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The dehumanization of Uber

| Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The habit is hard to break. The addiction is fueled further everyday. The routine is frighteningly predictable.

For any college student, it goes something like this: enter the classroom, take off your coat, unlock your phone — if it’s not already unlocked — and do whatever it is that we all spend countless hours doing on our devices. Silence ensues. Dozens of students, some of the best and brightest, sit like robots, zombies even, enslaved to the small, yet powerful screens. 

You’d think those who claim to possess an eagerness to learn and to experience would have somewhat of a desire to talk to their equally-as-intelligent peers sitting only inches away. You’d think they would take hold of an opportunity to chat during the five to 10 minutes before the hour and a half lecture begins. And you’d think they would realize that it is from conversing with others — no matter how short or long a conversation is — that we become more wholly educated. 

The truth is, I think most people do acknowledge these things, but the phone seems to be mightier than the mind in far too many instances these days.

Why engage in small talk when you could read up on impeachments and royal family scandals, comb through your continual influx of texts and emails or listen to that new song again even though you’ve had it on repeat for days now? Our choices are made on the basis of maximal convenience and productivity. And the safety net, go-to conversation of the ever-present South Bend permacloud isn’t exactly a conversation anyone’s dying to have at 8:20 in the morning.

I get it. I do it, too. What I’m really getting at is that this tendency to shy away from the smallest of human interactions, like small talk before a class, is a slippery slope to head down. 

This is why when Uber launched a new ride option allowing customers to request a “quiet ride,” I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. As part of the Uber Comfort option, riders can control car temperatures, enjoy extra legroom, and make requests about the conversations, or lack thereof, during their ride. Talking to strangers is not, by any means, my forte, but I would like to think I wouldn’t pay a higher fare to have my Uber driver take a vow of temporary silence while he, a fellow human, transports me to my destination. 

We are a population of people so dedicated to ridding our lives of nuisances and anything mildly annoying. We don’t like to take the long way home. We would rather avoid a trip to the store by having a truck deliver us our fresh produce. Using one of our two feet to step on the gas and brake pedals? Too difficult – let’s develop a car that drives itself. A driver who talks? I mean, I’d rather not… 

After some initial backlash this past spring, the company defended their new feature by claiming that it was all a part of their efforts to achieve an overall “elevated” riding experience. When you think about it, the option could actually be useful. Some people may feel uncomfortable answering a complete stranger’s questions about themselves, where they’re going, etc. Sometimes customers wish to sleep or catch up on other tasks during longer Uber rides.

Then there are people (like me) who do sometimes just enjoy the peace and quiet of a car ride or the alone time before the start of a class. But there has to be a line between enjoying silence and necessitating it. The ”quiet ride” preference allows an awkward silence to become a mandated silence, but we have to ask ourselves: is this what we want? 

Dehumanization — that’s what it is. People are becoming closer friends with their phones than with other humans. A phone knows all your secrets, the people you interact with most, your every move, your favorite songs.

Every time we stick those little, white, music-channeling buds in our ears in an effort to escape our obligation of speaking to others nearby in an airport, in an Uber or before a class, we are contributing to the epidemic. Maybe the conversation with your Uber driver that you just forbid could have been one of the more interesting, enlightening conversations you’ve had in a while. Maybe they share in your love of cheeseburgers and recommend a hidden gem of a restaurant or maybe you two bond over a shared favorite TV show. Maybe you simply learn something new about another person, and you’re a little bit better off because of it. 

I’m not here to preach. I’m not here to say that we must all fight to break our already established habits. I do think, however, that sometimes — not always — it’s worth leaving the AirPods in your backpack. Sometimes, it’s worth asking your peers sitting next to you how their days are going. And sometimes, it’s worth not requesting a “quiet ride.” 

Meghan Cappitelli is a freshman studying Economics and English at the University of Notre Dame. A native of Long Island, New York, she enjoys running, procrastinating, and eating ice cream for dinner. She can be reached at [email protected] or @meghancapp on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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