Continuing in the vein of my previous post about dropping out of the digital age, I have been thinking a lot about what gets lost when we automate everything. The example I gave of walking into a Panera Bread and ordering from a screen reminds me that in small ways every day, we have the opportunity to make a personal connection or keep ourselves isolated. Not only does my choice to order my lunch from a live human being make for a more enriching experience for me, but it helps someone keep a job.
Automation has been costing jobs in all manner of manufacturing concerns for decades now. Even businesses touted for building plants here in the U.S. use very little human labor. And it’s hard to argue with the efficiency of making things more quickly, more perfectly, and at a cheaper cost. But automation is also affecting the service industry in many ways: ATMs at banks, self-serve kiosks at grocery stores, automated phone systems – all serve to keep us from having to speak to other people.
The other day I was recalling the job my older sisters had during high school. They worked as Directory Assistance operators for Bell Telephone Company. Back before dialing 411 led to an impersonal and sometimes frustrating exercise in using voice recognition software to find a phone number, my sisters had huge telephone directories that they would flip through and scan as quickly as possible to find the numbers for businesses and residences all across Chicagoland. The job was demanding, and their employer exacting. But there were benefits to this “old school” style of providing directory assistance. Sometimes callers weren’t quite sure of the name of a business or had only a vague idea of the address associated with the person they were trying to reach. My sisters, with their encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago and its environs, could find the requested number by asking a few good questions. The personal touch helped them help customers.
The personal touch is something I think we need to retain in a society that is increasingly alienating in so many ways. It can help a young woman find the perfect dress for an occasion. It can help me decide which entree to choose on a large restaurant menu. It can give a person who is lost and in distress not only direction, but also sympathy and solidarity. Most importantly, having personal interactions with strangers every day can bring us out of our isolation and make us happier.
With the alarming increase in suicides in our culture, the last thing we need is to be isolated from other human beings. We are social creatures in need of conversation, touch, and the so-called niceties of regular human interaction. Sure, I may get through the line more quickly if I use the automated service. But I’ll take the human contact, however flawed and imperfect, any time.