Friday 23 August 2019

Bryony Gordon: Our shift away from human contact is making us more alone than ever

The queen was bemused by modern shopping.
The queen was bemused by modern shopping.

Bryony Gordon

It's not often I feel like the queen, but as she stared in polite bafflement at some self-service checkouts on a visit to a supermarket last week, I felt her pain.

Oh, how we all felt her pain. It is a unique person indeed who sails through the self-service checkout without being berated by it for placing an unexpected item in the bagging area: a pint of milk; a bunch of bananas; a large dollop of your seemingly boundless rage.

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Surely, the worst job in the world is being the lone person charged with manning a supermarket self-service checkout area. There, every day, you see the dark side of humanity, the side that involves watching adults regress to childhood and throw a tantrum because they can't work out how to make the toy till work.

And you are the person on the receiving end of all this pent-up frustration about life, pent-up frustration that is unleashed every day on self-service checkout areas, flashing red at you as if the world is about to end over an errant bag of radishes.

The self-service checkout may seem like one of those minor modern irritations sent to waste our time while audaciously pretending to save it - but, really, it is emblematic of something much bigger: namely, the steady, dehumanising slide into a world where we are surrounded by people we rarely look at or speak to.

There is something almost unbearably lonely about this existence. When you are surrounded by people and noise and beeping, and still everyone chooses to look down at their screens, or plug into their headphones and stare straight ahead, is it any wonder that so many of us are left feeling frazzled and despairing and alone?

It takes a village to raise a child, as they say, but that doesn't count for much if everyone in the village is staring at their phone, trying to hail an Uber out of it.

In rehab, one of the first things I learnt was that addiction is the opposite of connection. It is the detaching of one's self from reality, as I suppose most diseases of the mind and soul are. I have realised, over the last few years, that the thing all mental illnesses have in common, from anxiety to depression to schizophrenia, is that they work by lying to you, and isolating you - like an abuser, they thrive when their victim feels duty bound to exist in a culture of silence. They cut you off from the people around you.

And while I'm not for a minute saying that self-service checkout tills are responsible for the world's ills, I do think they are symptomatic of a much larger problem, which is the shift away from human connection to WiFi and 5G mobile connections.

Professor Francis McGlone, professor of neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University, has spoken about touch being the forgotten sense. In a brilliant podcast with the GP and TV presenter Dr Rangan Chatterjee, he explained that touch is essential to healthy brain development in children. Research has shown that "rats whose mothers lick them regularly as they grow up are better able to cope with stress than those whose mothers don't lick them at all". The rats who weren't licked became hypersensitive to stress and anxiety.

Researchers at University College London have also found that affectionate touch reduces feelings of social exclusion.

Human interaction is being lost, and perhaps that is what bemused the queen most about those self-service checkout tills.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I went to visit a friend in hospital - a young woman who, through nothing more than bad luck, has found herself on the organ transplant list. She asked if I could bring her some fruit and nuts from the supermarket, so off I went to do battle with the machines, the recorded chirruping of Ant and Dec failing to raise my spirits as I struggled to find a barcode.

What did my annoyance matter, though, in the grand scheme of things? I arrived with the snacks, and then I brushed my friend's hair. I massaged cream into her hands. I did all those things that we no longer do, and she said how nice it was, after long periods stuck alone in her hospital bed, away from her precious children, to feel human touch.

And I left, later, thinking this: that life is too short and too special to be spent alone, in a rage, with a screen.

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