“We can do all of this by phone and telex”
In the 1983 film Local Hero, Mac (Macintyre) was sent to Scotland to buy a village, so that his employer, a global oil and gas company, could build an oil refinery on the ridiculously picturesque Scottish coastline. Instead, Mac fell in love with the village, the scenery, the people, the northern night skies and the lifestyle of the place. He couldn’t complete the deal as originally planned, and returned to Houston. But, the final scene suggests that he hadn’t really left the town of Ferness.
The movie didn’t make much of an impact at the box office, but its warmth, charm, and subtle messages of empathy and understanding make it a continuing favourite of many. Al Gore apparently named Local Hero as his favourite movie, perhaps because of its fit within a narrative of environmental stewardship (the oil refinery gave way to a marine institute). The real charm of Local Hero, however, is in its gentle presentation of a narrative whereby Mac realizes that there is much more to life than his Porsche 930, his watch alerting him to conference calls, and an apartment full of high-end quadrophonic audio equipment (the 80s, remember?). The movie presents a storyline whereby Mac starts mixing directly with the locals, and emerges far better for the experience. In a time when we seem to be using technology to reduce and even eliminate human contact from our daily lives, it’s a theme worth revisiting.
Mac is a deal maker for Knox Oil and Gas. His preference for dealing remotely is evident from the first scenes of the movie. He resists traveling to Scotland to sew up the purchase of land for the refinery, arguing with a colleague that he’s more of a telex guy (yes, the 80s) and “could fix the deal in an afternoon on the phone.” He phones a woman to ask her out for a drink before he heads overseas – the camera pans back to reveal that she is actually in the next office, and they talk briefly on the phone while looking at each other through the glass partition between their offices. In short, Mac prefers distance – he’s not one for personal face-to-face interaction.
One of the early drafts of the movie screenplay did not contain the scene where Mac talks to his office neighbour by phone – that was added later. It’s as if director Bill Forsythe wanted to emphasize the theme of Mac’s detachment from those around him. Interestingly, the draft also did not include the final scene of the movie, where a simple image of a ringing phone box on a jetty on the Scottish coast invokes feelings of both regret and hope.
Skip ahead 35 years. We don’t do business with telexes anymore, but we do have tablets, smartphones and even watches that allow us to conduct everyday transactions with a few clicks on a keypad, or sometimes with just a wave of the hand. We have more and more ways to cut personal contact out of daily life. We can now order and pay for our morning coffee online, and pick it from the counter without having to converse with a cashier or barista. We can order groceries online, and collect them from a locker on the way home, without having to come face-to-face with anyone at the supermarket. We can shop for clothes and household items in our living rooms, and if Amazon has its way, take delivery by drone. If we rent a car, we can “go straight to the car without having to deal with any human.” We’re given every opportunity to avoid coming into direct contact with those who provide our food, deliver our goods, take our money, etc. And, with the frenzied development of digital services, many more opportunities will be introduced.
The concept of social wellness is relevant here. Social wellness is described as one’s ability to interact effectively with the people around us. It includes engagement with others in the community, the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships, and the treatment of others with trust and respect. It’s important. And obviously, when our lifestyle increasingly involves the avoidance of social interactions, social wellness will suffer.
As for the technology, it is here and is not going to go away. However, we can decide when to use it, how to use it, and how to balance convenience with social wellness. There is indeed a trade-off. We’re inherently social animals, but our eagerness to cut out basic social interactions enables us to become more and more anti-social. As Sherry Turkle, among others, has commented, we are losing the ability or even the desire to converse with one another. Texting is preferred to talking, and broadcasting via social media substitutes for conversation. And increasingly, activities that would always have provided opportunities for a face-to-face meeting, however brief, now give way to a digital transaction devoid of any direct contact.
There are consequences to taking humans out of the processes. Without contact, we don’t develop empathy for or understanding of others. Empathy is seen as an essential quality for success, whether it be in business, family life, or interpersonal relationships. There has been a significant and measurable drop in empathy corresponding to the rise in use of digital communications. When communicating through a smartphone, we can’t read or respond to others’ body language or emotions effectively. We also can’t develop a sense of community, which is also no surprise when we try as much as possible to avoid having to deal with living breathing people.
It’s fairly obvious that convenience comes at a price – of social wellness. This isn’t a new theme, but it’s interesting that it can be found buried in a 35 year-old movie about a Texas yuppie discovering himself in a small Scottish village.
What would happen if, like Mac, we were forced to interact with the people surrounding us? Maybe we’ll discover that life’s a lot better when we actually experience it. Maybe we’ll find that we have a much healthier sense of community when we actually come into contact with the people in that community.
As for the convenience of online retail, pick-and-pay options, and other automated service models, there are choices to be made. At some point maybe there will be a backlash against the more impersonal elements of modern day e-commerce, as we realize that a life well-lived involves a wide variety of human interactions – experienced directly. Life should include dealing with people without reliance on a technological intermediary or surrogate.
Maybe it’s time for a call to that phone box in Ferness.
Macintyre: Give me a 42 year-old whisky.
Roddy: We’ve none of that tonight, Mr. Mac.
Macintyre: Well, give me four eight-year-olds and a ten-year-old.
Roddy: Aye, that adds up.