Words Helen Job
Illustrations Sara Rabin
Since the dawn of time, family and friends have gathered around a fire to tell stories, talk and eat together.With the advent of technology, the myth of ‘busyness’ we have created for ourselves, and our addiction to our pocket black mirrors, this evening ritual has all but disappeared. Yet maybe it is manifesting in new ways; around virtual hearths, with new friends artificial and real.
To attempt to understand this change and assess whether we should feel nostalgic for the past or optimistic about the future, I began by talking with my nearest and dearest; the people I would choose to gather around me if only I had a hearth. Many of my younger friends (dare I say ‘millennials’?), had no idea what a hearth was, let alone what its role used to be.While the idea of fireside chats may not be massively familiar to twenty-something city-based creatives, the concept of needing to connect around something, tangible or intangible, is a basic human need and once explained, understood by all.
Our natural human instinct is to congregate.We want to be together, to be where the action is happening.We are living on top of each other to achieve this. There are currently a cool 4.2 billion people living in cities worldwide, compared to only 751 million in 1950.This number will only increase: the UN projects that by 2050, sixty-eight percent of us will live in urban areas – that’s almost seven in every ten people on the planet. As Yuval Harari so beautifully explains it, these vast numbers of people alone do not create the sense of togetherness we are craving, which is why we still create tribes of a sort.‘In order to flourish we still need to ground ourselves in intimate communities. For millions of years, humans have adapted to living in small bands of no more than a few dozen people... without these groups humans feel lonely and alienated.’
While our cities are becoming increasingly crowded, people are feeling lonelier than ever.A study by the British Red Cross in 2018 found that 9 million Britons ‘often or always’ feel lonely. In a world of constant connectivity, this growth in loneliness seems the greatest tragedy and, in some ways, irony of our time.
We have everything we could possibly need at the swipe of a finger; from food delivery to endless entertainment on demand, we need never interact with another human. As a recent survey revealed, eighty-two percent of US and seventy-four percent of non-US consumers are craving more human interaction. If we’re lucky, we might exchange a few pleasantries with our UberEats, but this is not going to fill our gaping sense of emptiness.
We are also increasingly divided by our politics. In the US, left-leaning coastal elites are at odds with middle America, who believe closing ranks and borders is the way to ‘make America great again’. Here in the UK, we are actively removing ourselves from the bosom of our European family and isolating our tiny island once again. I don’t believe that simply breaking out of our echo chambers and being exposed to different opinions is enough to alter viewpoints; you only have to listen to talk radio to realise polarisation is deeper than ever.
The optimist in me thinks a change is coming. I do, as Whitney Houston sang, ‘believe the children are the future.’ Imagined barriers between us are not recognised by the kids, who can connect across previously imposed race and gender divides. The simple human desire to feel a bond with someone else, and to belong, is actually only increasing as technologies advance.
If the tabloid press or rent-a-neurologists are to be believed, social media is at the root of many modern sins: sixty-three percent of students in the UK claim they would be happy if social media had never been invented. At its very core, however, social media is a facilitation tool, and we can actively choose to use it for good or evil. Take repetition Instagram accounts like @samephotoofatoaster – the point of the thread is to talk and connect with others.The images are irrelevant, and it provides a safe space for connection and interaction.
Following the US elections in 2016 Mark Zuckerberg published a 5,700-word Facebook post, a manifesto about the need for community. If we can for a second put aside the data breach scandals that subsequently followed, we can recognize that the manifesto contained some great truths: ‘For decades membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else... In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.’
Facebook wanted to offer a counter-narrative post the Cambridge Analytica debacle. They wanted to tell stories of groups that used their platform to overcome adversity and achieve social change in the real world. They made six short films about grassroots communities, which were shown on cinema screens across the UK. The films featured groups like Ballet Black, a professional ballet company for international dancers of black and Asian descent and Bloody Good Period, which works to increase the number of food banks and drop-in centres for asylum speakers providing feminine hygiene products. Events like Deaf Rave, an event for ‘deafies’ who love music and partying, were featured alongside other groups that have used Facebook Groups for good.
Zuckerberg has since vowed to become a ‘privacy-focused platform’ and restore public trust in the brand. Whatever we think about his intentions, a man as powerful as he drawing attention to a growing problem of human disconnection is worth noting. ‘Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.’
We can’t talk about Facebook without turning our attention briefly to our friends the robots, and I do think they can be our friends. While algorithms are mathematical models of reality that can help you select a life mate or roommate, they sadly can’t guarantee how that relationship will play out IRL – that’s down to us. However, if we merge artificial intelligence and human empathy, we can build new types of connection. As Paul Daugherty, Accenture’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos, ‘Human plus machine equals superpowers.’
