Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock; I am an island.
– “I Am a Rock” by Paul Simon
In Paul Simon’s song “I Am a Rock” the speaker tells us that he is perfectly contented living inside four walls without any human interaction. Simon creates a chilling, somber portrait of a person who believes that he needs no one and selectively chooses to be alone. We want to feel sympathy for the character, but he convincingly lets us know otherwise – “And a rock feels no pain/And an island never cries.”
For human beings it is normal to want to be around other people and to want to interact with them; it’s in our DNA to be social, but these days banks and retailers are making things more difficult and are hurting people in more ways than one.
The specter of self-service checkout, online shopping, and mobile ordering looms heavily over the American worker. This push for automation means human beings are losing their jobs as stores schedule less people to take cash and perform customer service, thereby trying to force customers to use self-checkout to avoid insufferably long lines.
Besides the impact on our communities of people losing their livelihoods, the other damaging effect of automation is the feeling of isolation. We can go out and do our banking, shopping, and eating and never have to interact with another human being.
This happened to me yesterday. I went to the bank and there was only one teller; therefore, despite my strong disapproval of automation, I was forced to use the ATM because I was pressed for time to get to a dentist appointment. The line was so long it appeared as if they were giving stuff away. Obviously, the management is encouraging us to use the ATM to save money on salaries, but I enjoy speaking with the teller and thanking him or her after I am done. The savings on salaries means little if the cost is far greater because I left that bank as an extremely dissatisfied customer who was seriously thinking about switching banks.
Next, I went across the street to my local Starbucks where I have been going for years and know many of the workers, but I didn’t see anyone I knew. They had one person at the cash register, one person filling mobile orders, and one barista working. The line of coffee lovers snaked around the store with everyone looking at their phones to pass the time.
I stood on the end of the long line and made a decision – I would save time by placing a mobile order. I kept queuing as I downloaded the app, loaded my credit card information, and placed my order. The line had moved a bit but when I saw the fellow who was filling the mobile orders put the small shopping bag on the counter, I knew my order was ready. If I had not placed the mobile order, I would have been waiting on the line for at least another ten to fifteen minutes.
My next stop was Target to pick up a few things for the backyard that were needed for a party we were having that weekend. I found what I was looking for rather quickly except for one item – usually, I always pride myself on being able to go into a store, get what I want, and leave without looking at other things – but my plan to leave swiftly was thwarted by long lines at the few registers that were open.
Again, against all my strong feelings about not using automation, I acquiesced to the evil known as the self-checkout. One person had been assigned to oversee this area, but she was helping another customer. I went up to the machine and started scanning my items. Yes, it all went smoothly and I was walking back to my car in less than five minutes.
As I started driving I felt myself shaking a bit, as if I had been through a scary experience, but it was because I had compromised my position due to the time factor and used automation when I had sworn not to do so. I took a deep breath and came to a realization – this is all part of an insidious plot to force us to use automation.
These companies and banks know that we are pressed for time, know that we need to get somewhere, so that they deliberately schedule less workers and put customers in a no choice situation. In my case I try to go to these stores when I am not rushing to go someplace else, and so I have avoided using self-checkout and mobile orders. Yesterday, that changed and I hated myself for going against my principles.
I did make it to the dentist on time, and that was the first time I had an interaction with another human being after going out that day. The receptionist and I exchanged pleasantries, and I waited to see the doctor, but before that in the bank, Starbucks, and Target not one worker spoke with me or offered to help me.
In fact, in Target, I did look for help finding something I needed, but I could not find a worker who could direct me to the right location. I did end up finding the item myself, and that took a few extra minutes, but the point was I had zero interaction with personnel and I believe that is the whole point – we are losing the human touch!
Of course, some people do not venture out as I do but prefer to stay home and do everything online. Supplies and groceries can be delivered now – and the goal there is to not send human beings but drones – and banking and shopping can be done online. We are moving in the direction of no human interaction – when a person could spend days, weeks, and even months without speaking to another human being.
Isolation may be appealing to some people like the guy in Paul Simon’s song, but I for one enjoy interaction. I like knowing my barista by name, and it gives me an opportunity to let her know that I appreciate how well she crafts a cappuccino. There is no substitute for being able to also convey in person just how I want that coffee made, but I was disappointed with my drink because the app doesn’t allow for that.
Human beings are social by nature and this rush to automation is totally unnatural because it causes us to avoid what inherently is our birthright. The loss of people’s jobs is a tough price to pay, but price of the loss of the human touch and increasing isolation will be beyond anything we as a society can afford and will damage us irreparably.