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Why You Should Talk To Your Uber Driver

The future of our social fabric might depend on it.


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Sebastian Müller

3 years ago | 12 min read

When was the last time you talked to your Uber driver? Or when did you ever have a conversation with your Deliveroo rider for that matter? How is your Postmate doing with their life? Are they happy? How is their health? How is the family? What are their primary concerns? How do they view the latest headlines? What keeps them up at night?

Let’s flip this around. How often have you taken public transport recently? When was the last time you have taken a full lunch hour outside of the office, instead of a rushed to-go meal? And when was the last time you struck up a conversation with a stranger over breakfast? How often have you been to a physical shop in the previous month? Are you going out to buy your groceries? Where is your closest supermarket?

If your life is like mine, the answers to these questions are pretty sobering. And we all subconsciously know it. Yet we tell ourselves positive stories about productivity, convenience, and efficiency.

How much better our lives have become. How useful those services are! Surely, the restaurant around the corner is now seeing higher sales because of delivery. Yet there is a mental toll to all these benefits:

We are getting more and more disconnected from our actual surroundings, and the people who live and work around us every day.

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you

My morning starts with a 20-minute Grab ride to work. Not even Grab Share. Just me and a driver barely exchanging words — typing away at my laptop to get a head start. For lunch, Deliveroo comes with a bowl of quinoa, avocado, chicken breast, and other healthy staples. I usually eat in front of my screen. Grab gets me to my meetings, as well as back home in the evening. Groceries come delivered via RedMart.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash
Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

During the day, I mainly speak with my team, clients, and partners. I usually don’t interact with more than 10 or 20 people on any given day. While I live in a city of 5.6 million people and spend time in several locations during a typical day, I barely notice any of them. And I could be in any other city with the same services available. It would feel the same.

Just five years ago, all of this was different. I used public transport to get around. For lunch, I frequented food courts or restaurants with good lunch deals. I spent the lunch hour with colleagues, of course. The local handyman across the street did my small repairs. If I needed something delivered the same-hour, I would just do it myself or ask a friend. Of course, I bought my groceries myself.

And I would see hundreds of people in the course of a day. I would see how they get to work, what they read, witness their exchanges, and get a glimpse of their lives. I built relationships with some people I regularly encountered. I got to know the people working in my favorite restaurants or the patrons eating breakfast every day in the same place at the same hour as myself.

All the people I used to cross paths with have now disappeared from view. And all the people providing services have been digitized. Available at the push of a button.

Now all I get is the name of the person providing the service and sometimes a photo — if even that — no additional information. And tomorrow it is someone else. No human connection intended.

All the individuals that are part of this larger network of services are just data points and statistics. They have been abstracted away by interfaces. The digital services we all use do not try to humanize workers. Indeed, it often seems as though the opposite is the case.

At Didi in China, for example, drivers are given a script to follow. They get told what to say when a passenger enters and exist. All of their conversations in the car are recorded and monitored with AI for key words.

Our circle of interaction has narrowed to a small number of remarkably similar people and deprives us of communication with and hence empathy for other people, their choices, and their lives. And in the course, furthering alienation in society, undermining the social fabric, and deteriorating our feeling of belonging. These are all sides effects of the on-demand economy.

What is so great about this “empathy” in any case?

Empathy, at the core, is the ability to feel as others do. Depending on the frame and breadth of the definition, it can include cognitive or emotional states, which tell us how other people feel. The closer we are to a person, the easier it becomes to empathize with them. Everyone lives in their reality, and we need context to understand them.

Our capacity for empathy goes back to our very roots. The ability to look beyond our feelings and put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow humans, is one of the core skills on which societies rest.

A narrow self-focus leads to self-optimization. Concern for others’ feelings and needs leads to social collaboration and the achievement of larger feats as a society.

Empathy is, therefore, the superglue on which societies are built. The social fabric rests on our ability to live our lives alongside other people. Being able to empathize with other members of society to a basic degree allows us not to be puzzled or even upset by other people’s needs and choices. It allows us to see the world from their point of view, makes us willing to compromise, and hence helps different people in society coexist.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Empathy develops through interactions with people different from ourselves. We need to get confronted with other opinions, views, ways of life, and concerns, to learn about them.