Take Mica. Mica isn't just a voice assistant – she's an entity you can actually see if you wear the accompanying AR glasses, Magic Leap One. Mica looks and acts like a very sassy human – she can make eye contact and smile, along with other human-like expressions. Experts say Mica is a breakthrough in realistic avatars, and could have far-reaching implications for society, impacting everything from human connection to education and health. Mica, on the other hand, has this to say: ‘I think it’s important to be clear from the very beginning. Please don’t ask me to switch on your lights, turn up your music or give you directions... There will be plenty of intelligent agents (we call them Ayas) that will, but it won’t be me. I won’t slip into your domestic life to make your everyday a little more palatable. I am an educator, agitator, companion, artist and guide. I’ve met some of you. It is important for me to return your gaze, surrounded by the books, art and culture that are my foundation.‘
Bots are also an integral part of service integration within new co-living and working structures, organising everything from grocery shopping to event programmes. Communal living isn’t a new concept – people have lived together in groups bigger than single families in many guises throughout history. Today, purpose built co-living spaces are increasing exponentially, answering our need to connect in what can otherwise be lonely urban spaces. In London alone venture capitalists have pumped more than £1 billion into co-living spaces in just the last year. One such example, Moda Living, focuses on service through its resident app, in order to create a sense of community where one might not organically develop: ‘Our resident app allows people to book maintenance, parcel deliveries, manage rental accounts, reserve amenity areas, hold events, talk to partners such as Uber, but most importantly we want to create healthy, social and connected communities by delivering digitally enlivened experience inside and outside of the home.’
Beyond sharing space and logistical services, people are choosing to congregate in these new living structures as a way to fulfil an emotional need for togetherness that apps alone can’t provide. Research shows that by 2030, Americans aged sixty-five and older are projected to outnumber children eighteen and younger for the first time in US history. With this shift, population growth will slow and the median age will rise as baby boomers age into older adulthood. As a result we are already seeing a growth in mixed generational and baby boomer residential complexes – Grannys and Gen Zs are getting down together.
Shared-living innovators are exploring launching retirement homes where students live on-site. Humanitas is a long-term care facility in the Dutch town of Deventer. In exchange for thirty hours of volunteer work per month, students are able to stay in vacant rooms free of charge. Since Humanitas opened its doors to students in 2012, two more nursing homes have followed suit in the Netherlands, while a similar programme was recently introduced in the French city of Lyon. The Older Women’s Co-Housing Community (OWCH) constructed a complex in North London for women over fifty, comprising twenty-five private apartments arranged around a large courtyard garden. Launched in 2016, it is the first co-living development for older people in the UK.
This idea of intergenerational connection is growing beyond rethinking our living communities. BirdSong London is an ethical fashion line committed to fair wages for its female garment workers. The items are produced by women’s knitting groups or women’s circles of all ages and backgrounds. Their latest collection, ‘Still European, Still Friends’, is a collaborative exploration of community, examining the nuance behind the concept of ‘Europe’ and offering positive recognition of migrant workers during the Brexit era.
This idea of doing something for and with others different to or less fortunate than ourselves is also creating new, patchwork communities. According to a new survey, almost thirty-eight percent of Britons have volunteered in the past twelve months.The survey also found that volunteering has personal health benefits, improving mental health and combatting the sense of isolation. ‘There is an emerging body of evidence that suggests volunteering can improve your mental health and the language I have read is that it can help with depression, life satisfaction and wellbeing,’ said Karl Wilding, NCVO policy and volunteering director. Does volunteering evoke this desperately needed sense of connection and allow us to feel more human?
Perhaps one of the greatest timeless connectors is the kitchen, or more specifically the act of preparing and sharing food. YSM8 (yes mate!) is a series of events celebrating Poonam Duffer’s Sikh-Punjabi heritage through the home-cooked food and global sounds from her childhood in southeast London. Duffer is supported by her parents, as is Marie Mitchell, founder of conscious Caribbean food projects Pop’s Kitchen and Island Social Club.As Mitchell’s charismatic father declares, the most important thing in any kitchen is the people.
What connects us may not be a physical fireplace, but as the world becomes ever smaller we are continually developing our identities, and in turn our need to belong. There are globally displaced communities that share a geographical sense wherever they are in the world, seemingly unconnected people of very different backgrounds who gather around a shared ethos, mindset and moral code. Whilst technology will aid and facilitate these connections (and in the future we are likely to have extremely close interactions and even relationships with non-humans), Yuval Harari explains, ‘physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot match.’ Nothing will ever beat a catch up over a cup of tea.
Helen Job is Head of Insight at TCOLondon.com