The supermarket near my house has five self check-out stations. Often one or two is down, and sometimes, you have to jab at the buttons on the screen multiple times to get your choices to register. Regardless, a line for the automated cashiers usually snakes around the tabloids. When I go to this supermarket, I usually find myself waiting in this line and traipsing up to one of these self check-out stations.
But, recently, as I was poking repeatedly at the screen and listening to the computerized voice ask me about an unexpected item in the bagging area, I glimpsed a cashier a few aisles down. She was scanning a customer’s groceries, smiling, and making small talk with him. It looked like a far better experience than the one I was having. So why did I choose the machine?
I kind of enjoy scanning my own groceries. The beeping of the barcode reader and the jigsaw puzzle of packing my cloth bags reminds me of playing grocery store with my sister when we were kids. But did I also choose the self check-out because I wanted to avoid a human interaction? And if so, why?
A few days after my grocery store experience, I was at the library, where self check-out is now the only option. I heaved a pile of picture books onto the counter, slid one across the radio frequency antenna, and waited for it to register on the screen, before sliding the next one. Meanwhile I tried to keep my two-year-old son from darting outside, yanking on the fire alarm, or pulling down his pants. I felt a little bit like a contortionist.
After I’d piled all of my books into my tote bag and herded my son toward the exit, the security gate rang – a common experience. The one person on duty behind the desk strode over, looked over my receipt, and counted my books. “Looks good,” he said, with a smile. “The machine must have missed one. Happens all the time.”
That’s when I remembered how the library used to be. Someone else checked out our books for us. Are the machines doing a better job than those people did? That hasn’t been my experience.
I’m not anti-technology. I use a computer nearly every day. I have a cell phone. I’m on Facebook. I blog and tweet. And I don’t want libraries – or grocery stores – to return to the days of Carnegie. Years ago I worked in a library before it transitioned to a computerized card catalog, and every night, we manually alphabetized towering stacks of cards. Let there be no doubt, computers are far better and faster than humans at alphabetizing six dozen titles starting with The Berenstein Bears and…. I’d guess they’re also helpful for keeping track of grocery store inventory.
But I’m not convinced that computers are better at face-to-face customer service.
And what are we losing? In an age when jobs are scarce, many of us are complicit in making them scarcer when we choose machines over people, even when the machines are less effective. At my local library, the people who once checked out books – some of whom had worked in the organization for decades – recently had their hours cut by 20 percent. A friend of mine in that position had to foreclose on her house, because she could no longer afford the mortgage.
And what are the social costs when we increasingly choose to disconnect from human interactions? In the U.S., social isolation is on the rise. In a 2006 study, 25 percent of Americans said they have no one with whom they can discuss their personal troubles. That’s double the number who said the same thing in 1985. And we know that for many people, social connections are the difference between life and death. Researchers from Brigham Young University recently reviewed 148 studies and found that people with strong social ties have a 50 percent lower risk of dying over a given period than those with fewer social connections.
Dr. Stephen S. Ilardi, a clinical phsychology professor at the University of Kansas points out that depression rates around the turn of the century were almost zero, but today more than 23 percent of Americans experience major depression during their lifetimes. Ilardi partly blames our growing social isolation. “I believe it’s time that we start living as Americans as if relationships are the things that matter to us the most…” he said in a recent interview.
I agree. And when so many are sounding an alarm that Facebook and other social networking sites may make us lonelier, because we’re not connecting face-to-face, perhaps it’s time to look at our ubiquitous replacement of customer-service representatives with machines. At least we can use social networking to connect with each other. Automation’s only purpose is to disconnect us.
So from now on, I think I’ll be choosing the cashier’s line. I wish I could still do that at the library.
What do you think? Do you use self check-out? Do the social implications of replacing customer service representatives with machines concern you?