrne notes, driverless cars means a fleet of buses, taxis, trucks, ambulances, fire engines without people steering them. And what of the MOOC — that is, the teacher-less virtual classroom? This is meant to deliver the values of a learning environment without, well, without the environment. You get to stay at home. No teacher. But also, no fellow students. And no travel. No need to get dressed. Just homework. At home. By yourself.

Byrne isn't claiming we are consciously choosing to isolate ourselves. But with technology, as with biology, function can be tricky to discern, not because devices, or traits, are without real functions, but rather, because there are so many of them. Do we suckle our young so that they may find nourishment? Or rather so that, getting nourished that way, they find attachment? Which is effect? Which side-effect? What is selected for?

We shop online because it is easy and convenient. No need to go out. No need to get up. No need to visit different stores and combat pushy salespeople. The absence of contact with others is a side-effect. Maybe even an inevitable one, as one of the things that makes online shopping so easy is precisely the absence of contact with other people.

But Bryne's thought is that whatever our conscious intent, the tendency of our tech to isolate us may be a feature, not a bug.

His hypothesis is that we actually, at some level, crave the increased isolation.

But this means, Byrne contemplates, that we are craving and making technologies to satisfy impulses that, in some way, go beyond — or against — our social nature. Or maybe we are, through our technologies, remaking our nature.

This connects up to a point I've come back to again and again in this space at 13.7: that in a way it is we ourselves who are the Artificial Intelligences of the future. We make ourselves. We alter ourselves.

Byrne is onto something. But I wonder, is this really new?

John-Paul Sartre famously wrote in his play Huis Clos (No Exit): "Hell is other people." And even if we are social by nature, and do everything we can to embed ourselves socially — we date, we make families, we go to bars and coffee houses and baseball games — the need to find ways to be alone with others is, well, nothing new. The image of a person who works hard, comes home, deals with family, and then retreats to a drink and TV, is surely a familiar one.

It's also striking that the very activities that risk to separate us — in the old days, books, newspapers, TV; nowadays, the latest apps — also connect us. We read about each other. What we read gives us information to share with each other.

And so for the new apps: I have found that my conversational exchange with Uber drivers is better than it ever was with taxi drivers of the past, precisely because we don't need to talk about destination and money. And while it's impossible to deny that bookstores are not the vital cultural hubs they once were, I would not say that our shared life together with books and ideas is correspondingly diminished.

I don't for a second deny that driverless cars are going to wreak havoc on the workforce, and I am aware of the data, mentioned by Byrne, that shows that the more time you spend on Facebook, the more sad and isolated and envious you feel of others. But the drive to automization is not new; and as for isolating effects of social media, just how novel is this? Being on Facebook reminds me a lot of what it was like to be social in high school — you have a vivid sense of your status and your standing in relation to others and, especially, other groups and clubs — and you have to deal with that. Facebook feels a lot like a high school reunion on steroids, and it feels that way even if your friends network does not consist primarily of old high school connections.

This may be isolating, sure. But it's the isolating face of the social lives we've always had. It is isolating because of the ways it brings us into real contact with others, not because it removes that contact.

Byrne isn't so much issuing a warning as he's inviting us to notice that we've got a choice: We don't need to opt for more isolation.

I wonder whether more isolation is a real option, after all.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.