San Francisco, I realized during a visit to the city this spring, has a people problem. Not a homeless-people problem, or a tech-people problem, but a lack-of-people problem. As I walked from my hotel in SoMa to the Embarcadero on a sunny afternoon, the emptiness of the streets felt nearly apocalyptic. Passing other humans—a fundamental circumstance of urban life elsewhere—here was so rare, it felt oddly menacing. I did pass some people who looked unwell, or dirty from living on the streets, but that’s not why I felt the way I did. The volume and density of humanity are what make cities feel safe. The pleasure and pain of a city is that we are never alone, even when we desperately want to be. That wasn’t the case in San Francisco.
So I was bewildered when I read recently of the city’s experiment with driverless taxicabs. During that visit, I stepped over two people who appeared to be high on fentanyl, stepped past too many boarded-up storefronts to count, and literally stepped into human excrement. Engaging with my living, breathing (and sometimes chatty) taxi and Uber drivers was absolutely the least of my troubles in San Francisco.
Why did a city of such terrible solitude need driverless taxis? For whom were taxi drivers such a horrific nuisance that it was worth eradicating an entire profession of working-class people that has existed since the earliest days of the automobile? When did we decide that engagement with our fellow man was a bug and not a feature of our short and limited lives?
I was about to turn 24 and just settling into my adult life in New York City when the planes went into the Twin Towers on that perfectly crisp September day. I huddled in tears with my co-workers before I walked home and huddled in tears with my roommate. Not out of fear as much as pure shock and deep empathy. Nearly 3,000 people killed, while they were just trying to do their jobs. My friends and I didn’t know any of them, but they all felt very knowable: the busser at Windows on the World, the secretary from Staten Island, the trader who’d gone to your college, the fireman from Sunset Park. We were afraid to get on the subway, but we’d walk or drive or ride on buses to sit around one another’s houses and apartments. Anything to not be alone while mourning people who were strangers but not strangers at all.
When it was time to “go back to normal,” no one was really sure how; it all felt too soon. No memorial, no light display was enough to allay the pain. And yet, we tried. We needed to at least try.
Twenty years later, another disaster. It didn’t come on as suddenly as the crash of a commandeered plane, but it was fast for a plague. And it took with it not thousands of American lives, but more than 1 million—and 7 million lives worldwide. Unlike with 9/11, most everyone knows personally someone who has suffered a COVID loss.
And yet, this time there has been no real attempt at a moment of national mourning. We not only didn’t grieve; we seemed to resent missing even a beat of our attempt to get back to normal.
We can blame government or capitalism or any number of things, but it’s hard not to see this as reflective of a social shift—a collective reduction in empathy.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Empathy is cultivated through interactions with people we don’t know well, those glimpses into other interior worlds. We have, over the past two decades—slowly and then quickly—“optimized” other people out of our lives. One app at a time, we’ve greatly reduced our need to casually engage with anyone we don’t know—or even to meaningfully engage with those we do.
I sometimes consider all of the people I might have engaged with on a typical day just five years ago. I would head to work on the subway, grab a coffee and chat with the barista or bodeguero, get to the office and gossip with my co-workers about their lives. At lunch, I might make small talk while waiting for my salad, then pop into my favorite clothing or shoe store and trade some banter or get some inspiration from the shop clerks. After work, I might stop at the bookstore and pick up a novel, then have a drink at my local bar while I waited for my takeout to be ready. At home, I’d call a friend before bed. On the weekends, I’d drop my laundry at my wash-and-fold and ask how the owners’ kids were doing. I’d see the same people at my weekly yoga class, meet a friend at the movies, or browse the flea market. At night, we’d go to a bar and flirt with the bartender; one of us might go home with him.
Everywhere I went there was small talk, and often random weird interactions, and sometimes long and meaningful ones.
I won’t run through every app that has changed this, but suffice it to say, no one needs to go to an office to chitchat anymore when you can just Zoom all day long. Someone can pick up and drop off our laundry or our takeout or our books or our new clothing purchases without us ever even seeing the person doing it, let alone speaking to them. We can stream our workouts and movies. One- and two-night stands seem quaint or even tedious compared with being able to sext someone after nothing more than a swipe to the right. I have friendships that solely exist now on social media, voices I hear only when I call and the voicemail kicks in. (Someone recently described the act of making a phone call to me as “aggressive.”) Dozens upon dozens of human touch points have been erased from each and every day of our lives.
And we have accepted this erasure without ever asking whether it was a good thing. Without ever examining, not just how the jobs lost by humans to algorithms might affect the economy, but how those lost interactions might affect our humanity.
We are a people made miserable. This is an opinion that isn’t. Americans have fewer friends than we used to. Women are drinking more, and men are lonelier. Our kids are sad too. We are pessimistic about our country and about the state of the world. Maybe only our pets are happy. We are well informed about the ways in which our spirits are struggling, and somewhat informed as to the reasons why. Americans who frequently use social media have been found to display reduced empathy and increased narcissism; depression has been linked to the use of dating apps and binging TV alone.
What if our suffering is not just internal, but social? What if the human race has deteriorated? And what if we’ve deteriorated because we’ve begun to resent not only human interactions, but humans period?
More and more, we’re inured to suffering and death. Many think pieces have been written about why Americans won’t act to stop endless mass shootings and overdoses and the killings of Black people by cops. What if the inertia is the result of us simply no longer valuing human life the way we once did?
This is a dark premise, yet one that—scrolling through social media since this weekend’s terrorist attack on Israeli civilians—I’ve had to seriously entertain. How else to explain the process by which someone can watch videos of slaughtered human beings and then post messages of casual cruelty? Instead of praying for the victims and empathizing with their loved ones—in Israel, and in Gaza for that matter—people are raising a virtual middle finger at their pain. Because of politics! Because of “revolution”!
This is hardly the first time I’ve questioned American empathy. I feel this way each time someone says “All lives matter” after an innocent Black American is shot by a cop. I feel this way whenever I see people cheering legislation that makes trans youth fear using a bathroom or just trying to be comfortable in who they are. I question our empathy every time someone starts talking about the Second Amendment within hours of a shooting at a school or mall or grocery store. I feel this way whenever I see elected officials wishing ill health or death on their political enemies. How emotionally healthy are we, as a people, when, in moments of profound and painful tragedy, we feel compelled to insert our political opinions or policy positions? Can we not, just for a moment, feel for the victims?
Despite how divided we are politically, and how abhorrent I find some of the views espoused in this nation, I don’t believe that America has a people problem. We, like San Francisco, have a lack-of-people problem. We have manicured out of our lives and our feeds and our day-to-day existence the need for any and all interactions with anyone who has not been hand-picked by us, who is not of the same class or race or political position. We have found more and more ways to avoid engaging with others of our species. And in doing so, we have eroded our empathy.
This is not a call to abandon technology or close our social-media accounts: It’s too late for that. But we can attempt to turn away from indifference and re-embrace humanity, to pull ourselves out of our cocoons of digital isolation. We can pick up the phone and call a friend instead of liking a post on Instagram. We can ask a co-worker to get coffee and express curiosity about their life. We can, believe it or not, make small talk while waiting for our takeout. The people we meet and what we learn from them might not only surprise us; it might also save us.