Faceless Transactions vs. the Human Touch

Posted: March 24, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture, Ethics, Manners, Tacky

I’ve grown weary over the years of the number of ways corporations have taken human interaction out of regular business transactions. The most irritating example for me is the telephone customer service line. It frequently takes a ridiculously long time to navigate through the maze to “Press 3 for all other inquiries” to get to an actual person. It’s an utter waste of time. Other examples include the ATM, the self-check out lane at the grocery, and the venerable vending machine.

I’m not wholly opposed to every time-saving efficiency dreamed up by technologists. Vending machines, for instance, never bothered me, and the ATM is pretty good, especially when banks charge “teller fees.” However, there is something to be said for simple face-to-face human interaction, which machines simply can’t replicate. Given a choice, I’ll stand in line a few minutes at the grocery before I go to the self-check out. Why? It’s purposely so that I can exchange a few words and jokes with the clerk. It’s a simple gesture, but I want to feel like a person rather than a mere transaction, and based on the positive response of most clerks, they appreciate being treated like real people, too, rather than being reduced solely to the function they perform by customers who treat them like machines.

In the comments to a post over at Creative Destruction, Brandon Berg wrote:

[I]f you really want to spend the extra time and money just to have a chat with a stranger about his daughter’s soccer game, you can always call up a travel agent. But really, the world runs a lot more smoothly when we don’t insist on making a box social out of every transaction. Then we can take the time and money we save on faceless transactions like these and spend them with the people we really care about.

This logic is unassailable, but the ethic behind it strikes me as cold (not particularly so but in that blithe, passive sense of people who don’t ordinarily care about others as people). Not every social transaction, if you will, is deep and sincere, but even small, quaint interaction with others beats the anonymity and indifference we experience in most human society.

When I first began riding the Chicago L to work every day, I was surprised how folks, even when pressed close to each other in a full train, erect a strictly no-conversation, no-eye-contact wall of impassivity. Outside of rush hour and when the train is stopped due to some delay, it’s curious to see how that rigidity breaks down and people start recognizing others around them in various ways. We become social animals again, but only after specific triggers that experienced riders internalize over time. Under normal conditions, we act as though essentially alone in a crowd.

Another revealing microcosm is the lunchtime gauntlet at the various fast food franchises featuring what I call sandwich builders. It could be Subway, Chipotle, Pot Belly’s, or some other joint where you enter on one end, bark your selections to the builders, and eventually pay up and get out of the way. The business model is to serve as many people between 11:30 AM and 2 PM or so, while downtown is populated with workers, because many of the franchises aren’t even open at dinnertime (downtown empties out). So the sandwich builders push the materials through the assembly line as quickly as possible and extract only the needed information from patrons (mayo? lettuce? black beans or pinto?). Pity the poor diner who doesn’t have a quick answer. Even worse, pity the poor sandwich builder, who is limited to a dreary function. Once in a while, it’s possible to observe that they interact with each other in a sort of esprit de corps, but they almost never speak to people ordering food in any significantly human manner.

All of this goes to a collapse of community we in large, efficient, modern cities experience every day. (Fast food in small-town America is much more leisurely, in my experience.) The effect is chronicled in a book by Robert Putnam titled Bowling Alone. It’s on my reading list and I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I’m sympathetic to the ideas in the book as described by the book reviews and reader comments. Most of us appear to be willing to trade social networks and the human touch for greater efficiency. Few of recognize what we’re giving up in the process.

  1. grasshopper says:

    A quick glance between the sandwich-buyer and -builder can convey: Why are we behaving like drones? Look at how low we stoop without question? A shared wink and sigh between strangers can feel good, a way of expressing, Yes, we all want out.
    But in some jobs and among some crowds, people turn vacant rather than expose their weary frustration. Expose too much to the wrong person and you’re asking for cruelty. An angry person watches for a cowed nobody to stand in for the dog he or she will kick upon arriving home.

  2. Brutus says:

    Clearly, this blog is not intended to provide the hard evidence for its polemics sufficient to meet the strictures of scientific and/or statistical analysis. My arguments are broadly aimed at cultural critique and do not pretend to rise to the level of sociological studies. So if you have comments and objections, state them, and we’ll have a discussion; but don’t hide behind some hypothetical academic who might object to my nonexistent hard evidence.

    Oh, and if you don’t think that much of modern life reduces you to a mere unit of economic activity, then I suggest perhaps you haven’t yet grown old enough to experience that underlying reality. Moreover, as one’s academic career recedes farther back into memory/history, the relevance of a university-style analysis also tends to diminish. That doesn’t mean interesting ideas aren’t still out there to be considered.

    As always, thanks for your comments.

  3. hyleaus says:

    It is an interesting query, but where’s the evidence for your claims? I think you’d have a hard time being intellectually honest and presenting this argument to anyone in a serious fashion. The only source of evidence that I can see is anecdotal… which is not to say that it is bad, but it is at least allotted a certain amount of credibility. For me that credibility is flexible. I think, for instance, I’m more likely to listen to the anecdotal evidence of a pilot telling me that the plain is about to crash than I am to listen to a preacher telling me that the world is about to end. In one place, the pilot is in his element, in another, the preacher is out of his.

    Thus, to propose that the world is somehow becoming colder because transactions are not longer face to face, is to suggest something with very shaky evidential backing.

    I propose, on the other hand, that not all the world is as you state. That the scenario you present is typical of a metropolis, but not of a small town may have some effect the argument regarding the state of the world.

    I am familiar with the book Bowling Alone. I would suggest that you read it, but not in the spirit of apologetics. Should you get to it, pay attention to exactly the type of evidence that Putnam uses. Specifically, be mindful of rival causes and alternate conclusions that Putnam does not address. Also, pay attention to any language of class distinctions. I think that keeping these things in mind degrades the worth of Putnam’s work a bit. But you be the judge.

  4. hyleaus says:

    Of course, to preempt the breadth and not depth of your usual critique, I will go ahead and state that I used the word ‘plain’ and not ‘plane’ quite by accident.

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