THE EMPATHY (R)EVOLUTION AND THE BACKLASH TO AI IN TRAVEL

“Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”

It’s heartbreaking melancholy, but as a civilisation we’re at peak jaded. Nostalgia-tinted glasses hail everything pre-social media as superior, and yet we can’t resist the next Instagram. ‘LOOK HOW MUCH FUN I’M HAVING.’  The quote above comes via Theodore Twombly, the despondent protagonist in Spike Jonze’s science-fiction romance, Her – a film that on first glance appears absurdly futuristic, yet is really an unnerving near-now that only ever-so-slightly notches up the surreality of our already-now. In it, Joaquin Phoenix’s Twombly falls deeply in love with his AI companion, voiced by a husky Scarlett Johansson.

Reviewing Her on its release, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis leaves us with a poignant summary of both the film and the Silicon Valley-driven runaway train we’re all on board: “the great question isn’t whether machines can think, but whether human beings can still feel.”

Havana's WiFi junkies. Photo, James Davidson
Havana’s WiFi junkies, photo by James Davidson

Which takes me to a shady public park in central Havana, fidgety souls flickering in the shadows. I’ve been in situations like this before — London, Berlin, Barcelona, and beyond: a local approaches and, in hushed tones, mutters: “y’wanna buy something?”. Difference is, this ‘something’ is one hour of WiFi. Post-revolution Cuba offers an acute metaphor for the collective addiction we’ve all rapidly succumbed to. Here, internet is a drug. Those fidgety souls are clutching smartphones and tablets, accessing Facebook and Instagram in one of the few points in the city they can; putting their state-allowed hours to use (those who aren’t selling them to tourists).

Outside of these WiFi zones is where I fend off my inner-Theodore Twombly. Here in Havana, free from the constant lure of that buzzing brick in my pocket, I feel. I feel a version of what I’ve already felt, but it is not a lesser version. I’m hurtled back to the 1990s, where strangers spoke to one another and the only person I shared what I was doing with was the person I was actually with. I’m a hopeless romantic, but I can’t help feel this disconnect was the reason Cubans are such damn nice people.

Of course, there’s a much bigger picture behind the Cuban psyche, and a dark side to the limitations imposed on the country’s people, but as I walk for miles through neighbourhoods in the early hours of the morning, the smiling faces of Havana’s helpful locals become my Google Maps. “The Cuban people might not have much money”, one tells me, “but we’re peaceful, easy-going.” To that I can attest; the family who run the casa particular I’m staying in are laid-back to the point of horizontal. But without the demands of the modern age, why shouldn’t they be?

Casa Particular. Photo, James Davidson
Casa Particular in Havana, photo by James Davidson

The casa particulares (private houses) are the result of a government shift in 1997 that allowed locals to rent out rooms to tourists; they’re the original Airbnb, the pre-creative class opportunity to ‘live like a local’. Naturally, you won’t really be living like the locals — who earn around $50 per month — but it’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in their world. In a way, it’s an opportunity to experience time travel – our landlady cackles away on the phone (an actual landline, with a cable and everything) for hours. To experience Cuba is to reconnect with connection. To rediscover empathy.

It’s fitting that one of the first major American movements into the country is a company founded on reconnection; a company whose passionate CEO has flighty notions to bring people together. “With Airbnb”, begins Apple’s design giant, Jony Ive, of Brian Chesky, “he’s helped create millions of personal connections. That’s an achievement that even the best hotels in the world should envy.” Indeed it is, for hotels are increasingly looking to minimise connection with their public. We have Japan’s Henn-na, the world’s fist robot-staffed hotel; Yotel New York’s luggage-shifting YOBOT; the Starwood Hotels-trialled Botlr, a smartphone-controlled pint-sized pal to deliver snacks or toiletries to your room; online check-ins and iPhone-enabled locks to avoid any type of human interaction. As artificial intelligence edges ever closer to Spike Jonze’s imagination, we’re losing the very thing that sets us apart from machines.

Yotel’s YOBOT
Yotel’s YOBOT

Did you know Airbnb gets its name from three inflatable beds that Chesky and his friends used to sleep attendees of an international design conference? With $1,000 to his name, the budding entrepreneur was capitalising on San Francisco’s hotel shortage, and ‘Air Bed and Breakfast’ was born. Three designers were hosted, and it is here that the young tech-wizard’s flighty notions were born. “While these three people were living with us, we had realised that the normal arc of a friendship, that takes years to build, took a few days when people were living with you in your home.”

“You normally don’t get to know people this quickly in the real world — in contrast, the time it takes to develop longstanding relationships is longer. One of the guests who stayed with us invited me to his wedding; one of the other ones changed his whole career trajectory because of that trip.” That was 2007 and this is now: robots on check-in, and smartphone-enabled foot massages.

If you want to know why Airbnb has been such a runway success since those humble beginnings; why its Trips experience platform has been given such a major role to play; why the hip hostel concept and co-working spaces are of such appeal to the creative class; why savvy hotels are devising cultural programmes that put guests in front of local creatives… spend a week in Havana. Failing that, put your phone on airplane mode and ask a stranger a question. What’s the worst that could happen?

Airbnb Trips

Well, for those of us who have chosen the path of the digital nomads, the worst might be the true Cuban experience: $50 a month. Like it or not, we live in the digital age and these pulsating planks of aluminium and sapphire glass in our pockets pay the bills (or at least the folk behind the emails you’ve missed after a week on airplane mode do). What we need is a way to sing in harmony with the technology that surrounds us and tangible relationships we crave.

Those who travel regularly alone will be familiar with the digital comfort blanket, the saviour of awkward social situations; after all, you’re not dining solo if you have your thousands of Instagram followers at hand, are you? Mexico City-based Grupo Habita thinks the ‘Gram is a key to shared experiences that can enrich your travels — add your handle during the booking process at Chicago’s The Hollander, and they’ll do the rest. “We like to describe it as a social stay — a place where social media becomes physical”, explains founder Carlos Couturier. “You can share your Instagram account when booking, share a room with other guests, and share the hotel’s social spaces — a café, bar, bike rental shop and laundry room — with locals.”

The Hollander, Chicago
The Hollander, Chicago

It’s an evolution, not a revolution. A nice marketing take on a concept that has already become commonplace in the hip neighbourhoods of big cities around the world. But it is a step in what is very much the right direction. So many follows and likes and comments, but how many real-world meetings, enriching experiences? “Let’s be real”, asserts The Hollander. “Working alone on a laptop in the middle of a hip hotel lobby is far from being social. The key to a social stay is meeting other guests from around the world through shared experiences.” You’re going to need to let go of that comfort blanket.

Whilst there’s so much more that the travel industry can do to rediscover personality amid the march of technology, there are already plenty of great hotels doing great things with their communal spaces — inviting locals and travellers alike to interact, share experiences and reconnect with the human touch. Ultimately, though, the empathy revolution begins with you. Are you ready to let go? “I’ve just come to realise”, affirms Twombly’s pal Amy in one of Her’s most quotable scenes, “we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I wanna allow myself joy.” Forget that last refresh of your feed. Look up from the screen. Allow yourself joy.


James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.