The first thing you notice when you walk into eatsa is the staff. It’s almost non-existent. There’s no cash register, no counter where you pick up your order at this highly automated restaurant chain. A single worker, sometimes two, mans the floor to answer questions.
Customers can enter and exit, food in hand in under a couple of minutes — all without ever interacting with another human being.
It’s an increasingly common scene as companies from Amazon to Little Caesars and Uber introduce more ways to go about daily tasks while avoiding face-to-face contact. On top of email, texting and social media, such technology is undeniably changing society — for better, for worse or somewhere in-between.
“There are times when people think it serves their purposes, and there are other times when they think it’s distressing that I don’t spend as much time with humans as I might have in the past,” says Lee Rainie, director of Internet and technology research at Pew Research.
Research in the area is mixed. On the one hand, it’s uncovered that those who use technology the most are often the most social people — enriching their lives with devices and social media in ways that involve interactions with others. On the other hand, it’s also found that the mere presence of a smartphone during a conversation decreases the feeling of connectedness with another person.
A lack of emotion
Carol Mitchell, 69, doesn’t own a smartphone. She isn’t on Twitter. She regularly turns off her cellphone — one of those flip models that make it ridiculously hard to text — and only checks in once or twice a day. “And things get done. The world doesn’t stop going around,” she notes.
Still, she uses an iPad, and Facetime connects her with her grandchildren in England. But she misses more frequent contact with former co-workers who now only get together every few months because they connect via email. She blames a lot of the negativity in the world on the technology that shifts us away from in-person contact.
“In an email you don't get the emotional side of it, you don't get the real feeling for exactly what they meant by whatever they said,” she says.
Separated from Mitchell by more than five decades is Zoey Golabek, 15, a rising sophomore at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va. The social butterfly isn’t one of the teenagers you hear about in the news. Sure, she Snapchats with at least 10 friends every day and uses all the latest messaging apps. But she only texts with one or two people on a daily basis and sounds quite a lot like Mitchell when it comes to social interactions: Zoey prefers talking in person.
“It's more personal and you know what they’re saying because through text if you were to communicate with someone, you don't know what they mean by it because there's no emotion,” she says. “Sometimes they could be sending an emoji and not really mean it.”
Robyn Povich, 52, has seen the effect on her own business. About five years ago, the yoga teacher and mindfulness coach from Chantilly, Va., began fielding requests from some clients who wanted to use Skype for their coaching sessions — even though they lived just a short drive away. “I had to learn how to work that way with someone who I’m not physically seeing who’s perhaps having some emotion and how you deal with that,” she says.
Freeing up time for connecting
In recent years, more companies have introduced technologies largely devoid of human interaction.
Uber is testing self-driving cars in a handful of cities. Amazon opened an automated grocery store late last year, still in beta testing, where customers (currently only its employees) can grab items and go — no line, no cashier, not even self-checkout lanes. All that's needed is a smartphone, which tracks the items carted out the door. Earlier this month, Little Caesars unveiled The Pizza Portal, a machine that lets you buy and grab your pie without a cashier.
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At eatsa on bustling K Street in Washington just blocks from the White House, customers enter the store, walk up to an iPad kiosk and place an order for one of the vegetarian, quinoa-based bowls. Within a couple minutes, they’re taking videos, Snapchats or photos — selfies are a regular occurrence — as their food, seemingly magically, appears.
Along a wall of cubbies, one lights up with their name. They double tap the screen and the cubby opens. A few customers are so busy documenting the experience that the door closes before they can retrieve their order — another need for the employee, who walks the floor wearing a red shirt emblazoned with eatsa’s design.
The time and cost efficiencies created from the ability to zip in and out of a restaurant or grocery store and order an item in milliseconds at the push of a button or tell a car where you want to go without it making a wrong turn are obvious.
But what happens when we cut out those innocuous, fleeting moments with the person behind the counter or in the driver’s seat? Allison Pugh, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, says it amounts to placing ourselves in social bubbles that consist only of like-minded people.
“These casual interactions are the few cases in which you’re interacting with people potentially of a different class or a different race or a different gender identity or a different nationality — or really even more important perhaps, people who think differently,” she says. “We are walling ourselves off from each other.”
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a non-profit that studies media and technology, says the situation isn’t as dire as some make it sound — and actually can enhance our lives.
“Everything that eliminates a routine task frees up opportunities to do the things that we’re uniquely capable of doing, which is thinking and creating and connecting,” she says.
In addition, the kinds of connections we can maintain through social media actually increase “our sense of intimacy” because we no longer have large gaps of time between seeing someone, Rutledge says.
David Pakman, partner at Venrock, a venture capital firm, says the automated technologies he invests in allow people to spend more time cultivating meaningful connections and relationships, and those connections — “ones that we depend on each others’ humanity for,” like when you need good advice from a friend — won’t disappear.
“I don't think that means humans aren’t interacting with each other I just think they're drawn to either higher value interactions, more expressive interactions or interactions that involve compassion, understanding, nuance, context,” he says.
'Something is amiss'
Shalini Misra, a Virginia Tech professor who has researched how smartphones negatively impact everyday interactions, says she’s already seeing a profound change in her students — a generation that hasn’t known the world before the Internet.
A student came to her to ask the seemingly easy-to-answer question: How do I talk to another human being. “I would love to learn to have a conversation some time,” one undergraduate student said to her, Misra recalls. The student adds: “Especially, how does one end a conversation.”
“We cannot consider this technology as a benign object,” Misra says. “Something is amiss.”
Pugh’s outlook is also not particularly bright.
“There is a strong chance that these small decisions we make to limit our interactions with others will lead us to become ever more isolated,” she says.
Rutledge, though, says the answer lies in balance, setting boundaries and taking responsibility — if we can achieve it.
“We all feel perfectly able to not to talk to someone we find insulting or annoying, but we angst over whether we should unfriend someone,” she says. “We haven’t translated our ability to set boundaries into this new environment.”
That means we need to understand how the human brain works, figure out how to engage in Facebook without it taking up all our time and understand that technology is extremely compelling, she says.
“The really positive outcome will be if people really take that responsibility and establish their own boundaries, and the negative is if people keep expecting other people to solve their problems for them,” she says.
Not becoming consumed
Ten years ago, clients came to Povich to find balance in their lives with things such as watching too much TV, dissatisfaction with their jobs or dealing with their marriage ending. “Now people are coming to me with comparisons about other people’s lives, how they’re not matching up to what they think they should be accomplishing based on other people’s lives,” she says, “and they’re basing that judgment on what they’re seeing on Facebook and Instagram.”
Mitchell is hopeful she can stay abreast of the technology without being consumed by it. “We don’t have any choice, we’re going to have to deal with it as human beings.But I’m beginning to wonder if we’re not all becoming part machine anyway,” she says.
Zoey takes a slightly different approach.
“People tend to talk a lot more on social media than in person these days,” she says, “so when they talk to me way too much on social media I say ‘I’m not feeling it, I’ll talk to you later.’ ”