What’s an Eatsa?
Earlier this month the DC branch of the fast-casual restaurant, Eatsa officially closed its doors. Eatsa, founded in 2015 and based in San Francisco has a unique business model that limits human interaction and separates the consumer from the producers of the product, which in this case happens to be salads. Often the debates surrounding tech innovation involve the displacement of workers and a net loss of jobs, but this particular model does not displace workers, rather it makes them invisible. People are still making the food, but hidden behind a wall. In the most real way, it reduces persons to mere means to an end[i]. Walking into Eatsa one is greeted by I –Pad kiosks where you can place your order. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for your food to appear in the futuristic wall of boxes.
Those who frequent Eatsa say the best part of it is that you don’t have to talk to anyone. The success that this chain has had in other locations seems as though many people would agree that human interaction is a burden. Eatsa is just one of any examples of tech making its way into the basic necessities of human life. These innovations paired with the values woven into our political system are rapidly exposing the weaknesses identified by the greatest thinkers in the American liberal tradition.
Eatsa by no means marks the downfall of liberalism, but that its general idea is so attractive points to shifting attitudes in American life about what is important and to put it more plainly, who is important. At Eatsa and other similar concepts, Postmates, and Uber Eats to name a few, the focus is solely on making the life of the consumer easier. These services, while helpful for the occasional group gathering, are really just enabling the individual staying at home to fall into deeper seclusion. Frequent users of these services will report that it’s not about being alone; it’s about time. These two things are not unrelated. The value many place on their personal time is only more indicative of our self-obsession problem. Is one person’s time so important that it requires the erasure of the people serving him or the elimination of the small inconveniences associated with face-to-face communication?
Liberal tradition is most threatened by the very things it holds most dear chief among them being the importance of the individual and the freedom and power with which he is endowed. Striking the correct balance between liberty and license is crucial in the continuation of liberalism rightly understood. The way our system of government is organized pushes persons to be increasingly efficient. The more efficient the better they are able to provide for their subsistence. However, atomized specialization brought about by the necessary division of labor makes persons become more and more dexterous at their own task at the expense of their intellectual, social, and martial virtues[ii].
Quintessential American Loneliness
As noted early on in the history of our nation[iii], Americans often reduce the art introspection and philosophizing to crude self-obsession. This tendency towards a ‘me’ culture is what often sets us apart from our fellow westerners. The American case stands apart from its other western counterparts in the way that it has so fully and rigorously embraced the individual. That aspect of the country’s nature is what has often made it so successful and allows for citizens freedom and the protection of their rights, however as is often the case, a good thing in excess can go bad. Individualism unchecked by accepted societal norms and tradition can be dangerous and if enabled by cultural and societal apathy can become parasitic anomie. Until this problem of sinister atomization is addressed we will continue to address the symptoms and not the root of this much larger problem of quintessential American loneliness. The consequences of this are being played out in a very real way. Since 1998 the mortality for non-Hispanic whites has risen with the majority of this increase coming from drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol-related deaths. Because of these “deaths of despair,” the U.S. has seen a decrease in life expectancy for the first time since the AIDS epidemic.
“To eat is necessity, to eat intelligently is an art”[iv]
Eatsa is not alone, however, it is unique in the affect it has had on the food industry. Eatsa’s patrons are not all dining alone, but the model encourages a ‘working lunch’, meaning many customers even those who dine in are unaccompanied with the exception of a phone or laptop.Eating is an essential part of human survival, and something that was almost always seen as a group activity from the gathering preparation stages to its consumption. Now the tradition of breaking bread has all but disappeared further aggravating the problems caused by the deepening isolation and division so characteristic of contemporary American society. The act of eating with others has been showed to reduce stress and the person’s perception of inequality[v]. Those who take time to sit and break bread in community come together under the common equalizer of fellowship. And all who believed were together had all things in common[vi].
Reduction in socialization especially around food adds to the problem of increased stress and general feelings of loneliness. 70 studies have shown that loneliness along with living alone has a significant effect on a persons risk for early death; loneliness alone can increase the odds of an early death by 26%. And what’s worse is that loneliness is on the rise. In the 1970’s and 80’s 11-20% of respondents to a survey said they regularly or frequently felt lonely. In 2010 a similar study found that feelings of loneliness at that point in time were as high as 45%[vii].
Are we doomed?
Probably. The tricky part about being alone is that of you’ve been conditioned to be alone its hard to know how to make genuine human connection, but there is a chance, although slim that we may be able to stave off our selfish navel gazing attitudes and overcome the monumental burden of communication. Sure the odds might be stacked against us, many of the minds behind the founding principles of our political system would agree. In order to fully abate the encroachment of a tutelary state and the danger of individualism, we must provide a counterweight to selfishness because “There is no vice of the human heart that agrees with despotism as much as selfishness”[viii]. Making a concerted effort to apply the concept of self-interest well understood can do this. This is best explained as the individual’s recognition that it is within his expanded long-term interest to ignore immediate interests. In this particular instance understanding that their time and the immediate satisfaction of their appetites can wait. By doing this, democratic persons know how to combine their own well-being with that of their fellow citizens. In the pursuit of his long-term interest the individual will abandon the temptation of selfishness and instead pursue “little sacrifices each day” [ix]until through habit they are brought closer to each other and to virtue.
[i] Kant, Immanuel, and Mary J. Gregor.Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2012. Print.
[ii] Smith, A. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
[iii] Tocqueville, A. ., Mansfield, H. C., & Winthrop, D. (2000). Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[iv] Francois de la Rochefauld
[v] Julier, Alice P.Eating together: food, friendship and inequality. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
[vi] Acts 2:42 – 46
[vii] Cacioppo, John T., and William Patrick.Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.
[viii] Alexis de Tocqueville
[ix] Alexis de Tocqueville