Business  •  March 22, 2018

How Efficiency Makes Us Lonely

Given how connected we are, all the time, everywhere, we shouldn’t feel lonely at all, but we do. Why? There are many factors at play and no easy answers, but here, I’d like to propose one major factor contributing to this problem: efficiency.

A hundred years ago, there were many reasons why people saw the same group of people over and over even outside of work. A church is a good example. There were also many practical problems that the neighborhood people had to come together to solve. At local stores, restaurants, and bars, people used to see the same neighbors on a daily basis. Because the adults in the neighborhood knew all the kids, everyone looked out for their safety. There was no need to track their positions with iPhones. Because most people lived and died in the same neighborhood, over time, their relationships became closer and deeper. Sure, there were conflicts, and some people hated each other, but they learned to live with each other like siblings. They had no choice; they needed each other to survive and thrive. Today, we don’t have this type of support systems anymore.

It is often said that limitations or constraints are what inspire creativity. The same can be said of human relationships. Those practical limitations of life were what used to bind people together. They gave people the excuse, or the platform, to get to know one another better. Today, we solved these problems so well that we have no reason to get to know one another anymore. But this does not mean that we don’t have any problems in our lives; it’s just that shared problems disappeared. Now my problems are just mine, and your problems are just yours. We may have similar problems but they are not shared. In New York City, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we got a small glimpse of what it was like to actually share the same problems. Having real reasons to interact with our neighbors felt good.

These are all negative consequences of making our lives more efficient. Efficiency can have adverse effects on human relationships as well as on creativity.

Now that we are able to produce goods at an astonishing efficiency, the cost of goods has become much lower in relation to cost of human labor. Because human labor is so expensive (particularly in the developed nations) that innovative companies are trying everything they can to minimize the need for human labor. This is why we can no longer make anything with our hands and make money from it. You might enjoy making ceramics, say cups, but, alas, if you factored the cost of your own labor, the price of each cup would have to be ten times higher than the typical price in the market. As soon as you touch something, it becomes too expensive.

To be more precise, it’s not exactly your physical interaction that is expensive; it’s your time. As the cost of goods went down, the value of our time shot up. Now, we are obsessed with optimizing and maximizing our time. The self-help section of bookstores is filled with advice about how to make ourselves more efficient and productive. Given how hard it is to earn any amount of “free time” for ourselves, we have become stingy with spending our time with our friends. If you have a family, you are even stingier. As soon as your kids go off to college, you would realize how lonely and isolated you are.

But how about our workplace? Can we build meaningful relationships there?

Today’s corporate job market is designed in such a way that among the people with the same job title, they are easily swappable. As employees, this allows us to move anywhere and find jobs. As employers, this allows us to hire anyone with the same job title. It’s nice and efficient, but this also means that corporations do not need what makes us unique. At work, we are pressured to suppress our idiosyncrasies because our employers want us to be easily replaceable. We need to behave just like the people we replaced. If we cannot be who we are, we cannot build meaningful human connections.

Working for small businesses is better precisely because they are not so efficient. Because of the small size, they cannot afford to hire someone who only does one thing, and they are more willing to take advantage of your unique abilities. You are less replaceable and are appreciated for being you. But, today, it is becoming difficult, if not impossible, for small businesses to survive. Startups, by definition, are small but the whole idea behind a startup is to scale, to eventually become huge. It’s hard for small, independent bookstores to survive when startups like Amazon blow up in size. You cannot compete with their efficiency. All small businesses, therefore, are pressured to scale up.

All these trends are working against building meaningful relationships in our lives. It is no wonder we are feeling increasingly isolated and lonely. We also feel insecure and unsafe despite all the insurances we pay for, because we have no support system we can see, touch, and feel.

To make the situation even worse, because we are so overwhelmed with solving our own problems that we have no room to hear about other people’s problems. And, we also assume that other people would not want to hear about our problems. This is why many people resort to paying psychotherapists.

Yet, ironically, we have an abundance of signs that we are connected, all the time, everywhere. So, theoretically, we should not feel lonely, but we do. We are confused and lost because we do not understand why all this is happening to us. All these technologies, solutions, and innovations that make our lives more efficient are isolating us in the labyrinth of complexity and sophistication. We are lucky if we bump into someone who is also lost in the same labyrinth.