As an economist whose research focuses on regional economies, I have often wondered about the economic and social impacts of the movement to online retail and social engagement in general through online means and away from interactions among physical persons. As one whose graduate degrees are in political economy, I am aware of the close connections between politics, a well-functioning government, and the functioning of the economy. Like many U.S. citizens, I am also increasingly concerned about the acrimony of our political environment in the U.S., especially, but also around the world.
I am reading Brene Brown’s, Braving the Wilderness, and among the many great insights in the book, she makes the point that we have a human need for “inextricable connection.”
All of these examples of collective joy and pain are sacred experiences. They are so deeply human that they cut through our differences and tap into our hardwired nature. These experiences tell us what is true and possible about the human spirit. We need these moments with strangers as reminders that despite how much we might dislike someone on Facebook or even in person, we are still inextricably connected. And it doesn’t have to be a big moment with thousands of strangers. We can be reminded of our inextricable connection after talking with a seatmate on a two-hour flight.
The problem is that we don’t show up for enough of these experiences. We clearly need them. But it’s vulnerable to lean in to that kind of shared joy and pain. We armor up. We shove our hands into our pockets during the concert or we roll our eyes at the dance or put our headphones on rather than get to know someone on the train (Brown, 2017, pp. 128-129).
The disrupting or tearing apart of these connections not only has social ramifications, but it also has economic effects that are not good. One of the key lessons I took away from the book is that it is easy to hate and spread nonsense when you can hide behind email and social media. One of her chapter titles summarizes it perfectly: “People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In” (p. 63).
Reading the book highlighted one of the concerns I have been thinking about with respect to the effects of moving our everyday economic transactions and engagement with others both socially and economically to the online world. I took from Dr. Brown’s discussion that as this social disruption continues, the lack of personal engagement will decline as brick and mortar stores go out of business. Even though the interactions we have as we shop at one of these stores might be brief, it seems to me that they are very important per the points Dr. Brown makes as previously highlighted. As we lose these physical in-person interactions, it seems to me that it only exacerbates our vitriolic political climate, which is not good for our economic future.
Additionally, we may also lose the benefits and efficiencies that come from clusters of people (be they large or small numbers) engaging with one another in person. These are called agglomerations economies in economics. One of the biggest benefits that comes from these interactions are the transmission of ideas that lead to innovations that facilitate business growth, new business creation, and ultimately, economic development. Some argue that these can occur just as well in an online environment, and to some extent they do. What gets missed is the richness of the discussions that occur when in the physical presence of others that do not occur in an online environment. Sometimes (often times?), this just happens serendipitously as we wander the streets or engage in our daily activities – including our consumer activities at physical stores.
As usual, Dr. Brown states the importance of the physical interactions much more eloquently than I do.
As I started digging into this question [i.e., Is social media a toll to achieve collective joy and pain or more for the spreading of hate, unfounded statements, and picture of cute animals?] with research participants, there was very little ambiguity It became clear that face-to-face connection is imperative in our true belonging practice. Not only did face-to-face contact emerge as essential from the participant data in my research, but studies across the world confirm those findings. Social media are helpful in cultivating connection only to the extent that they’re used to create real community where there is structure, purpose, and meaning, and some face-to-face contact.
One of the most well-respected researchers in this area is Susan Pinker. In her book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier, Pinker writes, “In a short evolutionary time, we have changed from group-living primates skilled at reading each other’s every gesture and intention to a solitary species, each one of us preoccupied with our own screen.” Based on studies across diverse fields, Pinker concludes that there is no substitute for in-person interactions. They are proven to bolster our immune system, send positive hormones surging through our bloodstream and brain, and help us live longer. Pinker adds, “I call this building your village, and building it as a matter of life or death.”
…Social media are great for developing community, but for true belonging, real connection and real empathy require meeting real people in a real space in real time (Brown, 2017, pp. 140-141).
To be clear, I am not against shopping online or the internet or social media. I do my share of shopping online and certainly use the internet and social media, but I do think there are negative consequences for the economy that we need to keep in mind. One of these negative consequences is that it reduces our physical interactions with others, which reduces our understanding and tolerance of others. This leads to an inability to have reasonable and productive public debates and a dysfunctional democracy. Whether you love or dislike the government, a poorly functioning government has serious negative consequences for economic development. This lack of face-to-face interaction may also stifle the benefits of agglomerations economies, which could also slow economic development. In other words, the demise of online retail seems to be more than just structural changes happening in the economy. The reduction in face-to-face interactions leads to destructive social problems and slower development of the economy.
Just something to keep in mind as many of us consider where to shop at the end of the holiday season and spend all of those gift cards afterwards. Now, out the door I go to finish my last minute holiday shopping.
May you enjoy the season with those you love.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.