Have you ever considered that the mobile app driven, on-demand service economy is really a reflection of our increasingly isolated lives? I know it’s easy to dismiss many of the services as unnecessary luxuries dreamed up by tech-bro man-children, but in the broader scope of things are we seeing the rise of an app/service for everything because so many people are now living alone?
For thousands of years, humans relied on close social ties for everything. Need food? Get the hunters in your tribe together and look for a buffalo to kill so everyone can eat. Need water? Half the village grabbed buckets and walked down to the river.
Later, as our tribes evolved into villages and cities, and goods and services became sellable commodities, our core living groups became smaller. In most countries, extended families replaced the tribe and later, as countries continued to modernize, immediate families became the dominant social structure.
It is around the immediate family unit that the western world has been designed. Houses are typically not built for one person but for a family. The vast majority of automobiles have seats for four or five passengers. Almost every table at a restaurant seats two or more. Open any cookbook and the recipes commonly serve 4-6 people — rarely ever one. Trying to live alone, eat alone, travel alone, do anything alone, in a world built for couples and families borders on unwelcoming.
Now think about who the on-demand app economy serves.
Hit a button on your phone and a plethora of food options just for one person can be delivered to your door. Need help installing your new TV? It used to be you called a family member or friend and ordered a pizza, but now you call a TaskRabbit. How about a ride to the airport? It wasn’t that long ago that taking someone to the airport was a sign that you cared; now everyone just orders an Uber. Unlike the status quo world, much of the on-demand ecosystem is designed to serve people who live alone.
No more buying groceries in packages that feed four people when it’s only you. No more waiting to do laundry in washing machines built for family-sized loads. No more asking a friend for a ride or a place to crash. Almost anything your heart desires is now no further than your fingertips, served up just for you in a single-sized serving. But I believe there is a downside to being relieved of the need to ask our social ties for help.
Humans are by nature social creatures. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution over which we relied on each other for our very survival has left us with an innate need to connect with one another even when we don’t have an actual tangible need. But by removing the physical need for help from our social ties, the on-demand ecosystem makes connecting with others seem less important. It’s much easier to neglect our relationships when we don’t believe we need them for anything other than companionship, which modern society commonly treats as a luxury to be enjoyed only after business is done — and business is rarely ever done.
If you’re a heavy user of the on-demand services, think about all the times an app has replaced a friend. Let’s say a quarter of your Uber rides would have been a ride from a friend. Half your GrubHub or Plated deliveries would have been a meal shared with a friend. Instead of TaskRabbit, a friend might have come over to help you assemble your IKEA desk. Sure, the apps are much more convenient, and on the surface I’m sure your friends are happy you’re not bothering them, but think about the aggregate of all of those missed opportunities to spend a bit of time with someone who is a social connection and not just a utility.
Obviously the on-demand ecosystem is not the root cause or even one of the primary causes of our societal shift toward living alone. Mostly, I believe they are a reflection of larger social changes. But as they reorganize the world around solo living and make our social ties appear superfluous, at least from the standpoint of physical need, I can’t help but wonder if they are contributing to a society of ever-increasing isolation.