Posted on: May 14, 2023 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

As the scent of freshly ground coffee beans wafted throughout the C building, something was amiss at the newly built White Sheep Cafe. Where the cashier once stood a few weeks earlier, a massive touchscreen display was now installed. Students gathered in a line to order off this display while a single barista prepared the orders. There was an eerie quietness about the interaction–or lack thereof– between the students and the barista.

Photo by Aidan McGuire
A lone kiosk sits in place of a cashier at White Sheep Cafe on campus.

With self-checkouts and online contactless shopping on the rise, are we losing a key part of the human experience? Humans are social animals, yet the isolation we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic is creating lingering effects at the same time as automation is reducing our little daily social interactions.

“Emerging evidence suggests we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness in which relationships were severed and never reestablished,” reports The Atlantic.

People appear to be withdrawing more into themselves, Moraine Valley psychology professor Laura Lauzen-Collins observes.

“My intuition is that introversion is going up. That’s just my intuitive sense,” she said. “I’ve been here for 15 years and teaching for 25, and I do find that in the classroom students are less social with one another. In many classrooms, you walk in, and it’s just completely silent, and everyone is on their phone.” 

In a post-COVID world, it appears that many people find comfort in their own isolation, including students at Moraine Valley.

“Before the pandemic, I felt a lot of pressure like, ‘You have to go make friends, you have to do this,’ but during the pandemic, it was like [being alone] was OK, and now outside of the pandemic I felt a pressure to be extroverted,” said honors student Mya Reyes. 

“And now I can go out, I can interact, but as soon as I’m done I have to be by myself. I have a whole recharge and it takes a few days of being by myself.”

Introverted and extroverted students alike appear to face challenges with social interactions in today’s climate.

“I feel like I really struggle with initiating interactions with people,” said MV student Breeana Torres. “People’s body language is so unfamiliar. I feel like people don’t know how to interact, so it’s like the fear of meeting new people.”

Lauzen-Collins explains that social anxiety is rising post-pandemic, and for many people, the idea of interacting with each other is daunting. 

My mom will go sit and talk to the checkout person and tell them her life story, and I’m like, ‘You should just tap your card and go!’”

Honors Student Mya Reyes

But what are the consequences of this rising isolation throughout society? Lauzen-Collins explains a theory popularized by social neuroscientist John Csapo.

“Because we are a social species, and we are prewired to have the drive to be with others, when we get the signal that we are alone and being rejected, that sets off an emergency signal and it impacts our mind and our body,” she said. “It does some interesting things to the body, like for example, we can’t sleep as well.

“If you think about the human species and where we would have been when we first evolved, we are in small groups and we’re hunter-gatherers. Being alone is a dangerous proposition in our evolutionary history. When you are chronically lonely, your sleep is frequently interrupted throughout the night because your brain is saying it is not safe to sleep you need to wake up.”

Lauzen-Collins argues that COVID didn’t necessarily start this shift toward loneliness, but it definitely accelerated existing trends such as “connecting with people through tech as opposed to connecting to people face-to-face.”

This trend has made it “more difficult it is to navigate things like anxiety, proper eye contact, and figuring out what to say in the moment versus taking time to cultivate a response.”

COVID marked a rise in several new forms of technology, including contactless food delivery, and a new era of self-checkouts in stores. Stores like Aldi and Walmart are switching almost entirely to a self-checkout-based model.

On campus, the White Sheep cafe is following these technology trends by installing a self-checkout kiosk in order to cut back on the number of employees working.

Photo by Aidan McGuire
A fully self-checkout Aldi recently opened at 11200 W. 179th St in Orland Park.

Moraine student Erick Vasquez said he likes self-checkouts because he can “get everything faster and smoother.”  

This new technology helps create a world catered to introverts and makes it easier than ever to avoid the small social interactions that can add up over time.

“I love technology, but I do think that it is driving people away from social situations and social encounters that may be uncomfortable and awkward but are necessary for us to keep those skills practiced,” Lauzen-Collins said.

She said these small social interactions like the one between a customer and cashier have an important effect on our day-to-day lives. Older people are more likely to choose to interact with a human, says one White Sheep barista, while with younger people, “the social interactions are way less.”

Reyes has had a similar experience: “My mom will go sit and talk to the checkout person and tell them her life story, and I’m like, ‘You should just tap your card and go!’”

Various professions have been impacted by this shift toward isolation post-COVID, including the film industry.

“I know that getting people in a room the way that writers’ rooms used to be in-person is less and less of a thing,” said Jenni Lamb-Hetherington, a Moraine adjunct professor and professional in the screenwriting industry.

The switch to Zoom for many creative meetings ultimately hurts the creative process, she said.

And in business in general, it is becoming more enticing to work from home. The New York Times reports on a study that shows that 12.2 percent of 50 million jobs mention working remotely in their descriptions. And as companies attempt to bring workers back to the office, workers like Starbucks corporate employees are speaking out and signing open letters against this.

Moraine business professor Daniel Dunne explains a recent study conducted by a company called Buildremote that helps support remote workers: “77 percent require a hybrid schedule for their employees–work some days in the office and the other days at home.  It seems three days in the office and two at home is common. I believe this is the trend now.”

Megan McKillen, an accountant at a private equity firm, says she thinks “COVID has entirely changed what it means to work from home.” She said this new isolation can be detrimental, especially to those just joining the working world.

“I am 34 and have a family of my own, and I almost welcomed the lack of forced office socialization,” she said. “I do, however, think the younger workforce is missing out. Some of my best days right out of college were spent at Friday happy hours with coworkers. It eased the transition of becoming a working professional.”

COVID has reshaped our understanding of being social and how we interact with the world around us. 

“Might we evolve to become a less social species?” Lauzen-Collins said. “It’s possible.”