I want to speak to human beings6 min read

I am sick and tired of dealing with machines. While some people fear that robots might replace human beings soon, I find myself fearing that some day human beings will turn into robots. And that some already have. 

There was a video circulating widely on the internet about the new Amazon shop where you do not need to pay for your purchases in the conventional way. You just walk out of the shop and all your purchases will be done automatically. Everybody was impressed- Including me. It is certainly an impressive technological application leap. And I am not one to oppose it.

I have one problem though, mainly with the idea that it is better to do almost everything using a machine.

If you are looking for a restaurant or a place to clean your car, you check on the internet; If you are looking for a shop to buy furniture or a new fridge, check online. If you want ideas to spend your holidays, you also check online. Recommendations for a restaurant, for a doctor, a venue for celebrating an event…you name it, we now go online for everything. For services as well as places, we will deal with a machine and not a person. We used to ask people we know for recommendations and we used to deal with people when seeking a service. We now go online and services are becoming overwhelmingly automated.

I had lost a jacket at the gate before boarding my flight. I called the airport as soon as I landed, because I knew exactly where I had left it. But it was impossible to speak to a human being. I was guided to the airport lost-and-found online page where I can declare it and describe my lost item, then get to browse all lost items matching my description.

Another time, my luggage did not make it. It was a flight from Rome and I was flying the next day to Cairo. I tried to talk to a person to ask if they can locate it first in Rome and find out if it can arrive the next day before my flight. It would have made a difference in my plans, as I could arrange for getting it to Cairo in different ways depending on when it would make it to Zurich. The person assisting me insisted there was no way other than me making the entry into the system on the machine, which would send instant notification worldwide to all airports. And that with the reference number, my entry will generate, I will be able to follow up with the process online anytime. I explained to him that the likelihood it was left behind in Rome is high and perhaps it is not necessary to check all airports in the world just yet. I tried to persuade that person to contact the airport in Rome first, but to no avail.

Even for grocery shopping, you now have the option to check all the itmes in your shopping bag and pay at a machine -all automated. I have called restaurants to make bookings in Zurich and on several occasions, they advised me to do them online- especially for a party of 6 or more. I found myself in front of a computer.  Again!  selecting times and making entries in set blocks when I would have rather spoken with a person.

I want to speak to human beings.

And it is becoming harder and harder to speak to human beings when you go about your day. There are obvious and irrefutable benefits to using a machine/computer for all those services.

It is certainly faster (perhaps not yet for all the services but it will become faster once it becomes the norm). It does not discriminate;  Does not cheat; It avoids human errors. But it also makes it impossible to take context into consideration.

And as with communication in general, this low context mode which is imposed on you when dealing with machines is the same type of communication you use when talking to Siri.  You have to spell out everything. And a machine will never sympathise- not truthfully. Online, there are fixed boxes for the entries you can make. You cannot use a narrative style.

Also, there are other consequences that are not as obvious, but nevertheles alarming. We are reducing human contact. Massively.  Soon I will be able to spend my entire day without talking to one human being.

Of-course it is not only a cause of reduced human contact / relationships; it is also a sign of reduced human relations. Before, other than the fact that all those services were carried out by people, be it in person or by phone, there were also many more people to ask for recommendations in your daily life. Now our ties have loosened and there are fewer and fewer daily relations.

There is a fear that robots will replace people in many jobs in the near future. I share this fear. I usually still queue for the cashier at the grocery shop although they now have these self check-out machines in almost every shop. I do that for a few reasons. First, for registering my complaint. If I am paying the same price for these items, why should I do the check out my self and pay the same price? I would have been more understanding, if the prices were reduced for self service. Also, I wanted to make sure that there will always be people who go to the cashier so they don’t eliminate it altogether (aka the fear).

But primarily, I want to talk to a human being.

I was about to queue as usual a few weeks ago, and then I decided to switch to self paying. I realized that even when I am at the cashier, just like at the bank, and at the papeterie and in the restaurant and the kiosk…and and and… the interaction I was seeking is – in fact – so impersonal,  that it is only the semblance of a human interaction. It is so rigid, like at the lost luggage counter, where the person will only do what a system or a machine does. There is no interest in the story I have. No room for an exception to due process. No human element. Neither good one nor bad. I have tried several times to go off script when asking for a service or even a product, sometimes out of necessity and other times simply to connect. It never worked out well. There was a considerable intolerance to a narrative or anything off-script. I always end up feeling rejected or defeated depending on my motive. Rejected when I am trying to connect and defeated when I am trying to explain the context for my request.

I feel that, after many years here, I have been largely dealing with people behaving like machines- with some exceptions. And those exceptions  are so rare that they stand out. It is quite unusual when a clerk or sales person or the baker goes off script and says something different to me, notice my bag or my children or comments on a happening of the day.

Putting their emotions aside, good ones and bad, I have been dealing, for the largest portion of my interactions, with the closest I have known to robots.

Perhaps it is just me. Maybe I am the problem. Maybe I elicit this behaviour in others. Maybe I am the only one missing dealing with people who are not machines or acting like machines. Maybe only I feel this way. I don’t know.


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