Contact Phobia – The growing fear of human touch and our shift towards a contactless world
Over the past couple weeks we’ve been beat over the head with phrases like social distancing, wash your hands, shelter at home, wear your mask, and disinfect everything. These messages have left us with an overarching fear of touching…. virtually anything.
In fact, my wife now has a set routine for every delivery, grocery store pickup, or any outside surface we come into contact with – she disinfects everything. We have unleashed our “inner germ-a-phobe” and the value of the human touch has sunk to less than zero. Touching things is bad, and our new “contact phobia” will manifest itself in unusual ways.
Much of this will play out in the way we send and receive packages in the future.
In 2015, I was asked to keynote the Annual Turkish Postal Symposium in Antalya, Turkey, an event focused on the future of the postal industry, where thought leaders from around the world gathered to discuss next-generation postal systems.
I focused my talk around a central question – “How long will it be before we can mail a package and have it travel to a city on the other side of the world without ever being touched by human hands?”
The example I used was a package traveling from Istanbul to San Francisco, arriving without human contact.
While it seemed like more of a science fiction vision of the future at the time, it has become all too real today.
Thinking through the path of automation, and especially now, I find this to be a logical transition in the future. Once we set a package into motion, it will essentially guide itself to its final destination by way of a completely automated global distribution network.
The changing psychology of human nature
The threat of contagion has twisted our psychological responses to ordinary interactions, leading us to behave in unexpected ways.
Rarely has the threat of disease occupied so much of our thinking.
For weeks, almost every newspaper has posted front-page stories about the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, every radio and TV show has back-to-back coverage on the growing number of cases and death toll. And depending on whom you follow on social media, frightening statistics coupled with gallows humor becomes the topic of every conversation.
This constant bombardment by the media has resulted in heightened levels of anxiety, massively influencing our own mental health. But it goes far deeper than that.
It’s leaving psychological imprints so deep that many of us have become “super judgy,” critical of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to our own personal rules of compliance. As we search for ways to survive, we become more tribalistic and less accepting of any foibles or proclivities.
Our moral judgment has moved to the extremes as we become harsher in our social attitudes, and more traditionalist when considering issues such as immigration, sexual freedom, and equality. These daily reminders of disease do indeed sway our political leanings.
Ten Scary Trends being created by “Contact Phobia”
Recent studies have shown that when we fear a virus or pandemic, we tend to be more critical of others. This comes into play when we hear an employee badmouthing his or her company, or when we see someone disrespect an authoritative figure such as a boss or judge.
Naturally, incidents like these have nothing to do with the spread of the disease, but by dissing conventional thinking, people give off signals that they’re willing to break other more relevant rules that are needed to keep the disease at bay.
Our fear of illness is also physiologically expensive. These changing attitudes that stem from our fear of the human touch, will cause a number of ominous and risky shifts in global behavior.
Keep in mind, any number of changing variables can alter these trends, but based on our current temperaments, these become a logical direction for our future.
1. Shrinking world view
A growing concern of contagions will lead us to ‘gain control’ and become more conformist and less accepting of attitudes outside the norm. Our ethical judgements become more rigid and our political, religious, and sexual attitudes more conservative.
Our behavioral immune system operates on a ‘better safe than sorry’ logic, altering our moral decision-making and political opinions on issues that have nothing to do with the current threat.
The post-pandemic world will be marked by tighter restrictions on the movement of goods, services, capital, labor, technology, data, and information.
4. Growing anti-immigration sentiments
Besides making us more critical of the people within our own social groups, the threat of disease is also leading us to be more distrustful of strangers.
5. Fear of trying something new
Those who worry about illness tend to prefer “conventional” or “traditional” individuals, and less likely to feel an affinity towards “creative” or “artistic” people.
6. Longer-term personal relationships
In a recent study, a reminder to wash hands led participants to be more judgmental of unconventional mannerisms and sexual behaviors. By extension, adventuresome lifestyles are out and marriage will suddenly be back in vogue.
7. Longer-term business relationships
In general, we become more conformist and respectful of convention when we feel the threat of a disease, and less likely to do business with someone we don’t know.
8. Democracy backlash
Government becomes the new whipping boy. Economic weakness, mass unemployment, and rising inequality will lead to blaming foreigners, openness, and elected officials for the crisis. Blue-collar workers and broader segments of the middle class will become more susceptible to populist rhetoric, particularly proposals to restrict migration and trade.
9. Growing risk of deflation
As the recession deepens, a lower demand for goods will mean unused machines, factories, and over capacity. Mass unemployment will drive a price collapse in commodities such as oil and industrial metals, making deflationary debt a strong likelihood, increasing the risk of insolvency.
