Uber’s quiet ride option is a warning: we are falling victims to convenience
Uber has launched a quiet ride service in the US, which means that passengers can request that a driver refrain from talking to them during their trip. The quiet ride feature is available in Uber’s premium Black service.
If you’re reading this thinking, “Great, now rich people have even less reason to talk to people outside their bubble of wealth,” then you’re not alone. Uber passengers will be exposed to even fewer diverse experiences, and will stop hearing stories that reach into their hearts and knock on the door of their empathy.
And I hate this. Not just because we need to hear stories and talk to people from diverse backgrounds, but because it’s a signal that we’ve fallen prey to the idea that nuisance or bother is an undesirable aspect to our lives, that everything must be faster, smoother, quieter. It’s a warning that we are falling victims to convenience.
We are not to be interrupted, or embarrassed, or disturbed. The child crying on a flight? An outrage. A crappy Netflix suggestion? Abhorrent. The overly chatty shop assistant? Daft! Now, believe me, I judge not. I am as irritated and wound up as the rest of them. Convenience is addictive, it leaves me craving more and more simplicity.
You can outsource pretty much every aspect of irritation in your lives. But you can’t outsource loneliness, or pain. Like a dystopian sci-fi plotline, we are allowing Silicon Valley to make our lives as convenient and seamless as possible. We are in the process of bidding farewell to dragging toddlers around a speciality shop in search of a particular item; these days a mindless nudge of a button brings it to our door in record time, swathed in protective foam, products birthed from the algorithmic womb of the internet.
Think about that for a moment – all the things we are rarely or no longer doing. Soon we will not be driving in traffic, or waiting for a bus, we will not search for a parking spot, we will not pace up and down the aisles of a supermarket, we will not wait in the checkout queue. It’s a wonderful dream, not having to do all of these mundane, boring things. We are exceptional individuals, profoundly busy ones. Our time is of utmost importance, so it’s best if we’re not wasting it finding the right light bulb. Convenience, suddenly, is a commodity in and of itself. A mechanism to avoid other people and boredom and annoyance and frustration. These are bad things, we’re told. What could possibly come of being bored and frustrated? And why on earth should we have to deal with people that we don’t know? We hate small talk. It’s meaningless, futile. It’s an expression of intellectual mediocrity and an absence of real connection. Except that, well, it’s not.
Studies have shown that regular interactions with weak ties, or acquaintances, can drastically improve your mental health and feelings of connectedness. So while we might think there’s no point waiting around at our local coffee shop when you can pre-order your flat white on an app, studies prove us wrong. Baristas, cashiers, yoga teachers – these are all people that might recognise you, and people that are worth talking to, even if it’s just a quick nod of the head.
But there’s an app for everything now, which means no more phone calls to the pizza shop, no chit-chat while waiting for the bus. The little white earbuds, and their more aggressive, noise-cancelling cousins, are shielding us from this terrible outside world.
And we are lonelier than ever. Our communities are disintegrating, whether it’s the corner store bought by a billionaire developer or churches being replaced by Instagram or the fact that I have never met or even seen my nextdoor neighbour. We are at a crisis point.
A few days ago, earphones already locked into my ears, I climbed into the back seat of an Uber, ready to listen to a podcast in peace on my ride home. To my frustration, the driver got talking. He wanted to practice his English on me. I relaxed and engaged, and we had a pleasant 15-minute conversation about rental prices, Germany and gentrification. This conversation didn’t change my life, but when I arrived home I felt light, happy. I smiled and laughed with my driver. The small talk reminded me of generosity and graciousness that exists in humanity, and that is something worth being reminded of.
I would argue that we actually need to be inconvenienced, frequently. We know we need to connect with other human beings instead of shouting into the echo chamber of Facebook and Twitter, but do we know that strangers fall into this category? We need the fleeting intimacy and bad jokes and exaggerated smiles that come with conversing with an Uber driver much more than the promise of a silent chauffeur, whizzing us through the city while we check our never-ending stream of DMs and emails and WhatsApps.
So, instead of plugging in your AirPods and listening to a podcast on how to better connect with your loved ones, or how to market your startup, or how to be as productive as humanly possible, try something new. Make small talk. Make eye contact. Perhaps give a non-creepy smile to someone that looks like they need it. Walk to the train station without distraction, taking in the smells and sounds of your town. And for goodness sake, have a chat to your Uber driver. You never know, you might even enjoy it.
• Penelope Blackmore is a former Olympic gymnast and the co-host of the Happy Hour Career Talk podcast