Therefore, being immersed in society, especially the physical sphere where one’s life plays out, is important to gain an understanding for one’s fellow residents. This comes with forging connections, gaining a local perspective, and developing a feeling of belonging.

Levels of empathy in society are continually decreasing

A study published in 2010, researching levels of empathy in college students between 1979 and 2009, has found a steady decline in empathic capacity. Nearly 14,000 college students were part of the study, and it found that this decline is a more recent phenomenon and most pronounced after 2000.

Particularly “Empathic Concern” and “Perspective Taking” have decreased sharply between 1999 and 2009.

Another study found that in the period between 1985 and 2004, the reported number of close friends fell from 2.9 to 2.1 on average. A nearly 30% decline in just two decades.

Many changes have happened in our societies over that period. Yet none has been as dramatic as the advent of digital technology. Technology adoption was the most pronounced in the period in concern. The fastest decrease in empathy coincides with the popularization of Facebook, smartphones, and other digital services.

It would be difficult to frame this as a mere coincidence. Empathic capacity comes from the interaction with others, curiosity about different lifestyles, and exposure to a broad range of opinions and mindsets. Life in the mid to late 20th century for children and young adults mainly played out in their neighborhood, making people from different walks of life interact daily. Yet all that changed with digital technology.

Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash
Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

The 21st-century life is defined by online communities into which one self-selects, the ability to block whole hosts of people and opinions, being served information within one’s filter bubble of comfort, and a steady decline in diversity and size of the social circle. The time spent online, especially on social networks and messengers, is continuously rising, while the amount of real-world interactions is steadily declining.

And now, to further this trend line, on-demand services are here to allow us to further hide in our bubbles. We no longer need to leave our houses or offices for basic needs.

If we so choose, we can completely tune out of our surroundings, and disconnect from 99.99% of our fellow citizens. There is no physical need to leave our cave, as everything comes to us now.

Understood. But what does that have to do with me?

Coming back to the beginning — if you are anything like me, with my constant usage of on-demand services, your field of view and interaction has become much smaller. This means our area of empathy has shrunk as well.

Whenever we interact with a person — trade with them, speak with them, deal with them, exchange looks with them — we absorb their context and gain in your capacity to empathize with them. As people are now just names on a screen (and changing daily at that), this level of connection and empathy is gone.

Belonging to a minority of white-collar professionals and regular on-demand service users, that means we have lost connection to a large portion of people of the society in which we live.

This leads to misunderstandings, alienation, and an increasing amount of conflicts rooted in a lack of compassion and context. You also might feel that you could live anywhere in the world, yet like you don’t belong anywhere at all. I have lived in Munich, Shanghai, and Singapore, with regular stints in Berlin and New York, and I know exactly how that feels.

We are losing touch with our physical surroundings, as well as the people who live and work around us. And this cuts both ways. The less we see of other people, the less they see of us as well, which is further stratifying societal boundaries.

Looking another five years into the future, extrapolating the current trends, we will see the on-demand services being available in both more geographies and for an even larger percentage of our needs.

We will see one part of society living in complete self-chosen isolation, with the other part providing them the basic services needed to ensure they never have to leave their bubbles.

While we feel that we are gaining personal freedom and privacy today, this quickly turns into isolation tomorrow. Every concept we introduce has long-term consequences. Often those take hold very slowly, often too slow for us to notice. We are behaving like the metaphorical frog in the water. Right now, we are enjoying the warm bath, but the consequences of continuing on this trajectory might be dire.

What can we do about it?

Technology is here to stay, and the on-demand economy won’t disappear either. It will only proliferate. It presents an efficient way of resource organization and capital allocation.

For entrepreneurs, investors, and customers, it is an appealing concept that has many benefits. For many workers, it also provides the flexibility to accommodate lifestyle needs inconsistent with regular jobs. Hence, we need to find ways to channel all of this potential as a stronger force for societal good.