10. Demographic time bomb
With much more public spending being allocated to health systems, a universal health care approach becomes a necessity, not a luxury. But since most developed countries are having fewer kids and increased lifespans, funding these programs will make the rapidly accumulating debts from today’s unfunded health-care and social-security systems appear even more ominous.
Mailing a package in 2030
It’s hard to imagine so many things being affected by the human touch, but that’s exactly what’s happening. And the leading barometer of change will be the way we send and receive deliveries.
So what will it be like to mail a letter or package ten years from now?
As I envision the process, the person sending an item will simply place it outside their front door, and take a photo of it with a special shipping app on their phone. This will start the process, detailing the package size, dimensions, and GPS coordinates, and the sender will add particulars such as destination, level of urgency and weight category (i.e. under 10 lbs). Within minutes, a robotic pickup service will arrive, retrieve the package, and load it onto a drone delivery vehicle.
While the sender will know the approximate price when they put it into the app, they will get exact pricing once the package is picked up, along with tracking details, and exact time of delivery.
Since packages come in a variety of shapes and sizes, it’s reasonable to assume limits on the size and the weight, both on the high end as well as the low end. As example, a package the size of a grain of salt or as light as a helium balloon will need to be in a larger package. On the larger end of the spectrum, mailing items like furniture, exercise equipment, or motorcycles will require a different kind of delivery service altogether.
In addition to size and weight issues will be a series of legal requirements for shipping restricted items like alcohol, pharmaceuticals, cannabis, live animals, biohazard materials, or products with special handling requirements like fragile glass, frozen food, or sensitive instruments. Establishing limits, rules, and standards will be part of the overarching strategy needed to develop this emerging global system.
Today’s delivery systems place a heavy emphasis on using a standardized shipping label for every package, however the label itself could be produced by the delivery service and coded onto the package once it’s been picked up. In some cases, it may be beneficial to work with specialty sensor labels to track the condition of sensitive contents in real time.
Retrieving a package from someone’s front door presents a huge number of engineering challenges.
First, the robot will have to travel to and from where the package is. Obstacles could include stairs, trees, broken sidewalks, no sidewalk, dogs, cats, squirrels, snakes, rain, hail, snow, children, rocks, and mud to name just a few.
The package could be square, round, triangle, rectangle, or an odd shape that is hard to describe, but it shouldn’t matter. Once picked up, every package will be rewrapped in an ultra-thin shipping material that is waterproof and virus-proof.
Robotic retrieval bots will be trained to compensate for fences, gates, security guards, locked doors, motion detectors, nosey neighbors, piles of leaves, or overgrown lawns.
Naturally, timing will be an issue. Food deliveries will demand immediate attention, but for everything else, a package left outside for 2 minutes will generally be fine, but one left exposed to the elements for 30-60 minutes could have any number of things go wrong. For this reason, the relatively simple task of retrieving a package can be riddled with complexity.
The missing pieces
Naturally there are many missing pieces to the fully automated global system that will eventually be created.
1. Smart Deliver Boxes
A huge opportunity awaiting the first person to create a globally accepted, robo-dockable mailbox and universally protective package-wrap.
2. Universal Mailing Labels
Labels will monitor both the package’s location and the condition of its content.
3. Robotic Customs Agents
There will always be a need to inspect and monitor package contents to prevent the distribution of illegal items.
4. Trained Human Operators
As a system designed “by humans for humans,” there will still need to be a number of skilled human operators to monitor operations and step in whenever something goes wrong.
The list above is intended to highlight a few opportunities, but admittedly glosses over many of the details and intricacies involved in developing a complete global system. Over time the need for boxes and packaging will decline and disappear altogether as super smart systems know how to deal with every object on an individual basis.
In a recent webinar on the future of the airline industry, one corporate exec said they were trying to create a touchless experience from the curb to the gate.
While it’s hard to imagine a touchless airport experience, it’s equally as hard imagining going to touchless grocery stores, touchless fitness centers, touchless dentists, touchless chiropractors, touchless nursing homes, and touchless daycare centers.
Arising from the middle of all this contact phobia will be a growing number of counter-activists thumbing their nose at touchless-advocates, demanding the right to return to a human-centered existence.
After all, researchers have demonstrated countless times that the human touch contains several health benefits for our physiological and psychological well being.
Hugging induces oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” that’s renowned for reducing stress, lowering cortisol levels and increasing our sense of trust and security. According to researchers at the University of North Carolina, women who receive more hugs from their partners have lower heart rates, blood pressure, and higher levels of oxytocin.
The human touch in all its forms, hugging, hand holding, cuddling, and simply caressing a forehead, has been shown to be super beneficial, health-wise, physically and emotionally.
Ironically, the same kind of human touch that may have triggered the coronavirus in the first place, may be exactly what gives us back enough control of our lives to end it.
If you have additional thoughts, ideas, or comments, please feel free to add to the conversation.