I believe that we need to evaluate both our personal choices as consumers, as well as the design choices made in the digital products and services that the on-demand economy runs on:

As consumers, we should be more conscious of using on-demand services. Getting lunch delivered from a restaurant 10 minutes away might not be a good choice. Take that walk, stretch your legs, take in your surroundings, go with your colleagues, get that mental refresh, and then walk back to work. That is actually more efficient for your work, helps you reconnect with your surroundings, and is better for the environment as well.

Same with your morning commute. Why not make it a game to find different combinations of transport options to get to work? Why not consciously take a slightly longer route, yet see a different part of town? Or at least take that Grab Share and get to know some new people on your morning commute. All also environmentally preferable options on top.

On the product side, we need to stop just showing delivery motorcycles and pick-up cars. Real people are coming to provide a service. And in my experience, most of them care. And have super interesting stories to tell. Let’s make the people more front and center. Let’s learn something about their lives. Uber is, surprisingly, one of the better products, showing additional information about their drivers.

In Singapore, I have met Grab drivers who shared stories with me about pre-reunited Germany that were of genuine interest to me. Others talked about their previous careers, which made me curious about life in Singapore in the 20th century. There is so much interesting exchange that can happen when we are open — let’s make sure we are. And the digital products we use could support us in that.

Uber in the US now has a mode that signals when a passenger does not want to have a conversation. Why not switch that around? Let’s indicate that we do want to talk. Machine learning today is used to personalize so much to us individually. Why not employ algorithms to spark an exciting conversation?

Another exciting trend is online retailers opening physical locations. Looking at Hema, backed by Alibaba, in China, or honestbee in Singapore, there is a space for reconnecting online and offline. This is a significant trend across retail, which will hopefully bring more people in contact with their physical surroundings again, ideally, with a clear emphasis on local produce and regional cuisine.

There is so much that could be done — if only companies made it a priority. The technology companies running on-demand platforms employ some of the most extensive product and service design teams. Imagine what they could come up with if this were a priority.

Rather than just optimizing narrowly around the core user journey, and throwing more revenue-generating services on top, they could spend some time to connect us to our cities, as well as the people who work for them tirelessly to provide services to us.

I hypothesize that this would even have a positive customer and worker retention effect for them in the long run. In the experience economy, it is not only a slick and frictionless service that wins but the overall human experience. If we emotionally connect to the people working for these companies, that trust and connection partially transfer. It would bind us further to the services that made these experiences possible in the first place.

In Summary

Our world allows us to live more in a bubble than ever before. If you choose, you can never see or speak to another human being outside of your narrow family and friend zones. This is neither healthy for the individual, nor is it healthy for society at large. We are becoming alienated from each other, losing sight of the concerns of most of our fellow citizens, and feel like we don’t belong where we live.

A small, yet exponentially growing, contributor to this separation is the on-demand economy. It casts tens of millions of people into the role of service providers — names hidden behind an interface. They provide convenience yet enable us to disconnect from our physical surroundings and disassociate from the cities and societies in which we live.

While on-demand services, and the technology powering them, will not disappear, there are personal consumption and product design choices that can help mitigate the negative impact of these services on the broader social fabric.

We should be more conscious about our behavior, choose when and when not to use on-demand services, and more consciously live in our surroundings. Product designers can make the human connection more of a point, which would likely even lead to higher retention in the long run.

Let’s make an effort to stay connected for all our sake.

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Sebastian Müller

Sebastian is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of MING Labs, a global strategic design and digital transformation consultancy with 6 offices in 4 countries. He started and grew MING Labs in Shanghai, China for 5 years, before moving to Singapore and establishing an office here. With now globally 80+ experts, Sebastian, and MING Labs work with MNCs, local champions, SMEs, and government agencies in setting their transformation vision and strategy, as well as helping them execute against that with organizational enablement and implementation of key strategic initiatives across Business Design, Experience Design and Technology Implementation.


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